Oct. 31 2014 11:46 AM

The United States Postal Service is in trouble. Anyone who works in the document industry knows about the problems. Drastically reduced volume and revenue, mandatory employee benefit fund payments, tough labor unions, congressional interference, and increasing costs are making the service look for bailout money, permission to reduce services, and ways to consolidate facilities.

I wrote the preceding paragraph in 2009. I could just have well written it yesterday. In the five intervening years, it doesn't seem that a lot of progress has been made.

The USPS has accomplished employee headcount reductions and facility consolidation, but there are still some major obstacles preventing mail from sliding further down the totem pole when it comes to critical customer communications. Responsibilities for addressing the challenges are spread among many institutions and organizations. It's not just a Postal Service problem.

Acting Locally
Mail center managers and most others in the document industry have little individual influence regarding Postal Service strategic plans, advisory boards, governing bodies, and labor unions. Mail professionals do, however, have the ability to make mail more attractive to their internal or external customers. It seems to me this is an area where extra effort could yield some measurable results - at least on a local level. Anyone wishing for some of those other entities to make it all better for them could be in for a long wait.

Mail service providers, in-plant mail centers, and industry vendors have the power raise their customers' perception of mail as a strategic communication component. Though some organizations have made strides towards improving mail's image here and there, a more coordinated effort on three main fronts is necessary to turn piecemeal patches into strategic campaigns.

Service providers and in-plants have historically resisted any strategy that lowered page or piece counts. They are paid on volume, not results. To slow the erosion of the remaining mail volume, or attract new business, mail-producers must lower their customer's costs. That probably means lower volumes, but higher effectiveness. Adding a compensation component based on how well mail pieces perform could change the focus of mail providers and creates win-win environments.

Find more ways to drive costs out of the operation by putting an emphasis on tactics like householding, document reformatting, summary documents, frequency reduction, and list clean-up. Add measurement capabilities and work with customers to understand their targets and objectives for the mailings.

Educational presentations, articles, and whitepapers can show customers how mailed communications fit into a digital messaging strategy. Promoting ideas such as using direct mail to drive prospects online or setting up triggered fulfillment allows companies to promote products to qualified prospects using the powerful influence of physical delivery in ways that are impossible to accomplish online.

Bulk advertising is not what mail is all about anymore. Unfortunately, there is frequently a gap between mail's reputation in the business world and what mailing professionals know of its capabilities. Educating decision-makers about how mail can help them create quality leads or retain customers is essential.

Documents that are relevant and personalized spur more customers to take desired actions. In most cases, the data necessary to create intelligent messages already exists. Highly personalized documents used to be limited by hardware, software, or cost. Those issues have been solved. Now it's just a matter of execution.

Use the tools already on hand to make documents more effective. Look at applications as if they are being designed from the ground up for the first time in today's environment. This approach may reveal opportunities otherwise unrecognized by simply continuing ten year old best practices.

Help from the Vendor Community
Many mail-producing organizations are going to need help evangelizing the new value of mailed communications. The vendors who supply these organizations with hardware, software, materials, and services could be of help. Vendors could be contacting their customers regularly with tips, ideas, and plans for making mail better. They might even consider supplying content intended for distribution to their customers' customers to assist in the educational effort.

Organizations whose names are on the bills, statements, or direct mail pieces decide to continue or abandon mailed messages based on perceived value assessments. It is in the best interests both the vendors and the print-producers to increase that value. They are the entities most capable of consistently reinforcing the idea that mail has a place in a modern communication strategy. The USPS and the government have different objectives and take a long time to act.

Mike Porter is President of Print/Mail Consultants, a firm that helps companies communicate with their customers and prospects more effectively by supplying content and services developed specifically for the document industry. Connect with Mike directly at mporter@printmailconsultants.com. Or visit www.printmailconsultants.com and sign up for Customer Retention NOW! - a free newsletter featuring tips for creating and developing sales leads.