The mailing industry is at a crossroads. Mail center managers have to contend with thousands - even millions - of incoming and outgoing mailpieces, along with managing their employees, keeping on top of the latest trends and technologies, and dealing with factors beyond their control - like the economy and regulatory environment. Having workflow processes in place that allow you to easily meet your mailing goals of integrity, efficiency, volume and cost reduction is fast becoming an essential tool in the modern mailer's arsenal. Most importantly, implementing a workflow system can require a relatively small investment that yields a sizeable return. In many ways, running a mail center is like conducting a symphony - there are many different parts that must be harmonized to achieve a common goal.

Increasingly, mail centers are being required to hit every note correctly. Ask yourself these questions about the content that you are responsible for mailing: Does the document have to be error-free? Is the document regulated? Are you required to track and report on it? Does it contain customized or personal information? If the answer to any of those questions is yes, you are dealing with what is known as "critical communications." Some of the mailpieces that fall under this umbrella might surprise you. Some are obvious, such as sensitive documents found in the healthcare and financial industries, both of which are increasing their outsourcing activities. These include explanations of benefits, regulation letters, credit information, account statements and checks. Government examples range from property tax letters to payroll statements, and a very timely example - voting ballots. Others are less intuitive, like lottery tickets, casino coupons or even local business flyers that do not contain highly sensitive information but might contain customized messaging or even a customized and time-sensitive redemption code or PURL that is necessary for evaluating the effectiveness of a larger campaign. The common thread of all these communications is that your business depends on delivering them with integrity.

Whether your mail center resembles a large orchestra with dozens of players, or a tightly-knit quartet, your ability to have a single point of control for all that is being asked of you is crucial. For mailers in today's world, being able define workflows, track mailpieces and provide analytics on them is just as important as delivering accurate documents. Regulations like HIPAA and Regulation Z require that mailers are able to report on their output for compliance purposes. Mailers who use manual processes to track such information are not only costing themselves more time, but also introducing human touch points and, in turn, increasing the chance of error. Mailers also often have to contend with incoming information that is contained in different formats, such as PDFs, often used for direct mailing. Having the ability to automatically extract addresses from these files and break the document into separate mailings is a time-saver. Being able to feed the data into your own production and mail files is another way to improve your workflow process.

Another challenge that mailers face is being able to efficiently and easily correct addresses. "Undeliverable as addressed mail" is an enduring reality, but what's changed is how mailers (and the USPS) can perform address correction. Not only is it possible for mailing data from PDFs to be captured, mail centers also need to be able to edit this data for cleansing and sorting. Connecting to the USPS's CASS (Coding Accuracy Support System) for address verification can also be incorporated into the overall automated mailing processes. With the deadline for mandatory IMb approaching in 2014, many mailers are looking to implement it into their systems. What some do not realize is that the workflow solutions that were often relegated to invoicing are equally useful for organizing the processes and tracking of mailpieces. If you have already implemented barcodes but are scanning those barcodes by hand, there is an opportunity to automate that step as well. Just by incorporating a tabletop inserter, a camera and document-level barcodes, mailers can have the power of automated piece-level tracking. 2D barcodes can also be used for inserter cameras to control the insertion process. This information can then be reported on precisely, including files of only which mailpieces are missing and need to reprinted.

As mail center managers, being able to act on information in real time is an asset. Assigning deadlines for time-sensitive jobs, seeing those deadlines in a central location and being able to compare them to a job's status provides actionable insight into which jobs are falling behind - and which should be prioritized. Looking at the big picture is also necessary for mail center managers. Being able to generate reports on consumables, how printers are being utilizing, where and when interventions are taking place, job run times and even specific user activity is valuable in ensuring that the mailroom runs like a well-oiled machine. The end result is what all mailers strive for: 100% delivery.

In addition to integrity, lowering mailing costs and taking advantage of postal discounts is another opportunity that many mailers are pursuing. The USPS is making a significant push for mailers to barcode their pieces but stresses that a barcode alone is not enough to qualify for discounts. There are certainly high-volume discounts available but these require specific sortation software that is Presort Accuracy Verification and Evaluation (PAVE)-certified and can handle the mail types you deal with - Standard or First-Class mail, letters, postcards, etc. Not only does presorting allow the USPS to process mail more efficiently, it benefits mailers by giving you access to lower postal rates and decreases in delivery time - another factor that is often important for critical communications. Staying informed of the latest discounts that are available to you is only half the battle. If you don't have a system in place to use those discounts, or if the system you have is so inefficient that it requires an investment of another valuable resource - time - then you should consider a system that makes the process work more efficiently for you.
There are numerous benefits of taking a closer look at your workflow processes and integrating them into a holistic system that offers you the ability to track and report on mail pieces. More and more, mailers are being approached to take on more intricate mailing jobs - and need to make transitions to meet these demands in relatively short periods of time. Dealing with different mail types, client mainframes, formats, and more can all introduce more complexity. However, the reward for harmonizing all of these elements is being able to take on new customers and open up new revenue streams.
Implementing a workflow and workflow monitoring system - even if done in small steps - also gives you and your customers the peace of mind that comes with ensuring that all of your mailpiecesmail pieces have integrity. As the results of this year's annual wage and operations survey convey, the typical workload of a mail center manager is broadening in scope. Workflow solutions can help mail center managers transform the noise of a mailroom into beautiful music.

Miranda Reeves is senior product manager, Ricoh.