Quick! What is the biggest challenge companies face today?


            A                 Building customer relationships and strengthening

                                    customer loyalty

            B                  Establishing a distinct corporate identity

            C                 Capitalizing on targeted marketing opportunities

            D                 Doing all the above at the lowest possible cost


The correct answer is D. Granted, it is a trick question the first three options all present major challenges for most organizations. With tightened budgets and increasingly fluid customer bases, however, companies are desperately seeking ways of bolstering both their existing customer rosters and their corporate reputations while taking advantage of every opportunity to increase sales. All the while, they have no choice but to keep a close eye on the bottom line.


It is no surprise then, that an increasing number of utilities, financial institutions and other organizations are demonstrating an increased interest in the capabilities of electronic messaging. Once limited to electronic distribution and payment of bills, electronic messaging is seeing new life as organizations begin to understand and utilize the many benefits electronic communication holds over paper-based mailings.


While electronic messaging may be the superior method, it lacks one important aspect that prevents it from being a much-needed benefit for most companies widespread consumer adoption. For example, consumer acceptance and use of electronic billing is set to account for anywhere from 10% to 33% of total bill transactions in the next three years. That leaves, at best, 67% of the population that will still be conducting the majority of its business transactions using "old-fashioned" paper communications.


The allure of implementing an electronic messaging solution is certainly understandable, if only for the cost savings the medium offers. According to Doculabs, the average cost associated with mailing a paper billing statement and processing the resulting payment is 61. per mailpiece. In comparison, that cost is cut more than 50% to 28. per bill for statements that are presented and paid electronically.


The savings can be significant. Consider, for example, a credit card company with eight million users. With an average cost of 61. per bill, the company spends $4.9 million per month mailing and processing paper statements. If the company were to switch to an electronic bill presentment and payment (EBPP) model, the company would save almost $2.7 million per month that is, if all of its customers stayed online.


Still, the 10% to 33% of consumers who will jump on the electronic messaging bandwagon represent a veritable goldmine of opportunity. To help that transition along, more and more companies are beginning to supplement their current paper operations with electronic initiatives designed to improve their relationships with their customers. In doing so, these progressive companies are already getting a taste of the benefits yet to come, while being careful not to alienate their "traditional" customers.


For starters, while paper-based communications are likely to never completely go away, electronic messaging is just as likely to increase above and beyond the most optimistic of projections. Likewise, while the number of consumers currently interested in electronic billing and messaging may be dwarfed by those that are not, signs are pointing to a surge in interest. Companies without an electronic document solution in place stand to lose customers to e-savvy competitors, but companies that switch to an e-document-only method put the remaining 67% of their customer base in jeopardy.


Regardless of how it is viewed, a customer attrition rate of 33 % or 67 % is hard for any organization to swallow. By giving customers a choice and accommodating both methods, companies stand to not only retain all of their current customers but also attract new customers who are looking for the same flexibility in payment and delivery options.


It is also important to keep in mind that every paper mailpiece is not suitable for electronic formatting or delivery. For every bank statement or utility bill that is easily converted to an electronic or Web format, there are certain documents, such as utility cancellation notices and some financial communications, that are legally required to be delivered in the traditional paper format.


Legality and cost issues aside, perhaps one of the most compelling arguments for integrating a print-and-electronic delivery system comes not from improving how companies conduct business but rather how companies relate to their customers. Advances in print-on-demand and personalization technologies open up new avenues for strengthening customer relations avenues that will work well across any medium.


For example, one available solution utilizes the same print-stream data in a legacy printing system to format and deliver electronic statements. This allows customers who prefer paper documents to receive them, while those who are partial to electronic statements can receive and pay their statements online.


This same technology can allow customers to view documents at any time using their personal computers or reprint statements that may have been misplaced, all without tying up customer service representatives. And should a customer have a question, customer service representatives can quickly access account information and the document in question in the same format as the customer received, allowing companies to provide higher and more accurate levels of service.


In the end, it is becoming more and more imperative for companies to make the most out of every chance to communicate with their customers be it through cyberspace or the U.S. Postal Service. However, with the promise of a surge in interest in electronic messaging still just that a promise the traditional paper document is not going anywhere.


With this in mind, today's companies should provide customers with an integrated print and electronic-billing offering that allows them to ultimately make the choice. As their needs evolve or not companies that can offer both options will ultimately end up in front.


Mike Maselli is director of eMessaging for Bell & Howell. For additional information, visit www.bellhowell.com.