Once upon a time, adding mailing services to your printing company’s business mix was pretty simple. Known as lettershop services, mailing operations included affixing address labels; sorting mail into bundles of addresses going to the same place (such as a ZIP code or a state); securing the bundles with rubber bands, adding colored stickers to the first mail piece in the bundle, putting the bundles in trays, and taking the trays and a hand-completed form to the post office. We trained our bindery workers to sort and bundle mail, and had on-call workers (often retirees) to assist with big jobs.
Then in 1996 everything changed. The USPS began its transition to automated mail processing, and mail preparation by mailing services providers changed from predominantly handwork to tasks requiring computer skills and equipment to print addresses and barcodes and to affix wafer seals. Some lettershops didn’t make the transition and ceased business. Some equipment vendors did, too.
Concurrent with the shift in the mailing industry, printers have been transitioning production departments from analog to digital. Today’s prepress department is fully digital, digital printing is as viable as offset, and variable data software is affordable and relatively easy to learn. Gather all this together, and there is a growing interest among printers to also become mailing services providers.
The Mailing Department of Today
The center of activity for the mailing department is no longer the bindery, it is database management; the mailing industry equivalent of prepress. And the first investment is software and a PC to run it on. Equip your database department as you would prepress. Emphasize professional software, tools to fix badly constructed files, and programs for output.
Professional grade software means real mail list management software that incorporates address standardization and postal coding. It also has other features like duplicate detection and the ability to produce required USPS reports. Using Excel or Access for mail list management is like using Word or Microsoft Publisher for document creation. If you are serious, make the investment in real mail list management software and in training your employees to use it.
Many customers maintain their own mailing lists, so mailing services providers need software to troubleshoot and fix customer files. The two most common problems with mail lists are structure (the fields that make up each individual record) and content (how each individual field is populated).
A poorly structured mail list invites content problems. For example, if there is no foreign country field, that data will either be left out or entered where it doesn’t belong. This creates a problem for your database manager, who must prepare the list so the address elements will print correctly on the mail piece.
Since printing an address while you are printing the mail piece itself is a variable data printing application, you will need software that controls both the document and the mail list. If you are printing more than one document on a sheet, the software will need a feature called interleaving to keep the addresses in correct presort order.
A suite of software programs for mailing services costs more than a corresponding suite for prepress and is comparable in complexity of use. This means an investment in staff training and a period of low productivity until the person becomes proficient. Proficiency may take longer if there is not enough volume to keep the worker active on mail lists daily.
Besides a computer, the database department will need a high quality postage scale to weigh mail pieces. Accurate weight is required for presorting and to complete the USPS Statement of Mailing. A micrometer is also a useful tool.
Basic lettershop services include addressing the mail piece, tabbing folded self mailers, inserting and sealing envelopes, affixing postage via meter, preparing for bulk mail entry and delivery to the USPS. New and used tabletop and floor model equipment are all available.
Mailing equipment is analogous to bindery equipment, requiring similar floor space and skills to operate. But if a printer does not have enough volume to run the equipment daily, then subcontracting the work to an outside lettershop may be a better option. You’ll save floor space, worker training, and the cost of acquiring equipment. As mail volume has fallen, lettershops may have excess capacity, with the benefit of faster turnaround times and lower minimum charges.
Fixed Cost of Providing Mailing Services
An often overlooked cost of providing mailing services is the ongoing fees for permits and USPS compliance. Setting aside the initial cost, here is what you can expect annually:
• USPS permits: A $195 annual fee for permission to mail with permit imprint. A separate permit is required for each post office facility where mail is entered.
• CASS/DPV updates: Six-times-a-year updates of the USPS database of deliverable addresses; required to mail at discounted postage rates. Available through mail list management software vendors, fees begin at about $1,100 annually.
• Move update compliance: Comparison of customer mail list to USPS National Change of Address database; required to mail at discounted postage rates. Available from mail list management software vendors and other service providers. Fees are $1 per 1,000 records with a minimum (usually $40), or unlimited service for a year for a flat fee (starting at $1,100; some vendors combine this with CASS/DPV update service).
Besides understanding the mechanics of mail list preparation and operating equipment, a mailing services provider owes customers a thorough knowledge of USPS requirements to qualify for discounted postage rates.
• CSRs need to guide customers through decisions that impact the effectiveness of the mail piece, from the target audience to the specification of the mail piece itself. They must understand how mail moves well enough to help customers decide what class of postage is most appropriate for the job. They must be able to manage customers so the mail list, PAF form, and postage deposit are received on schedule without either jeopardizing the requested mail date or creating a production emergency in the shop.
• Designers must know the physical characteristics of the categories of mail, the size and location of the mail panel, and where indicia can be placed.
• The production team needs to maintain the production schedule so the requested mail date is always met.
• The owner needs to stay current on changing postal regulations and requirements and adjust internal procedures accordingly. The owner must be prepared to take over from CSRs to calm upset customers for perceived lapses in shop performance or for problems caused by the USPS.
If you want to provide mailing services, commit to maintaining high standards of professionalism, understand the resources – money, staff, and time – that are required to gain proficiency, and seek a partner rather than doing it yourself if that means better services for your customers.