For small and medium businesses (SMBs), the line between mailing and shipping in the office is becoming blurred into what clients increasingly now call sending. Sending embraces everything that an organization sends out, including parcels, flats and mail.

Increasing complexity in sending is forcing a new paradigm to emerge, which is to send smart. The marketplace for SMBs is expanding from local to global, with a growing number of businesses now selling over the web via e-commerce platforms. The competition for online buyers is also growing, with free shipping offers gaining popularity. With shipping costs continuing to rise, it is critical for businesses to send smart. Companies who can do this have a tremendous competitive advantage, and are better positioned to succeed in the borderless and connected world of commerce.

Sending smart requires the sending operation to integrate seamlessly into a range of digital functions. That's because almost all the processes for physical mail, flats, and packages are digitally initiated and then digitally tracked in desktop and mobile environments. In other words, sending smart represents the convergence of mailing and shipping workflows, and digital and physical processes.

What drives this convergence? It's been accelerated both by the growth of e-commerce and by the digitization of communications. And these changes in the sending paradigm have dramatic implications for everyone - SMBs, carriers, and solutions providers.

We recently engaged an industry leading market research firm to conduct a global study of the changing paradigm for sending mail, flats, and packages. We surveyed more than 3,000 people and held more than 70 interviews on four continents. In addition to business respondents, our researchers contacted people working for ten national posts and shipping carriers. Our goal was to learn firsthand how customers are dealing with these new sending challenges across the globe.

Growing Struggle with Sending Complexity

The research delivered some important findings:
· SMBs make delivery decisions based on a range of factors that change by item and time of day.
· SMBs recognize how important sending is to their business and the critical role it plays in maintaining and growing their customer relationships.
· The complexities of sending operations can be a constant source of disruption to daily workflows.
· Financial transactions and record keeping slow down all the sending workflows they touch.
· SMBs put a big effort into cultivating relationships, believing every customer touchpoint matters, especially with e-commerce; but they don't have the time or the insight needed to optimize the transactions that are so critical to those relationships.

The study further revealed that three major factors are making sending increasingly complex for SMBs, in every part of the globe:
1. Each carrier has its own processes. This makes it difficult for an SMB to seamlessly unify its approach across carriers. SMBs want a sending solution that works seamlessly across posts and carriers, and across mail, flats, and small parcels.
2. There is tremendous growth in e-commerce fulfillment as a result of SMBs leveraging a range of web-commerce platforms. Unfortunately, the variety of platforms also adds to the sending complexity.
3. Cross-border shipping growth further increases complexity. Here, SMBs are dealing with different currencies, tariffs, and regulations, as companies take their businesses global through e-commerce.

Not surprisingly, SMBs want the sending process to be simpler and more efficient. They are looking for a unified approach that addresses the current challenges with the entire end-to-end sending workflow. These challenges include: variations in sending frequency, more precise data quality, carrier pick-up notification, delivery tracking, late delivery notification, sending analytics, and streamlined carrier payments. Put simply, SMBs need a complete sending solution that can manage the complexity they face every day.

Postal administrations across the globe are responding by leveraging their footprint in mail with shipping solutions that are simpler to use and deliver service levels that are competitive with private carriers. Posts are increasingly partnering with solutions providers, like Pitney Bowes, to integrate and enhance their services.

Responses from traditional providers of mail and shipping technology tend to focus on either hardware based or software based offerings. However, SMBs indicate they would prefer working with a single source that could provide the mix of both hardware and software solutions that best meets their needs and fully addresses their entire workflow.

The Old Paradigm vs. the New

In the past, centralizing all mail, flats, and parcels into one physical mail center was the paradigm. This met a mix of sending needs by having everything flow through one location that could take advantage of a variety of specialized hardware and software based solutions.

In the future, the sending function will be characterized by distributed preparation and fulfillment, where mail, flats, and parcels are tied together logically, rather than physically. As a result, the need for centralized capabilities - for efficient processing of high volumes of mail, flats, and parcels - will coexist with the ability to integrate sending into increasingly more distributed and agile business operations.

As such, sending solutions of the future will accommodate a highly efficient, centralized operation, seamlessly integrated with web-based, virtual, and distributed capabilities. It's a new type of sending hub - not centralized, but nonetheless unified.

A unified approach to sending will provide organizations with some very attractive benefits:
1. Flexibility in the sending options available to employees. A unified process is a simplified process that does not require specialized knowledge to use. More employees can involve themselves in the sending process, with less need for specially trained operators. A unified approach also allows companies who have rules around sending to build them into the solution, resulting in tighter internal compliance.
2. More visibility into the service options available. A unified sending approach makes it easier to see the service options that make the most sense for the particular item being shipped. This saves money and time.
3. A better customer experience. A unified sending solution improves client satisfaction by ensuring that the right content gets to the right customer on time, and any issues are instantly identified for proactive client support.
4. Expanded services available to employees. This is particularly important as employees become more agile and mobile. A unified approach provides sending at the touch of a browser. As the company grows, it can provide agile and mobile sending services, to help employees be more effective, regardless of where they are around the globe.

As solutions emerge to enable SMBs to send smart, we expect to help our clients further optimize their mailing and shipping operations, while enabling them to take advantage of additional opportunities for business growth. Today, more than ever, sending powers commerce for SMBs. Sending smart adds that much more power to these vital business operations.

Patrick Brand is Senior Vice President and General Manager, Global SMB Products and Business Strategy, Pitney Bowes.