During a recent discussion, an industry partner stated that we were all buggy whip manufacturers. In other words, he feels we are the remnants of an industry displaced by technological advances. The fact is, if this industry doesn't start selling direct mail to non-mailers there won't be a direct mail industry. Nor will there be a United States Postal Service!

Butler Mailing Services started as a mom and pop operation in a spare bedroom 28 years ago. The first couple of years, I tried unsuccessfully to sell direct mail to businesses in our small town. I had no competition but little success in convincing locals they should market to their customers utilizing the Postal Service. Then I got smart and started looking (regionally) for customers already using direct mail and sold my services to them.

With postal storm clouds on the horizon, customer mail volumes declining, and the desire to enter new markets, we hired a full time sales person away from a competitor in 2000. The goal was to start selling disc based mail, a niche I wanted to develop, along with our traditional services. Encountering tough competition for existing mailers, my sales person tried to sell direct mail (with and without discs) to people that were not users of the medium. We were not very successful. A few years later, after significantly downsizing, I went back to selling products and services (including disc based products) to an ever smaller pool of existing Postal Service customers.

This February I went on LinkedIn and started a discussion, "Does anyone sell direct mail? Or is everyone just selling mailing services?" There were 30 comments to the group with one additional comment emailed directly to me. A couple of people claimed to target potential customers not already using direct mail, the rest (93%) said they concentrated their sales efforts on existing postal customers. The comment sent directly to me was from a postal employee who had an interesting perspective on my question and the selling of direct mail.

To paraphrase (a lot) he essentially said that the only people he knew that were trying to "sell direct mail" were USPS account reps. He went on to say that the problem for account reps is that they get someone interested in the medium but cannot provide any of the creative, printing or necessary mail prep services. He said in trying to transition potential customers over to the direct mail industry, the customer gets fed up with the complexity and walks away. This postal employee continued about how "reps from agencies, printers, or lettershops [n]ever sell direct mail outright. They all simply fight over the same scraps day in and day out - and who can blame them given the odds of converting someone from scratch?"

This postal employee is correct, the direct mail industry does not sell direct mail and it's nearly impossible for postal account reps to sell direct mail without providing the necessary resources to enter a project into the mail stream. Services our industry will never allow the Postal Service provide. The direct mail industry and the USPS have to figure out how to combine our resources to effectively "sell" direct mail in to markets that do not currently use the postal mail stream.
Jerry Whalen was brought in by PMG Potter in 2003 to reorganize the sales force and teach postal employees how to sell mail. They chose to abandon the close relationship the Postal Service had developed with mail service providers (MSPs) and marketed directly to end user customers. In order to meet their goals, postal sales people had to concentrate their efforts on large customers capable of making large mailings. Mail volumes peaked little more than three years after implementation of the grand plan and then plummeted. The USPS has gone through yet another strategic rethinking to try and focus its sales teams. Never understanding the symbiotic relationships within the direct mail industry, the
Potter/Whalen go-it-alone approach was doomed from the start.

Another option available to postal management in 2003, and the one they should utilize now, is to establish a sales and marketing partnership with MSPs. What needs to happen is for the Postal Service to re-task their direct mail sales teams to work exclusively with MSPs, no matter the size. Since 2003, the USPS has spent a tremendous amount of money educating and training postal sales specialists. This money and expertise should not be wasted on one-on-one sales encounters between postal employees and potential customers large enough to justify their salaries.

If postal sales people were re-tasked to work with sales people from MSPs in their territory, the USPS would be able to leverage one postal sales employee in to a sales force of hundreds. Postal sales specialists should be tasked with providing the training and education necessary to teach MSP's sales teams how to sell direct mail. These postal sales specialists would provide the information, research and resources MSP sales people need to convert non-mailers into direct mail users. They would be able to provide information such as how to compete with email, social media, search engine marketing, and banner ads. In support, the Postal Service would maintain an on-line library of the latest research and industry studies on the advantages of print and direct mail (as the Royal Mail does) for use in an industry wide integrated sales effort.

The measurement system for these postal sales specialists' would be based on the number of mailings entered by their MSPs (rather than the total mail or dollar volume) to avoid the "too small to mess with" attitude. Currently these postal employees do not have the time or resources to waste on small customers generating small mailings, and yet small mailings to more targeted audiences are the future of the direct mail industry and the Postal Service. The postal sales specialist would also be held responsible for converting as many companies as possible, regardless of size, in to providing mailing services for their customers.

These specialists would not only provide sales education and the latest market research, but direct current, non-mailing print providers to local BMEU's, the PCC, and other industry resources for information and training in the preparation of direct mail. Mail is mail, once a letter hits a machine no one knows or cares how many pieces were in the mailing, and all mailings under 500 pieces pay the coveted First Class Rate. The new PMG says he wants to go after small and medium sized businesses, using MSP sales people is the only way he can cost effectively achieve his goal!

This is really important. Twenty eight years in the business and I still need to learn how to sell direct mail. I know how to sell direct mail services. The USPS has spent years educating and training their sales teams on selling direct mail, without being able to sell direct mail services. Leveraging each other's knowledge and expertise is the only way we will succeed at selling physical mail to a digital world.

If I want to sell search engine marketing or banner ads, Google holds my hand and provides guidance. If I want to sell email, there is assistance, guidance, market research, help desks and training webinars for me and my customers. If I want to provide UPS or FedEx services to my customers, they make it unbelievably easy and they complete their deliveries within the expected time frame. All of these companies encourage and help me sell their services to my customers, as should the Postal Service. This is what a 21st century partner looks like.

The direct mail industry, with the USPS missing in action, looks like a collection of buggy whip manufacturers, and the Postal Service looks as useful as an 18th century carriage.
Todd Butler, Butler Mailing Services, eKEY® Technologies can be reached at 513-870-5060, toddb@butlermail.com or