Jan. 29 2007 01:36 PM

As the industry trend of combining print and mail services becomes popular, more mail and print managers are faced with the challenge of making the change to a combined service a positive one.


On the surface, it's easy to see the advantages of combining service offerings. For instance, the mail managers see the benefit of having a mailpiece printed and folded adjacent to the addressing operation (inkjet) and print managers realize the increased value of offering business mail preparation. Each idea is attractive and worth pursuing but what lies between these opportunities is the contrasting complexity of industries that make them both distinctive. Managers new to either industry need to understand the unique qualities of each and spend time learning from others who are more knowledgeable. Time invested will be rewarded with the resulting efficiencies and cost-savings.


In the fall of 1999, I was approached by the senior administration at The University of Vermont to take on the challenge of combining Mail Services and University Graphics & Printing. This proposed merger was, in part, due to increasing financial difficulties in the printing area, a consultant's recommendation for operational changes and an internal initiative to model other institutions that had already combined print and mail.


The proposal was submitted in December 1999 and accepted by the university in January 2000. The merger was planned for July 2000 to coincide with the beginning of the fiscal year. A plan was developed that would provide long-term financial sustainability (within a three-year period), quality service to customers, competitive pricing as well as integrated service using technology. There were several significant parts to the plan, including a reduction in staff by combining financial functions of both departments into one, transferring production and copyright responsibilities to others and investing in CTP technology for prepress. We would also work with equipment providers to reduce expenses. A major renovation of space occupied by Graphics & Printing was also included in the plan.


In July 2000, the two separate units merged to become one unit called the Print & Mail Center. The Print & Mail Center staff committed themselves to a "one-stop shopping" approach that would enhance the customer experience and gain additional business through positive results.


In October 2002, the Print & Mail Center reached its financial target nine months ahead of plan. The model had worked and the new department had reduced costs, made critical changes in procedures, invested in new equipment and expanded our customer base.


What follows are some lessons from this merger. The merger was born out of a critical business need but followed an industry trend. The trip down the merger road isn't as smooth as few paragraphs might indicate. It contained some potholes, but with time, we learned to navigate those potholes and made the trip very worthwhile.


Two Complex Industries

There's truth to the statement that you learn a new thing every day. What about learning dozens of new things every  day? That's the requirement for any manager picking up a new industry. Whether you're a print person learning mail or a mail person learning print, each field is complex. We must respect that we're all specialists in our respective areas, and we must get beyond old industry stereotypes. Avoid this pothole by accepting and embracing the differences.


The Language Barrier... Knowing Your Postscript from Your Post Net

Have you ever been with a group of IT people and felt like they were speaking another language? Well, mailers and printers are no different. Industry language, jargon and acronyms can easily become a pothole for any newcomer. The mailing language is filled with the most acronyms, while print has the edge on specialized vocabulary. Mailers use the vocabulary of the U.S. Postal Service to identify a rule, classification or process. These are clear to the trained mailing professional but meaningless to many customers and, quite often, just plain confusing to them. Be careful to properly use "postal speak" and focus on what the customers objective is and how you will meet it.


Printer vocabulary focuses on process elements of the craft. They're manufacturing a custom product by following a sequence of steps. In its simplest form, it's the application of ink to paper but this oversimplification is truly an injustice to the complexity of the process. Each individual step has its own descriptive language unique to that process. The knowledgeable print buyer will understand discussions regarding copy, screens, gray-scale, pixels, PMS colors, bleeds, proofs, plates and offset. The inexperienced print buyer may want to tell you what ink on paper they want to use. To avoid potential miscommunication with customers, it is important to know your audience and limit the use of advanced print vocabulary.


When Creativity and Regulatory Forces Converge

As a mail manager turned print & mail manager, this pothole was apparent to me long before we combined services at The University of Vermont. Why? Because design and print are creative vehicles for the customer to get the reader's attention, convey news or solicit funds. Their limitations are much broader than those of mailers. When it comes to mail, we must follow rules. These USPS regulatory influences, whether it be size, shape or paper color, are tightly regulated and impact how we prepare the printed piece for mailing. This is especially true when automation discounts are expected. So, creativity isn't always advantageous of the mailer and regulatory compliance isn't always a friend of the printer.


How many mailers have received a rush mail job only to tell the customer the piece didn't meet aspect ratio for automated processing, or it was one-eighth-inch to tall and would cost them an additional 12. each to mail? As mailers know, these scenarios are commonplace when the customer gets exactly what he or she asks for and designers and/or printers are unaware of options. These types of scenarios are actually provide excellent proof as to why the mail and print should merge.


Overcoming the language challenge is very important for creating a cooperative understanding of industry differences. A mailpiece can be very creative and meet postal specifications. A well-balanced print and mail team can accomplish creativity while also realizing cost savings.


Work toward reaching a balance between creativity and compliance by active consultation efforts. By first checking with the mailing staff on size, shape, paper stock, address block area, machine compatibility and postage estimates, the design team creates a senario for success. With one eliminating a specification error, you can save thousands of dollars in postage.


Financial Differences

The finances of print and mail tend to vary between businesses depending on their relationship with a particular business. Mail operations are generally part of the business infrastructure and fulfill a need. Thus, their expense is widely viewed as a cost that is unavoidable. Mail operations can automate processes and mail streams to reduce operational and postage expenses, but the expense is viewed as supporting essential service.


Printing operations may not be as tightly integrated in part of the infrastructure as mail and therefore may have to compete for business with other local or national vendors. This competitive print-for-pay environment is very different from mail. When print and mail become a combined unit, the printing service will likely gain more business through the association with mail.


One-Stop Shopping

Having a single point of contact for a customer is a true value-added service. The one-stop-shopping scenario provides many benefits, including:

1. Work order requests communicated to a single person

2. Single database for job management

3. Immediate input on design and cost issues

4. Clearer communication throughout the project

5. Reduction in errors

6. Customer saves time


Integrated Processes

Reducing the number of steps it takes to perform a task is always satisfying. In the merger, integrating many of the processes over time is our greatest measurable accomplishment. Some critical tasks you can integrate and see results using different processes include:


Billing Systems

Over the course of one year, we developed a database application internally that consolidates print purchase requisitions, job status, job tracking, delivery, estimating, print and postage billing. This data management solution is fully networked and compatible with our mailing systems output. Staff members have access to workstations to review and update job status as well as make notes and print delivery labels that move a print job to a completed status. Bulk mail operations use the same system to enter data on completed addressing, tabbing and postal permit expenses. We estimate that use of this homegrown solution saves .75 FTE annually and hundreds of phone calls to return.


Digital Solutions

The combined understanding of the two industries led us into producing one source mailpieces. We now print and address some work at the same time. By using a CASS-certified postal sorting software, a variable data application, print management software and a digital output device, we can produce campus and bulk mailings ready for distribution. This solution coordinates management of the address file in bulk mail with our production copy center, eliminating two steps and saving hours of addressing time.


Cross Train for Depth

When you implement efficient processes, the result may free up hours for staff to work on larger projects. One tip to productively use staff is cross training. Of course, if you work with staff that is made up of members of a collective bargaining unit, you must consider job restrictions before delegating varied job assignments. The easiest cross training match is utilizing staff knowledgeable in mail metering and bulk mail to assist in bindery or having bindery staff assist with bulk mail. This works and provides depth when absences dictate the need for a backup or large projects require extra hands. The mailing staff may also be able to assist with print deliveries to departments. In some cases, mail volume may not allow boxes of printing to be co-mingled and delivered simultaneously, but the built-in delivery mechanism that mail offers shouldn't be ignored. Another workable option is to deliver smaller print jobs with the mail.


Cost Control

All of the above benefits have cost savings. Reducing FTE has immediate financial impact but is drastic. The others can save you time, reduce errors, improve efficiency and increase production. Quantifying the actual cost benefit must be done on a case-by-case basis. Some examples of our cost savings include:


1. Reduced number of phone calls

2. Time savings through single source job management

3. Decreased errors

4. Eliminate redundancy in billing processes

5. Efficiencies and production hours gained by one source digital print & mail

6. Reduction in overtime and temporary staffing



In conclusion, the combined units must share a common goal driven by a shared purpose and mission to be successful. A merger on paper doesn't make you a single unit. It takes proper leadership to communicate and guide a vision of the new service.


Establishing a unit description and mission statement together with the staff is a great first step in creating a team. Be sure to make it simple and to the point.


All participants must embrace the opportunity to learn a new field and not feel threatened by change. As technology continually brings print and mail closer together and processes become more seamless, the combined industry offers an ever-challenging and rewarding career. Remember, it's essential to update your skills or you may find yourself updating your resume.


Rick Carlson has worked in the mailing industry for 23 years and has been the mail services manager at the University of Vermont since 1993. He was the recipient of the USPS Industry Excellence Award for Progressive Mailing Practices in Colleges and Universities in 1997. You can contact Rick at rick.carlson@uvm.edu.