In theory, bringing a technology solution to your business is almost always a good idea. Who wouldn't want to adopt techniques and equipment that can save you and your staff time, labor and money?
In practice, however, the world of software and hardware, computers and upgrades isn't just a bandwagon, it's a train one that won't stop or even slow down long enough for you to climb on safely. With so many high-tech choices in the marketplace, how do you know which solution suits your needs? Enter the more specific world of mailing technology, in which shifting regulations and frequent rate changes can raise the blood pressure of even the most seasoned veterans, and the choo-choo becomes a fast-moving locomotive. Call it the Disorient Express.
But don't panic. Certain landmarks can help mailing software neophytes ensure they're headed down the right set of tracks. Prospective users' concerns tend to fall into general questions, all of which should be asked and answered by anyone who may be considering hopping aboard.
"How much will it cost?"
That's a key question for most new users, and it's more complicated than the software's "sticker price" might suggest. Mailing software is typically available as a subscription for a specified period, usually annually. This is because mail preparation requirements are constantly changing to meet the requirements of the United States Postal Service. To keep up with those changing requirements, mailing software developers must continually modify the software. Fortunately, subscription costs for subsequent years are typically substantially lower than first year costs. Unfortunately, that makes the original selection of the right software for you all the more important. You surely want to avoid paying that first year premium again, simply because your first software choice did not meet, or could not grow with, your needs.
Some mailing software vendors offer different mailing programs to support different levels of need, usually classified as low-end and high-end. The low-end (also low-cost) programs can minimize your investment risk, allowing you to get your feet wet without full immersion. But you should make sure the transition from low-end to high-end is simple, straightforward and without penalty. In some cases, that transition is tantamount to changing software vendors because there is no commonality between the low-cost and high-cost offerings.
"Will it do what I need it to?"
The simplest part of that question is: Does the software support the classes of mail you intend to prepare and at the volumes you anticipate? The answer is fairly easy to obtain because the Postal Service maintains certification programs for mailing software. There are two primary types of certification. Coding Accuracy Support System (CASS), insures that software assigning ZIP+4 codes as well as performing basic address cleansing meets rigorous quality standards. CASS certification is a prerequisite for obtaining virtually all automation rate discounts. The second certification process is called PAVE, which stands for Presort Accuracy Validation and Evaluation. All PAVE certifications are not equal. There are separate certification requirements for each class of mail as well as for different preparation methods within classes. Each certified software vendor will be able to provide you with a copy of its certificate, showing categories in which it is currently certified. (Note that the Postal Service has not yet established certification for all possible classes and preparation methods).
Beyond these basic considerations, mailing software may or may not, provide additional capabilities that are integral, or a value-added enhancement, to the mailing process. For example, an increasingly critical component of any mailing is the ability to perform change of address processing. You should ascertain whether that capability is seamlessly integrated into the software or whether it is something you will have to deal with on your own. Other important capabilities are de-duping, merging and purging, list maintenance (including global or selective record manipulation/cleaning) and more advanced features like geocoding, which allows precisely targeted mailings based on location or even distance from a particular location.
"Will it work with what I a
Compatibility issues are vital when considering a high-tech mailing solution. The easy question to answer is, does the software support a specific printer? The more difficult question is: How does the software work, and how many extra steps might be required to obtain the desired output? Some software allows you to freely use the same output design for different output devices, for example a tabletop envelope printer or high-speed inkjet system. Just because the tabletop meets your needs today, doesn't mean you won't want to upgrade to a faster system tomorrow. You certainly don't want to have to change mailing software to accommodate that change.
Beyond hardware support, if you intend to process customer lists, you will want to look closely at the data importing capabilities of the mailing program you are considering. Anyone who has been in the mail processing business for any length of time will tell you that this is one of the most important factors. You should not only evaluate the different types of files that can be imported, but also the relative ease of doing so as well as the ability to manipulate the data in the process. For example, can the import function split person names, or combined city, state and ZIP fields into their separate components? If not, you will likely require additional third-party software because it is generally a requirement for pre-sorting or other processes like change of address processing.
"How easy is it to use?"
Modern mailing systems are incredibly complex. But modern mailing software should not require a data processing professional to operate it. Rather, the software should assist the operator in navigating the intricate maze of postal rules and regulations. But beware of mailing software that walks the operator, step by step, through basic operations. Such software may be easy to learn, but after the routine operation becomes familiar, productivity will be impeded.
Due to the complexity of the application itself, any mailing software worth its weight will require some learning. You should determine what training options are available from the vendor and how much it might cost. Most mailing software vendors can provide on-site individualized training. But that can quickly become very expensive. Some vendors offer regional training classes. A few offer online mini sessions and/or self-paced computer-based training disks. Find a vendor whose training programs best meet your needs and budgetary constraints.
"What if something goes wrong?"
Answering machines and voice mail are terrific inventions, unless you're trying to reach a Customer Service Technician. When you're up against a tight mailing deadline and ERROR messages are coming up on your screen, there's no substitute for a real live and real experienced human being.
What technical support does the company offer? How thorough is that support, and will it be there when you need it? Telephone assistance had better be toll-free, and e-mail support ought to be live if it's going to do you any good.
Online company-hosted user forums can give you the opportunity to share problems and solutions with other users, even while getting quality answers from company experts. Some companies also offer automated software updates from their Web sites a useful, time-saving customer service feature. How can you tell if a prospective supplier will satisfy you in these areas? Many companies offer their software for a free trial period. When trying it out, give their customer service technicians a call and ask lots of questions.
"What do I know about this company?"
A company's good reputation might not convince you to buy its software, but a bad reputation could convince you not to. Seek out testimonials from colleagues (even competitors) who use mailing software. Also, read up not just on the product you're considering buying but also on the company itself how long it's been around, its years of experience in this specialty and its record for product reliability and customer service and satisfaction.
These questions should help you narrow this broad field and settle on a software solution that meets your needs today while still offering the power and flexibility to handle the growth you hope to achieve tomorrow.
K. Jon Runstrom is president and chief executive officer of BCC Software, Inc. For more information on a mailing software solution for your company, visit www.bccsoftware.com or call 800-453-3130.