Dec. 29 2006 10:23 AM

A discount clothing store chain has a tagline, "An educated consumer is our best customer." That motto should be adopted by mail operations managers everywhere.


Educating your customers will provide many benefits. Files will be formatted properly. Mailpiece design will meet U.S. Postal Service automation standards. People will know when and where their mail will be delivered. You'll spend less time solving customer problems and more time delivering quality service.


Customer education can take several forms, whether you're an internal operation or an external service provider. Newsletters, e-mails, articles and classes are all effective methods. It's important to consider the needs of your customers and the best way to communicate with them.


For internal operations, begin education with new employees. Provide an insert for the new employee packets with a list of service locations, hours and policies. Better yet, present a class at orientation.


Follow up with articles in the company newsletter or send flyers to all employees. For topics, look at the most frequent issues bad addresses, no mail stops on inbound mail, missing information on work orders and explain how to avoid problems. Focus on seasonal concerns, for example, the policy about personal packages being delivered to the workplace during the holidays.


Offer updated classes for all employees on a regular basis. Most people don't work with mail every day, so they may forget past lessons. Create a class schedule that's convenient for employees to attend. Demonstrate to management how the classes help the company save money.


For example, you could develop an address standardization class for customer service representatives (CSRs). At Northeast Utilities in Connecticut, they did exactly that. Ian Giaver, customer service manager, and Tom Newton, Corporate Document Services, put together a class for new and existing CSRs. The training explained how an address should be formatted and why the format was so important. The classes also described how correct address information can help customers with billing issues. Giaver follows up with occasional e-mails to all CSRs, including reminders about good addresses.


The result a fundamental change in attitude and considerable financial savings. Before the training, addressing was not considered important by the CSRs. Now, the CSRs take pride in finding and correcting address errors. When they see an issue that may affect an entire street or apartment complex, the CSRs bring it to the attention of their managers. Qualification rates have increased and return mail has decreased significantly.


(Note: The USPS was so impressed with the company's success that they asked Tom Newton to share his story at the National Postal Forum in Washington, DC.)


Fulfillment houses and service bureaus can also benefit from educating their customers. Companies expect more from their vendors than just low prices, they expect the vendor to add value to the product or process. And training is a great way to add value.


That's the approach taken by Doug Hall, president of Hall Mailing & Fulfillment (HMF) in Haverhill, Massachusetts. With the help of his vice president of Operations, Don Bizzaro, EMCM, Hall has developed the "HMF Educated Customer Program." "Our goal," explains Hall, "is to provide our customers with increased confidence in the mail and fulfillment decision making. This program presents customers with the information they need to make those decisions."


The first module of the program is entitled, "Mail 101." This seminar covers topics like classes of mail, rates, addressing and additional services. Embedded in the PowerPoint presentation are links to references on the USPS Web site. ·


Hall and Bizzaro stage the class in a "tag team" format and try to entertain their audience. "Postal standards and regulations can be pretty dry and technical," says Bizzaro. "We want to keep the audience's attention while providing valuable information. By adding a few jokes and maintaining a light mood, we're more successful."


Recently, Hall and Bizzaro presented the class to one of their customers, a large printer. The company had all of their salespeople attend, including the vice president of Sales. The students were active participants and asked a lot of questions. Afterwards, attendees received a printed copies of the presentation, as well as copies on cd, so they could use the postal Web site links.


The feedback was great, and the students were very appreciative. Hall was pleased with his team's performance and felt good about the class. But as the television commercials say: wait, there's more. At the end of the class, the vice president of sales wanted two favors from Hall. First, would they mind reviewing all mailpiece designs before production? Second, the customer would like to make HMF its primary mailing house.


By educating their customers, HMF has transformed itself from a vendor to a business partner. By being involved in the design process, HMF will make sure that the printer and its clients are more successful. At the same time, HMF will increase its revenue with greater volumes of mail. That's known as a "win-win-win."


Hall and Bizzaro aren't stopping there. In addition to offering "Mail 101" to more customers, they're developing new classes. Future topics will include repositionable notes, parcel shipping and international mail.


A word of advice from Bizzaro, don't sell during training. "It's important to focus on passing along quality information," explains Bizzaro. "When your customers have a better understanding of mailing requirements, it has a trickle-down effect. It makes everyone's job easier, the work is processed faster and the mail is delivered on time."


Follow the lead of these innovators and start educating your customers. It's a move you can't afford not to make.


Mark M. Fallon is president and CEO of the Berkshire Company, a consulting firm specializing in mail and document processing strategies. For additional information, visit