Efficiency and effectiveness the words are virtually synonymous. Or are they? If you operate a print and mail finishing center in the traditional manner, you are concerned primarily with efficiency. Your focus is on boosting productivity, particularly by implementing the latest and most cost-effective hardware, software and control procedures to speed processing, improve integrity and lower costs for postage, labor and materials. And you may well have achieved remarkable results. But your focus is essentially on the "outside of the envelope" and you operate at a distance from the key decision-makers in your organization.


Today, a new breed of mail center manager is emerging. These managers are still concerned with efficiency, but they place far more emphasis on the effectiveness of the customer communications that are being processed and delivered. By focusing more on the message "within the envelope," these managers are operating in close cooperation with senior level marketing and management personnel. And as a result, managers are helping their organizations capitalize on the value of the mailpiece as a "monthly appointment" with the customer and are using the mailpiece to help strengthen relationships and improve the bottom line of the organization.


The elite in the mailing industry, however, are raising the bar even more. These innovative managers and businesses are stepping up from the widely-accepted concept of high-volume mailing to the new platform of strategic message management and are re-orienting to use each and every contact with a customer, whether paper-based or electronic, as an opportunity to build relationships and grow the business.


The result?  These mailers are now using the mailpiece strategically to: speed payments and accelerate cash flow; increase sales via highly targeted one-to-one marketing programs; bolster customer satisfaction by producing communications that are prepared flawlessly and delivered promptly and in the mode of the customer's choosing; and reduce the need for costly remedial contact with customer service call centers.


These managers know the fundamental goal in strategic message management is to stay in repeated contact with customers via a continuing stream of outbound messages that are effective, relevant and reinforcing and also trigger subsequent return communications.


These outbound messages should be highly targeted to individual needs, flawless in appearance and assembly, produced promptly, delivered in a manner of the customer's choosing and structured to facilitate payment. To achieve the objectives, mailers are turning to a number of software products to help master five key elements that are essential to creating a strategic message management capability.


Data quality and fraud detection

The first building block in strategic message management centers on data quality. Any effective communications · cycle requires impeccable data so every time the customer is contacted, all pertinent account information including the spelling of names, the use of street addresses and any recent change of address status is accurate and standardized, as well as fully compatible with postal automation procedures to assure prompt delivery and complete postal discount savings. Plus, for the rapidly emerging world of digital documents, the customer's e-mail address and delivery preference options for both print and electronic versions must also be maintained.


An effective data quality capability is particularly critical for industries such as consumer finance and credit issuance, where the capability to detect fraud early in the enrollment cycle can eliminate significant losses later on in the process.


One-to-one messaging

The next step involves the full collaboration of marketing and the data center, where innovative software permits messages to be custom-tailored via inserts and marketing messages and where effectiveness of the individualized marketing campaigns can be monitored and improved over time.


These new software capabilities should include easy-to-use tools to: develop, target, track and manage highly personalized, one-to-one campaigns, which can be distributed either with or within one or more mailings; designate the locations and layout of marketing materials within the transaction document application; automatically merge the campaigns into the existing transaction document applications; aid control of print/mail finishing operations to assure the completed documents are efficiently processed in both high-volume paper and digital delivery environments.


Print stream manipulation

The strategic messaging capability is further enhanced in the data center via software, which helps assure maximum processing efficiency across multiple systems including the ability to inject variable messages at the very last moment by producing a print stream that is up-to-the-minute, defect-free and ready for manufacture and distribution in the most efficient manner possible.


Mailpiece integrity

If the message is wrong, it doesn't matter how inexpensively it was produced or how quickly it was delivered. A tightly-integrated and fully-automated processing environment helps assure that every message is accurate and contains nothing more or nothing less than what was intended by the enterprise. File-based processing technology can provide this needed assurance of complete integrity.


Electronic delivery

Customer communications are no longer exclusively paper-based. Mailers who do not recognize consumers increasingly prefer to receive communications in a manner of their choosing, including the new digital delivery options, are likely to lose out to more nimble competitors. Software now enables mailers to implement the full range of Internet billing alternatives for business-to-business, business-to-consumer and internal messaging applications. The result? They capture the immense benefits of faster delivery, lower cost processing and more effective one-to-one messaging without disrupting their current paper-based billing operations.


Monthly statements can merely record existing customer relationships or they can be strategic tools to sustain and expand the relationship.


Assured accurate production

When viewed strategically, investments to improve statement processing can also become a way of bolstering customer communications as well. Efficiency can lead to effectiveness. And those investments can take on a new importance.


One leading telecommunications firm, for example, was plagued by a high incidence of flawed bills, which triggered hundreds of customer service calls, each one costing more than $50 to handle. To correct the situation, the firm deployed file-based processing technology which enables complete piece-level tracking of every mailpiece which, when coupled with the use of exception files and an automated mailpiece regeneration capability, can provide full assurance that every mailpiece in any job is produced and delivered to the Postal Service.


As a result of the investment, statement processing was improved and the firm eliminated the flawed bills along with the ensuing customer service calls and their high cost.


Another company, an electric utility based in Connecticut, is also benefiting from its efforts to improve customer communications via its statement processing operation. The firm, which was among the first in the nation to test and implement an Internet billing capability, recently discovered that rate payers using the Internet billing capability are making payments an average of nine days sooner. That's nearly twice as fast as the response rate of customers using the traditional or paper-based mail format.


So what started out as a way to provide a choice to customers in the way they received their bills has now resulted in an accelerated cash flow. Pretty powerful evidence that when strategically managed, print and mail finishing operations can strengthen customer relationships and benefit the bottom line.


George Linkletter is a marketing consultant with more than 10 years of experience in the print and mail finishing industry. He specializes in the use of Pitney Bowes mail processing products. He can be reached at 860-350-4043 or PO Box 186, Sherman CT 06784.