Small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) often do not have dedicated mail centers. Most never did, while some of the larger SMBs had mailrooms they were forced to abandon in order to trim costs. In the absence of dedicated mail personnel, SMB mail handling operations most often fall to the full staff and an office manager, who oversees the operation. For the workers, mail handling is frequently a secondary responsibility, so they come to the job with a minimum amount of knowledge about postal rules and regulations.

For some SMBs, this can be a workable solution. But for most companies, it isn't. The office manager oversees an environment in which mail and packages of varying weights, sizes, and thicknesses are processed virtually every day. In addition, mail volumes are unpredictable and often increase to a point where staff resources are severely strained. The productivity of the entire operation suffers. It's also difficult to apply cost controls, or to accurately account for mailing expenses, versus office administration outlays.

In these instances, it's not the size of the company that matters. An organization with one hundred employees and light mail volumes may function without too much trouble. But a company with twenty employees could have a ton of issues in its outbound mail operations. Critical mailing challenges often occur in businesses in the financial services, real estate, education, government, and legal sectors.

Although the overall volume of physical mail has decreased for many businesses, the importance of the mail that remains has in fact increased. This is particularly true for organizations that place high reliance on communicating with clients and customers through physical mail. These operations range from insurance firms and government agencies, to direct marketing companies; including e-commerce businesses that market online but still depend on mail and package shipping to fulfill orders. Physical mail also delivers a 30X higher response rate than email, perhaps because 73% of consumers prefer it.

Technology to the Rescue

Overburdened office managers without mail centers can now address their challenges using technology recently made available to SMBs. These are the automated precision mailing systems, which up until now only large mail center operations have been able to afford. They give office managers the advanced tools they need to dramatically simplify their outgoing mail operations without having to become full-time mailing experts.

In the context of increasingly complex postal rules and guidelines, and staff workers who are unable to keep up with the frequent changes, precision mailing technology delivers some key capabilities. These precise, accurate automated systems can quickly rate mail of varying sizes, automatically weigh mail pieces as they're being processed, deliver shape-based ratings where necessary, securely seal even thick mail pieces, and print the proper postage. Systems can automatically weigh different sized mail at one piece per second and like-sized mail at two pieces per second.

These automated operations free the office staff from the tedious and time-consuming tasks of sorting, weighing, measuring, and manually dealing with different sized mail by hand, one piece at a time. The systems speed up the mail processing and ensure a higher level of accuracy. These functions are particularly needed in office environments where mail and packages of varying weights, sizes, and thicknesses are generated, and where daily mail volumes are often unpredictable.

Here are four common operator decisions that can be fully automated by a precision mailing system:
1. determining the postage rate for regular letter mail, which changes between one, two, and three ounces, and with the number of enclosures in the envelope;
2. establishing when a letter's dimensions make it a Large Letter, which needs to be sent at a different set of rates based on weight; doing this manually requires using a large template for size, then weighing the piece;
3. establishing when a letter's thickness makes it a Large Letter, no matter what the envelope size; again, without an automated system, this must be done manually;
4. discovering that a mail piece doesn't meet the weight-thickness-size criteria for the Class selected (the system then notifies the operator to process the piece manually based on the correct information).

Using an automated precision mailing system, the operator can conveniently check the different rates for each of the five to ten Classes that might apply depending on the size and contents of the mailing piece. These rates can then be compared against the different levels of service for each Class, allowing the mailer to make a more informed decision on which service level delivers the best value.

Precision mailing systems can also help mailers access and take advantage of valuable extra services, such as recipient signature, secured delivery and tracking. Systems can be set up with these options built in, letting you shop for the service that's appropriate for the piece - e.g., Certified Mail®, Delivery Tracking, COD, or Registered.

Need Custom Printing?

Some automated precision mailing systems even offer flexible printing capabilities. In addition to printing the postage, these systems let you print on demand custom, targeted messages in postal red, black, or full color inks. These communications could be marketing offers, legal notifications, or other important - even time critical - customer communications.

On-demand printing can deliver impressive ROI benefits. Compared to buying pre-printed envelopes in bulk, printing with the newest technology can save you as much as 5 to 15 cents per piece. These savings also apply when you want to promote something but don't have a specific envelope for it. Instead of buying more envelopes for that one special promotion, you can use flexible printing technology to print the envelopes instantly at the same time you're printing the postage. The right message gets on the envelope just before going to the recipient, with no wasted envelopes and no excess envelope inventory to stock.

The print-on-demand function is especially convenient for marketers who don't control the envelope buying process. Now, at the touch of a button, they can influence how the mail looks and how the organization promotes its current products and brand. Prior to flexible printing technology, marketers had to pre-print envelopes in bulk with a standardized logo common to all mailings. That is a very limiting approach to marketing. Instead, precision mailing systems are enabling marketers to produce digital personalization in a physical communication.

Research has shown that on-envelope messages consistently boost a mail piece's open-rate. One survey reported that 69% of respondents are more likely to open a mail piece with color text and graphics on the front before opening pieces with no headline or graphic.3 Another study found that 51% of consumers pay more attention to the information they receive when color and personalization are used.2

Even though automated mailing systems are packed with capabilities, they can be quite simple to operate. Touch screen displays and clear menu prompts help the operator easily set up jobs, make accurate selections, and take advantage of advanced printing features. The user interface is especially important in guiding operators through postal rule changes as they are updated by the system.

Parcel Ready Solutions

The United States Postal Service has made significant moves to compete with private carriers in the package shipping arena. The USPS offering has become even more attractive as private carriers implement dimensional rules that the Postal Service does not require. This can result in rate benefits while still providing you with advanced tracking software and competitive delivery commitments. You will have to use the USPS Intelligent Mail Package Barcode (IMpb), but now the latest technology can give you options to create package barcode labels that support Postal requirements.

As an SMB mailer, there are two important things to remember:
· first, you no longer have to be a large mail center operation to afford the precision mailing technology that can make your operations more efficient;
· second, you don't have to be a mail expert to get the most value out of your mailing operations and take full advantage of USPS special services.

If you would like to simplify your mail operations without adding dedicated mail staff and resources, it makes sense to look into the new technology-enabled tools and capabilities now offered by today's automated precision mailing systems.

Tom Ryan is Director, SMB Global Marketing for Mail Finishing, Pitney Bowes