I've had an opportunity to speak with a number of companies recently that describe themselves as marketing service providers. In the not-so-distant past, some of these organizations might have been known as commercial printers, letter shops, or service bureaus. But they have changed their focus.

The transition isn't easy.

For one thing, being a marketing service provider requires a whole different sales technique; the rate card isn't so important anymore, and the procurement-oriented contacts these companies have with their customers will no longer be the decision makers. A lot of shops have discovered that they need a different breed of salesperson to break away from their traditional business model. Or they engage a sales coach that can help their staff learn the skills they will need to sell more complex services.

Operationally, there are new processes to be learned as well. Companies need to realize that providing marketing services means there will be an emphasis on data quality, data manipulation, and production quality control that may not have been a big part of the workflow in the past. With shorter runs and more money invested in each piece, along with complementary messaging in multiple channels, ignoring a few spoiled items won't cut it anymore. There had better be a system for reprints.

Moving away from the single-dimensional model of print and/or mail provider and into a more consultative relationship with their customers is a pretty good idea. But it can't be done on autopilot. It's going to take a commitment to educate the staff, consider some personnel changes, and a willingness to try new things. The management needs to have a vision and they've got to be able to share that vision enthusiastically with the rest of the organization.

Examine Your Own Marketing Strategies
An area where I see a lot of missed opportunity is with the promotional efforts being exercised by these new marketing service providers. When I've asked about selling their customers capabilities like QR codes, PURLS, or integrated marketing channels, people at these organizations are upbeat and excited about the possibilities. Surprisingly though, when I ask how they are informing their customers about the potential benefits of these techniques, there's usually some silence at the other end of the phone line.

"Have you put out email blasts timed to coordinate with variable-image mail pieces?" I ask, "Postcards with QR codes and PURLS? Drip email campaigns?" Most of the time, the answer I hear is "no."

What better way to get comfortable with these new technologies than to use them yourself? And, how effective would it be to actually let the customers experience the services you're trying to sell them as you are selling them? I guess for those in the midst of running the business every day, details like this get lost. To me, it couldn't be a more obvious strategy.

Customers Value Education
At the very least, companies who really want to be marketing service providers should be educating their customers about what is possible today. How do those QR codes really work? What is the projected use of mobile devices that can read QR codes over the next couple of years? What is the minimum one needs to do to get that 3% postage discount the USPS is offering (and why doing the minimum is missing the point)? What can mail piece tracking do for you? How can marketers mail less, but get more responses? Topics like these are pretty interesting to customers of marketing service providers. I wouldn't assume that they know about all this stuff already.

If nothing else, generating this kind of information in something as simple as a newsletter proves that your company is up to speed on what is going on. Besides being a likely source for leads, articles that are relevant and informative establish your company as a trusted resource. This by the way is exactly the perception that is necessary if these new customer relationships are going to be fruitful. Just distributing information is a good first step.

Take a look at your business as if you were a customer of yourselves. Decide which strategies and techniques make sense for your company and your market. Try some things out and track the results. This can be a triple win. You learn about the tools firsthand, you develop a better relationship with your customers and prospects, and you hopefully generate a success story of your own to use in future sales presentations.

Mike Porter is an expert in Print and Mail operations and President of Print/Mail Consultants. In addition to helping clients improve their document operations, Mike advises companies on content marketing strategies. Through PMC Writing Services he creates customized content such as case studies, articles, and white papers. To find out more about content marketing, sign up for Mike's free "Customer Retention NOW!" newsletter at www.printmailconsultants.com or email him directly at mporter@printmailconsultants.com.