What does the future of print and digital customer communications look like? How can executives anticipate and benefit from evolving trends? While every in-house mail department and mail service provider will have its own requirements, a common thread is emerging: To meet the demands of the next two, five or 10 years, executives will need an integrated omnichannel mail and delivery system. The five trends that follow can help executives anticipate and capitalize on evolving opportunities.

1) Executives must run profit - not just cost - centers

It's a new world for mail executives. One of the most critical challenges is how to best prepare for, balance and deploy physical and digital communications. That issue is at the heart of how executives generate revenue, attract and retain customers, up-sell and cross-sell.

Executives must prove that their operations can be profit centers, not just perceived as cost centers. Many are under pressure to achieve quantum leaps in cost reduction. In the age of data crunching, they must demonstrate measurable outcomes in customer gains, efficiencies and other key metrics.

They must also collaborate closely with colleagues in developing strategy and execution. When it comes to client outreach, there are more people than ever at the table, including marketing, client services, finance and IT, among others.

Overall, the future model is focused on growth and committing to driving enhanced value, in addition to effective cost management.

2) Print, digital and parcel shipping integration is the new model

Traditional models have been upended. One of the most significant shifts has been in direct mail. Direct mail volume has stabilized since its dramatic 20% drop from 2007 to 2009, according to Interquest data. The reality is it is still less robust than in the past. So for most mail operations, direct and transactional mail processing are no longer handled separately as a matter of course. In the face of change, some businesses have consolidated. Others have expanded their models. For example, printers are adding mail and parcel shipping capabilities and vice versa. Competitive channels, such as mobile, email and social, are growing.

What does a forward-thinking model look like? To begin with, it's more nuanced and comprehensive. The imperative is to create integrated campaigns that incorporate print, digital and in some cases, parcel shipping.

Every option must be on the table. While the cost of direct mail is higher than the cost of digital delivery, according to the Harvard Business Review, it continues to deliver a better overall response rate, at 3.4%, compared with digital channels at 0.12% for email, according to the DMA.

With the competitive landscape, and barrage of marketing and advertising, targeted customer communications are more important than ever. Most executives are finding that an integrated strategy, with channels reinforcing one another, can help them stand out and be more efficient.

3) Customer preference is the gold standard

Savvy executives understand that the end goal is not just to deploy the latest technology or channel strategy. The objective is to meet customer preferences and find ways to develop and deliver communications that have maximum impact.

First, customers want to choose their communication channels. They also want the flexibility to change their preferences.

The consumer also expects a personal touch. Generic communications can appear as dated as a form letter addressed to "Dear sir or madam". The modern communication piece is personalized, with the right message delivered at the optimum time through the customer's preferred channels(s). For example, a customer may be eligible for a cellphone upgrade. That message can be communicated through a personal message on the outside of the billing envelope. It can also be reinforced through email messages or texts (with some consideration given to whether a customer has opted in to receive texts).

The adage, "the customer is always right," still holds true and is more important than ever.

4) Standardization makes it possible to be innovative and flexible

While it may seem counterintuitive, the foundation for a modern mail and communication production system is standardization. The busy production mail operations often send out hundreds of thousands of differentiated pieces. With standardization, variables, from paper size to templates, can be streamlined and consistent across the brand. At the same time, flexibility allows each communication to be customized, boosting its impact.

Another big benefit to "flexible standardization" is the opportunity to realize synergies. This is how businesses create better, more effective communications at a significantly lower cost. It also provides a firm footing for innovation.

5) Develop an integrated platform to support an omnichannel strategy

To create a future-forward operation, executives may have to update an existing platform and delivery system or institute a new one. The goal is an integrated system that supports omnichannel delivery and a single workstream, while delivering a robust track and trace capability. This is true for in-house mailers, service bureaus, government agencies and others.

The challenge is to recognize that a change in strategy may create unforeseen consequences. What happens when you convert clients to receive bills by email but it creates a paradigm shift of more paying their bills via a credit card? What went from a savings in mail costs is now higher costs for credit card processing fees.

To begin the process of designing an integrated system that delivers on their objectives, executives can take the following steps:

· Convene decision-makers: Conduct high-level discovery sessions to determine goals and future plans. Such goals might include adding 4-color promotional messages to transactional mail. Many more businesses are exploring this option and the expectation is that it will become commonplace.

· Consult with experts: Executives can draw on their own knowledge and that of their colleagues. They can also consult with companies that specialize in mailing and communications programs.

· Create a comprehensive plan: The plan should deliver the goals identified earlier in the process. The idea is to think big, bring together formerly disparate systems and give the overall system capabilities that far exceed current ones. The plan should not only solve immediate issues; it should anticipate how the business's needs might evolve over two, five or 10 years.

· Determine equipment, hardware and software needs: Speak with experts to find out if your mail and print operation is optimized to achieve peak performance. Innovations in technology are making it possible to increase productivity and flexibility, while reducing overhead costs.

· Execute with care: Leave plenty of time to work out bugs and maximize performance.

The world of mail and customer communication executives is more complex and challenging than ever. It is possible to successfully negotiate this new terrain, however. The key is an integrated platform and delivery system that communicates with customers in new and evolving ways and does it efficiently and cost-effectively. By adapting and anticipating change, executives can be heroes in their companies and leaders in their industry.

Grant Miller is Vice President, Global Strategic Product Management, Pitney Bowes.