There seem to be hints of a change in the way organizations are thinking about their customer communications these days. After decades of efforts to drive costs out of document applications like bills, statements, notices, and claims, there are a few companies beginning to look upon customer communications as more of a strategy and less like an unavoidable cost center.

Industry-leading corporations are taking an interest in how they can connect customer communications across the enterprise to overall customer satisfaction, customer retention, and expenses. This is a big shift in focus. I am glad to see customer communications becoming recognized as a critical business strategy. But migrating from where they are to a place where cross-departmental customer relationships influence message content, presentment, and timing isn't easy.

You Are Here - Finding the Start Isn't Simple
Just getting a handle on what a corporation is doing today with customer communications is a challenge. Finding the right resources that can effectively accumulate the data across departmental boundaries, understand multiple processes, and assess what it all means is tough for most corporations. There are political barriers, budgetary concerns, and territory protectionism that must be overcome.

Besides disparity in document-generating software, differences among customer communications produced by a corporation can include regulatory compliance requirements, volumes, triggers, and scheduling. Traditionally, communications tend to be focused on departmental objectives rather than aligned with an overall customer relationship plan.

Most Organizations Probably Aren't Ready
I suspect that for every company integrating their customer communications into a comprehensive business strategy there are many more corporations that see this objective as functionally and financially impossible. Implementing a sweeping comprehensive strategy all at once may be a goal that is out of reach. Their customer communications landscape is a mess.

That doesn't mean companies should give up and do nothing to integrate their communications into a customer relationship strategy. It might be done in pieces and perhaps implementation won't be completely integrated on day one. But with a strategy in place, a centralized set of resources, and formation of an internal compliance authority almost any company can make great strides.

Start Small and Build
Even small changes can make a positive impact on customer relationships. By eliminating conflicting messages to customers, which prompt them to call customer service more often, companies can raise customer satisfaction levels while simultaneously lowering call volumes. Improving breadth, accuracy, and timeliness of customer activity data can prevent generation of inappropriate offers, thereby reducing the number of customer complaints and improving the ROI of campaigns. If regulatory compliance has been a problem, then moves to standardize and re-use pre-approved legal language across multiple documents and departments can make the documents more understandable for customers and also reduce a company's exposure to violations or fines.

Most companies would be surprised to learn of all the different ways they communicate with customers. Charting all the message workflows to and from customers can fill the walls of a conference room - maybe more than one. Yet gaining an understanding of the current state is essential. Companies should assess their current status before evaluating new software, making decisions about outsourcing, or stepping up print suppression efforts. There are likely to be some easily-realized cost savings revealed by a corporate-wide customer communications assessment. Savings from applying quick-hit fixes can help secure executive support for further steps corporations can take to begin using customer communications as part of a comprehensive customer relationship strategy.

An Opportunity for Corporate Document Centers
Will this new emphasis elevate the back-office status of customer communications to a level on par with other critical business functions? That remains to be seen. There are signs that, for some companies, there is more interest in the strategic aspects of documents and customer communications than ever before.

At a time when companies are shifting their focus from high-volume, low-value documents to lower volumes with high value, corporate interest in strategic customer communications is a welcome trend. It seems that taking advantage of the technology available in document production to create and track variable messages in multiple formats is a strategy document center managers should not only adopt but actively publicize among corporate decision-makers. Perhaps with some encouragement more companies will begin to look upon their customer communications as something more than only a way to collect money or comply with regulations.

Mike Porter is President of Print/Mail Consultants, a firm that helps companies lower costs, develop future strategies, and improve quality in their document operations. Connect with Mike directly at mporter@printmailconsultants.com. Or visit www.printmailconsultants.com and sign up for Practical Stuff, a free newsletter for document print and mail professionals.

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