This article originally appeared in the November/December, 2017 issue of
Mailing Systems Technology.
Hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, fires, and other natural phenomena can put a document center out of operation, at least temporarily. But self-inflicted mishaps can ruin any print and mail job. Data issues, material problems, equipment failures, and employee errors are just a few of the things that can create bad mail.
Processing errors may not impact mail services providers and their clients as dramatically as natural disasters, but financial and reputation effects can linger long after incidents occur. The good news is effective quality control measures can prevent or catch almost all printing and mailing errors before bad mail makes it out of the building.
Most production mail centers I’ve visited have established quality control procedures meant to ensure the work they do is accurate and complete. The procedures aren’t always followed, but generally, the processes are there.
When a mailing mistake happens, a post-mortem usually reveals missing or ignored steps. The warning signs were there, but nobody noticed.
As Documents Change, So Should QC
Quality measures cannot be stagnant. Businesses need to update them as the work changes. Service providers and in-house document centers need to compare their quality and piece integrity controls to the jobs they are running today. As the document business changes, the risks of generating bad mail are growing.
Consider the impact of color inkjet printing and sophisticated document composition software. These technologies have encouraged document designers to create highly personalized and targeted messages to print on high-speed full color digital presses and digital output channels like email and text.
I can remember a time when matching input and output record counts was sufficient quality control for most jobs. As long as we printed the correct number, we could assume the job was accurate and complete. This belief was never entirely true, but the impact of a missing or duplicated mailpiece was negligible, so batch balancing worked pretty well.
Today, when print vendors merge documents from different jobs, creating large batches necessary to run efficiently on a high-speed inkjet press, record counts are not a reliable indicator of accuracy. If the application lends itself to householding, or features multi-channel output from a single input file, the counts are even less relevant. Individual document tracking is necessary to be sure every piece was processed as intended.
Speaking of merged print jobs, one strategy employed by mailers merging print image files for efficiency reasons is switching to envelopes with larger windows. This move allows them to merge documents that feature address blocks with different size fonts or slightly different page locations. The larger windows ensure mailing addresses are always visible. However, documents scattered throughout the job can include confidential data that will show through the larger window. If no one checks the output, mailing vendors and their customers can be subject to lawsuits or regulatory action caused by violating mail recipient privacy.
Perils of Personalization
Personalization requires even more stringent quality assurance methods. The days of the “Dear Valued Customer” letter are gone. With every document featuring multiple elements of personalization, mixed up data can reduce the effectiveness of a campaign. Whether they print documents or distribute electronically, document producers must take care to ensure the data used to drive the personalized messaging is complete and accurate before generating the documents.
As I write this column, I have an email in my in-box with someone else’s name in the subject line — a personalization effort that failed. Errors can happen at any time and for many reasons. The more personalized and segmented our mail becomes, the greater the need for rigorous quality control.
Companies composing documents containing personalized data should check the finished product to make sure names, account numbers, personalized URL’s, QR codes, or other unique data points included in composed documents match the input files. A simple matching mistake can produce entire runs of documents that appear perfect but are useless, off-putting, or confusing to document recipients.
I have seen this error occur when production files contained some account numbers formatted differently than the numbers in the test data. The matching logic mismatched data and many documents contained information from two different accounts.
Variable height address blocks caused a similar problem. Document composition programmers selected font sizes and page positions based on customer-supplied test data. On the live run, the USPS returned several mailpieces as undeliverable because extra data in the production files caused the city, state, and zip code line to drop below the bottom of the window. This happens most often with print image files.
Check for Errors at Each Opportunity
Even accurately composed documents can fall victim to printing and mailing equipment that causes mailing errors on their own. We’ve heard of printers getting out of sync on duplex jobs and printing data from one account on the front and another account on the back. Inserter operators responding to jams can accidently mix pages from multiple accounts as they hand-insert the contents and place the envelopes in the output stacker. Though I have watched operations be successful when allowing this corrective action, I prefer a “touch and toss” policy where every document touched by an operator is destroyed and automatically reprinted.
Adequate quality control processes will differ among mail operations. There is no single solution that works for every workflow and mix of applications. The key to success is reinforcing those QC steps so staff compliance remains high, and regularly reviewing quality control procedures periodically to make sure they still provide protection against mailing disasters.
Mike Porter helps print and mail operations raise quality, improve productivity, and implement new technologies. Visit www.printmailconsultants.com to learn more about his writing and consulting services or follow him on Twitter @PMCmike or LinkedIn.