Print and mail operations use tracking systems like automated document factory (ADF) software to monitor and record work as it processes through the shop. These systems are particularly important when running jobs like bills or statements where document integrity is critical and clients require service providers to account for every page. As direct mail marketing becomes more personalized and complex, shops are using ADF systems to manage this work as well. I’ve covered this aspect of document operations automation frequently in this column.

Automation doesn’t always permeate the print/mail organization, however. I’ve visited document operations, some of them quite large, that rely on a fragile collection of spreadsheets and manual processes to reconcile postage, create estimates, generate job orders, or bill their customers. These methods can introduce errors or inefficiencies that keep organizations from achieving optimum profitability.

Tales from the Front Lines

I recall one large company that required three hours of effort per day from a highly skilled employee just to balance, reconcile, and create the data necessary for customer billing. The process included steps such as matching figures transmitted by email to multiple unconnected software systems, filtering and sorting spreadsheets, and lots of copying and pasting. As I watched this end-of-day activity I couldn’t help wondering how the company would ever do this work if key employees resigned or retired. Only two individuals knew what to do and many of the steps were intuitive, based on years of experience.

Another organization where I worked outsourced some direct mail work to a service provider that communicated estimates they created with Excel spreadsheets. The estimates weren’t always accurate, resulting in uncomfortable situations when the invoices arrived. The vendor often had to pull the job folders and do investigative work when we questioned unanticipated line items that appeared on our bills.

Back office operations like postage deposits, billing, and scheduling don’t have to be manual and isolated from the rest of the organization. Print management information systems (MIS) can bring areas such as estimating, job orders, postage data, and job costs together. These systems lessen the chance for errors, collect valuable job-level data to analyze pricing, and allow print/mail service providers to bill their customers as soon as the shop completes the work.

Print MIS Systems Have Advanced

I met with one of the MIS software vendors at the National Postal Forum this year and was impressed by the breadth of operations included in the system. Job templates automatically call in the steps necessary for common applications so pricing remains consistent, shop floor data collection allows the system to compare job progress to service level agreements or project milestone markers, and data flows from estimates to job orders to postage reconciliation and invoicing with no duplication of effort or chance for human error. Integration with other systems like postal preparation software allows service providers to automate the entire shop.

Over the next several years, analysts expect the print industry to face a labor crisis. As older workers retire, it will not be possible to replace them with seasoned veterans. Companies will ask less experienced employees to handle those critical pre and post-production tasks they must complete to deliver the service levels clients demand. Training new people on a print MIS system that takes the guesswork out of the process may be the best strategy to ensure business continues without disruption.

If your shop still handles some of the behind-the-scenes work manually, it’s worth the time to look into MIS software. The systems have improved greatly since I first investigated them years ago. I think you’ll find that automating labor-intensive tasks will benefit your organization.

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.