Aug. 10 2006 11:55 AM

If you manage a print/mail finishing center, chances are, one or more of your hardware or software vendors have approached you with the idea of "partnering" as a way to provide more value. On the surface, partnering sounds like a good idea. It can help you capture the benefits of rapidly advancing technology. It can provide you with added insight into industry trends and new applications. And most importantly, it can help you elicit a higher level of performance from your equipment, systems and operators than you might otherwise be able to achieve. But partnering can also be a thinly viewed attempt by a vendor to cross-sell you a product or service that may be of only limited value.


Which Partnership Is Right?

So how do you determine if a partnership is in your best interest? And more importantly, how do you decide which partnership is the right one for you?


In the print/mail finishing industry, there are five key elements that any vendor must offer for a true partnership to occur. These center on capabilities, experience, vision, enthusiasm and integration.


Customers also share responsibility for making a partnership work. Most importantly, they must be willing to share sensitive information and to "stay the course" or work though the inevitable rough spots that occur whenever two organizations work closely together for the first time.


Here's a road map to help you determine if your vendor has the skill, experience and vision to be a truly effective partner.


Broad Capabilities

First, it's no secret that technology is advancing faster than ever before. The technology of print/mail finishing is advancing across such a broad front, the rate and scope of change is so great, that many managers have difficulty keeping up with the rapid pace of change. The simple truth is, most companies are not structured to evaluate the full range of competing strategies, methods and technologies available to help document production and mailing centers achieve superior performance.


So the first attribute to look for in a potential partner is the range of capabilities or the breadth of the solution it offers. Ideally, your partner should be under one roof or have established relations with other key vendors so it can offer all of the components necessary to establish a world-class facility.


Why?  Because that is where you are ultimately headed. It may not be today, next week or even next year. But if you want a long-term future in print/mail finishing, you should plan on being among the best. Or you may well find yourself doing something else.


A true partner should offer access to the full range of hardware and software systems plus other key skills such as professional services, integration and application expertise. It must have project management abilities that allow to help you create, produce, distribute and receive documents and remittances both in hard copy and digital formats. Then, it must have the ability to capture the key customer data from those documents to update databases quickly and comprehensively so subsequent mailings can be even more effective.


Proven Experience

The second attribute of a good partner hinges on experience. In a phrase, you don't want to have to "reinvent the wheel." The point of partnering is to capture or benefit from previous experience. If your vendor isn't already experienced in partnering, then the benefits you are likely to achieve will be diminished.


That does not mean that a vendor that is inexperienced in partnering is incapable of implementing a desired solution. But it does mean that an experienced vendor is more likely to get there faster and with less difficulty. In the competitive world of customer communications, getting there first is a huge advantage.


So how do you determine if your vendor is experienced?  Simply by asking. It should be able to furnish a track record including published references with customers who will go "on the record."


A View of the Future

Given the dynamic nature of print/mail finishing, it is not enough to know where you are today. To assure success, you must know where you are headed and where you need to be tomorrow. That means your partner should have a clear vision of the future of customer communications along with a credible plan for achieving that vision. Additionally, your partner should be able to document the progress made to date in key areas such as product development or investments to acquire needed capabilities. If its R&D efforts are not producing results or it is not broadening its capabilities with strategic investments, what assurance do you have that it will be able to implement its vision?


Enthusiasm and Willingness

Admittedly, concepts such as enthusiasm and willingness are soft, and they are hard to quantify. But they are important qualities that can determine if a partnership operates smoothly and productively or breaks down over finger-pointing the first time a speed bump is encountered.


In fact, one of the advantages of dealing with an experienced partner is knowing it has encountered and overcome set backs before. Since getting the most from a group of vendors is often the key to a successful print/mail finishing solution, it is reassuring to know that your partner is able to coordinate diverse views and still focus on the ultimate objective.


How can you tell if your partner is enthusiastic?  Simple. Just ask about its philosophy on customer satisfaction. The best partners are100% committed to total customer satisfaction. They know that the customer is the final arbiter and that his level of satisfaction will determine the value of the partnership and the business relationship going forward.


Another way to gauge enthusiasm is to look at training and maintenance procedures. Ideally, training for equipment operators should be easy, fast and compact. And, maintenance personnel should be proactive and constructive.


"We expect our maintenance people to do more than just keep the equipment operating," says David Bush, first vice president of Mail Operations for Prudential Securities. "We expect them to add value by suggesting ways to improve our performance, correct weaknesses or avoid problems before they occur," he adds.


"Maintenance professionals often have experience in other industries or businesses, and we want them to volunteer their ideas, especially if they see a work process that could be improved or adapted to meet our specific environment."


End-to-end Integration

Lastly, make sure your partner views the task at hand from your perspective, not from hers. That means the partnership should develop solutions tailored to what the customer needs and not just what the vendor has to sell.


Efficient operations and effective mailpieces have long been the twin goals of the print/mail finishing industry. And they are still important. But the greatest strides today are being made by organizations that view customer communications as a totally integrated end-to-end process that forms a continuous cycle.


This model centers on the premise that communicating with customers is not a one-way path but a closed-loop process. Ideally, the process renews itself as each outbound message from a business to a customer triggers a response from that customer, loops back to the business and elicits a new communication from the business back to the customer.


The goal for businesses employing this model is to stay in repeated contact with customers via a continuing stream of outbound messages that are highly targeted, flawless in appearance and assembly, produced promptly and delivered in a manner of the customer's choosing.


But your partner can't do all of this alone. The customer's biggest responsibility is to share information. You need to be willing to discuss critical internal business needs, including the problems you face and the dimensions of those problems, so your partner can accurately quantify the difficulties, address the most serious issues first and custom-tailor a solution that meets your unique needs.


Of course, your partner should also possess industry and application expertise and be able to guide discussions. But you must furnish the raw or sensitive data, which will ultimately influence the effectiveness of the solution.


Mark Proft is director of Strategic Marketing for Pitney Bowes Document Factory Solutions. Contact him at 203-739-3611 or visit