With the start of a new year, many organizations are resolving to improve their success in 2014 and beyond by making the right purchases. Buying choices almost always pose a considerable investment in time, research, and, of course, money - and can lay the foundation for an organization meeting its goals or dealing with the headaches and hassles of a bad decision for years to come. After all, in today's service-oriented environment, whether it is software or mailing equipment, a new purchase is also often the beginning of a new vendor relationship. What's more, organizations have to consider the consistency of change when making purchasing decisions - the state of their business now might not be the same a year, or even six months, from now. All of these factors lead to two pressing questions for your mailing organization: how can you help your organization succeed with the right purchases, and how can you avoid the pitfalls that are common to buying software solutions and mailing equipment?

Flexibility is perhaps the most important element to keep in mind when making your purchases. The mailing industry is constantly changing, and your organization might be growing and expanding your services in response to those changes. Buying software and hardware that is modular, extensible and scalable enables you to adapt your purchase to your company. Being able to use the specific elements of the software you need now, while having the option to add other elements you might need later, is also very important. Vendor compatibility is also an important consideration for your purchasing decision. The inevitability of new products being released means that what is best on the market today might not be the best tomorrow. "Lock-in" and the associated costs of switching are well-known regrets that can be avoided by choosing a platform wisely.

One timely - and instructive - example of how considering the larger industry and regulatory context of your purchasing decisions can determine your organization's well-being is the recent transition to IMb. When the USPS changed its postal standards and moved to IMb, many organizations found themselves caught off-guard with hardware and software that has been purchased with the status quo in mind. Having a system that automatically adapts to new changes with agility and efficiency is invaluable. Given its current financial state, the USPS will likely be issuing even more regulations that stand to impact purchasing decisions.

Fully composed files are increasingly becoming the way business is done in the mailing industry. Many clients trust mailing service providers, and want to provide fully-composed files to ensure integrity, especially in situations like elections that are subject to stringent compliance. Being forced to turn away work because you don't have the technology to properly deal with it is a missed opportunity that quite a few printers confront due to investing in workflows that are fundamentally at odds with pre-composed files. For example, some mailers refuse to take in any work that is not raw data because their current workflow would force them to sacrifice the benefits of postal sortation in order to deal with those jobs.

When purchasing workflow software, it's important to think ahead and consider the creation of files, along with the manipulations you might have to make after a file has been composed. Cloud services, like those that do address hygiene, often provide that information in the form of lists contained in composed files. By investing in a software platform that can manipulate composed files to stream data within those files into your workflow, you're effectively investing in the future of your organization. Being burdened with a workflow solution that doesn't have the capability to deal with fully-composed files is not a wise decision if you want your organization to succeed in the new world where fully-composed files dominate.

Another consideration would be looking to the cloud to determine what purchases are right for your company. Just as other industries are increasingly depending on hosted solutions to smartly and cost-effectively do things that were formally done on-site, so is the postal industry. As commercial mailers face margins that are razor-thin, being able to quickly adapt to new and different technologies can save your organization money - but doing so is only possible if you have purchased the right software platform - one that is compatible with various cloud service providers. Many of the USPS's vendor-provided services such as CASS, NCOA and PAVE are offered in cloud-based and on-premises versions. Your organizations' current set-up might mean that pay-per-use cloud-based services are optimal, and if your volumes grow, your organization might want to buy on-premise version and make an upfront investment. Either way, making your purchase decision with these possibilities in mind is important for acting in the best interest of your organization.

Integrity should also be top of mind when deciding on a new purchase for your organization. In today's data-rich mail environment, the value of each mail piece is increasing, even as overall volumes are declining. Targeted mailing is being embraced, and integrity is becoming more and more important to your organization's customers. And it is not just a priority for healthcare, financial and insurance industry customers that are subject to strict privacy and communication regulation. It is also becoming important to all direct mailers that need their mail pieces to reach the right recipient with mail pieces that contain customized, relevant information. These mail pieces, along with those that are regulated, are known in the industry as critical communications. Why critical? Marketers are a good example - they need to be able to send direct mail pieces through mailers, and follow up with phone calls. As such, mailers need to know which items did not get sent, or were damaged, so that their marketer clients can know which targets shouldn't be called (because a phone call to a target who has not received the intended mail piece can be harmful to the marketer's campaign). The trend of targeting also translates into a smaller number of targets, each of which has higher value.

Simply put, the stakes are high - and this risk needs to be considered when making purchasing decisions for your organization. Similar to other industry shifts, your purchasing decisions around critical communications should be made from a proactive rather than reactive stance. As a partner to your customers, you should be ready to answer their questions about targeted mailing and integrity - and choosing the right vendor (who will also be your partner) will empower you to do so from an informed position. The good news is that more vendors are offering lower-entry cost solutions to add integrity to your system, so making the right choice for your organization's needs no longer means stretching your budget.

With purchases come partnerships. Evaluating vendors through this lens, rather than just as a company that is selling you something and walking away, will make your purchase worthwhile in the long run. While point solutions in the mailing industry do exist, you should seek out a partner who has their finger on the pulse of the industry and has established and relevant expertise - in other words, an advisor rather than just a seller.

The common thread of making the right purchases? Flexibility. Choosing new solutions while considering the flexibility to deal with your organization's changing needs, the shifting dynamics of the mailing industry, and the increasing demands of your customers will ultimately guide your organization to new opportunities, while intelligently avoiding many of the challenges that characterize news purchases.

Theresa Lang is Vice President Solutions & Services, Ricoh.