Print and mail operations everywhere hear about paperless conversion from their internal or external clients. On the surface, this idea sounds like an easy decision for businesses issuing transactional documents like bills or statements. Printed documents cost more to create and distribute, and they take longer to travel from senders to receivers. Naturally, companies would like to reduce these expenses and send electronic documents to their customers instead. I work with businesses all the time that are clear about their intention to persuade as many of their customers as possible to abandon paper documents.

Though printing fewer pages is contrary to the traditional business model for document service providers and in-plants, most accept the inevitability of the trend. They have added multi-channel distribution to their workflows and are charging clients for these services to replace the revenues lost on declining print and mail volumes.

Migration from Paper Will Continue

I have no problem helping my clients migrate their customers to digital documents. I’d rather companies take an active role in the transition than fool themselves about the future of customer communications. Companies can add value to their electronically delivered material by including dynamic graphs, links to self-help portals, or more personalized messaging. These steps enhance the customer experience.

But whenever someone talks about aggressively compelling customers to give up paper documents, I ask them to consider the customer relationship perspective. I think companies should weigh more factors than pure cost savings.

My main concern about replacing paper bills and statements is the clutter of messages consumers must endure every day. The technologies companies use to lower their postage bills are the same ones responsible for making it increasingly difficult to get a customer’s attention. What happens to customer connections if the organization lumps their messaging in with the mountains of texts and emails already causing message management issues for consumers?

Consumers Buried in Electronic Messages

I get about 50-75 emails a day. Obviously I don’t read them all. Most go unopened, filling up my inbox until I set aside time to do a wholesale purge. If I open a bill notification email from my internet service provider or cell phone company, I’m looking only for the amount due. If it looks reasonable, I don’t take the time to log into a web portal. I’m too busy to make that activity a priority and dealing with forgotten passwords or two-factor authentication steps are a hassle. Because of electronic documents, I find I’m not consuming as much content from companies with whom I do business as I did when we communicated with paper. I suspect many consumers follow a similar pattern.

Consumer interaction gets even worse when billers encourage customers to set their accounts up for auto-pay. Then I don’t even open the notification emails. The point of reconciliation is no longer a communication from the biller; it’s my online banking interface. The companies have lost touch with me entirely.

Can You Afford to Eliminate a Communication Channel?

My questions to companies adamant about turning off paper is, “Why do you want to eliminate a consistent and reliable channel of customer communication, and how will you keep in touch with your customers?” Over 90% of consumers open their paper bills every month, making them ideal conduits for educational, informative, or marketing messages. With little competition for attention in the postal mailbox, companies sending paper have a good chance of their messaging being consumed. Billers control the format and delivery of their communications. Postal mail has no spam filters, junk folders, or ad blockers.

Paperless billing advocates will point to low marketing response rates from paper documents and say billers overstate the value of customers opening the envelopes. Well, the vast majority of marketing messages I receive are generic, pre-printed inserts. They rarely contain any compelling information and are often untargeted. Consumers don’t pay too much attention to irrelevant information. If companies converted bill inserts to dynamic on-statement messaging with improved targeting and personalization, the marketing content would get more attention.

Before your company embarks on another campaign to rid itself of paper bill recipients, think about other ways you could reduce expenses. Can you keep sending the paper bills that two-thirds of your customers prefer and maintain a consistent and reliable channel for distributing information and messages to your customers?

Other Ways to Reduce Costs

Think about reducing page counts by replacing boiler-plate text with paragraphs relevant to each account. Or move invoice details online and deliver only a summary document through the mail that features room for variable, on-statement marketing messages. Add features to documents that make them more useful to consumers or eliminate sources of confusion, reducing the number of calls to customer service.

I’m all for saving money. I just wonder if the postage and processing cost reductions are worth cutting off a consistent and reliable way to communicate with customers.

Mike Porter at Print/Mail Consultants helps document operations build and implement strategies for future growth and competitiveness. Learn more about his services at Follow @PMCmike on Twitter, or send him a connection request on LinkedIn.