Just when I thought my team had all the answers, a customer reminded me whose opinion matters most. Our sales leaders just happened to be in a workshop, strategizing on how we would manage the aggressive growth spurt the company is in. I happened to check an e-mail during a break, and a customer sent me his concerns on how our growth was affecting our partnership. I read the letter to the team, and our conversations were redirected for the balance of the meeting.


I have learned that in order to be a player in the market, a company has to succeed in three important areas: it needs a quality product, strong operational excellence and customer intimacy. But, if you wish to outshine your competition, you have to stand out in one of the three.


In this fast-moving technological arena in which we compete, which trait should a company choose to invest in as its greatest strength? One could argue that a personal computer supplier must maintain a technological advantage to stay ahead of its competitors. We all know of another PC supplier who has excelled in the operational excellence side of the equation. The company has figured out a way to ship a customized product in three days while getting paid upfront and not paying suppliers until 60 days later.


Today's formula is getting more challenging. Companies are moving at breaking speeds in duplicating both product technology and operational excellence. It has become clearer to many suppliers, especially in the mailing industry, that customer relationships are not easily acquired or cloned. It is more important than ever before, in order to be a top player in any market, that you must have a deep-rooted relationship with your customers' key business drivers. In other words, yesterday's vendor-client relationship has evolved into a strategic partnership. This has become increasingly evident in the mailing industry over the last several years.


Technology Delivered

There was a time when shipping a package or mailing a letter was an arduous process. As a mail customer, you essentially had one option for all your mailing needs: a trip to the post office. There were no consumer benefits that sprouted naturally out of healthy competition such as the ability to presort by ZIP Codes, multiple carrier options, cost accountability and bulk rate discounts. But today, as a direct result of the steady influx of new technologies and innovations, options abound. Mail users now have multiple options for saving money and maximizing the efficiency of their operations.


Over the years, I've seen postage meters evolve from a stamp printing "box" to a powerful and intelligent tool. Today's meters are equipped to keep pace with the ever-changing regulations of the U.S. Postal Service with built-in software that allows tracking, verification via e-mail, address correction, multiple postage payment methods and much more. This enables companies to have the equivalent of internal post offices at their fingertips.


It is in large part due to these technological advances that postal services are actually thriving at a time when many predicted their demise in the face of digital options. In particular, many companies recognize that direct mail continues to be a strategically effective means of communicating with customers and prospects. Moreover, the USPS has adapted to make direct mail a more enticing communication solution through the use of incentives such as discounts for bulk mailing, pre-sorting, etc. There is also a strong focus on efficiencies and standardizations for shipping packages.


So now, the question arises: How, in the constantly evolving and increasingly competitive mailing industry, do equipment and solution providers keep customers satisfied, while maintaining a competitive edge? The answer you stay in step with the needs of your customers and a step ahead of the innovations of your competition.


Piece Mail

The increase in user-friendly technologies has led to a much savvier customer base for mailing services and products. Customers are looking for ways to meet their mailing goals while cutting costs. With the introduction of multiple competing

vendors, if your company cannot deliver on these, the competition is only a click away.


As I've said, mailing service companies need to be flexible to nimbly adapt to current industry trends and be able to bend to their customers' needs. Modularity is the key to this. One of the mail industry's biggest hurdles, much like any other technology sector, is consumers' fears that once they make an investment in a piece of equipment, their business needs then will change, and they will eventually outgrow that equipment's capabilities.


Modularity Is Key

To combat this issue, equipment providers' products and technology must adapt quickly and easily to changes in business conditions. This is where modularity plays such a key role. Unlike most technological devices or systems, mailing machine components can be easily upgraded to meet customers' ever-changing mailing needs. For example, if you need to switch to a higher volume paper feeder, you · don't have to replace your entire machine; you simply switch out one component for another.


Keeping Tabs on the Customer

As the industry continues to progress, it's now more important than ever for a mailing services provider to connect with its customer to gain a complete understanding of how and why the customer is using the mail. What are the unique issues and priorities? Does the customer have specific needs? Does your client need to be further educated regarding USPS regulations? Could those 500,000 letters the client sends out every week cost 29. apiece, instead of 39.? Does your client understand the ramifications of decertification, and is it prepared to make the necessary changes? Only after you build a strategic relationship with your customers can you begin to offer them efficiency-maximizing solutions to address their needs while

separating you from your competition.


A key component to the customer intimacy strategy is educating your representatives on the industry. How can the people on the front lines be helpful in accessing customer needs if they aren't fully versed in the regulations and processes of the industry themselves? Companies should be spending an equal amount of time on post-awareness training that they spend on product training. As a result, consultants will be able to answer questions like: What does the USPS rate change mean for my business? Are there any discounts available to me? How will it be implemented? How can I protect myself as much as possible from unbudgeted cost spikes? This knowledge goes a long way in securing customers' confidence in your ability to accurately assess and meet their mailing needs.


Mailing a letter or parcel isn't what it used to be it's better! And as the industry continues to evolve, solutions providers must continue to strengthen customer relationships by offering enhanced technologies and customer-driven services.


Putting the Stamp on It!

Technology has created the ability to provide customers with services and options that were previously never dreamt of. But as with any opportunity, new challenges have been introduced. Providers must be prepared to move more quickly and be more flexible than ever before. They must keep abreast with constantly changing regulations and be prepared to act in a moment's notice. Customers are now strategic partners, and you must know their businesses as well as your own.


Options abound for consumers, and the demand on providers for the latest and greatest is at an all-time high. Companies that can address this proactively are well positioned to lead the industry for the next several decades. Mail is now a multi-billion dollar a year operation not bad for an industry that began with a couple of ponies.


Christopher M. O'Brien is the President and CEO at Neopost Inc. For additional information, visit www.neopostinc.com.