Maybe you are new to the direct mail production management game.  Perhaps you’ve relied on a third party to manage your production process up to this point.  Or maybe, you’ve decided it’s time to see what other options are out there.  The process of evaluating and selecting new direct mail production suppliers can be a daunting task.  Get it right and you can save yourself a boatload of stress and aggravation, improve the quality of your direct mail offerings, find efficiencies and ideally, improve response rates!  But get it wrong and you may find yourself questioning your life choices.

Whether you are looking at an offset supplier, a digital imaging vendor, a lettershop, or suppliers that can offer multiple services under one roof, the amount of information that you’ll have to sift through can be staggering.  Making things worse, if you do not come from the print and/or mail production universe, the language spoken may as well be Martian.

How then do you see the forest through the trees and make a decision that won’t keep you up at night second-guessing your choice?  Here are a few helpful tips that will hopefully let you sleep comfortably at night.

Prepare your search criteria

As with most things, thorough preparation at the beginning of the process makes for a much smoother experience down the road. Determine the specification criteria you will use to evaluate prospective vendors based on the products you already have a baseline for.

Separate the offset print specifications from the laser and lettershop criteria.  Compare apples to apples with a good idea of what an apple should look like.

Also, do some research among your peers to see what suppliers they are using.  Are they happy with the supplier?  Why?

Local suppliers will usually result in lower costs overall, but if your local supplier pool is small, work your way out to arrive at a manageable number of suppliers to evaluate.

Treat the evaluation as if it is a job in progress

Approach the evaluations as you would a production process.  Each organization has their own way of doing things and yours is no different.  If you have to fundamentally alter the way you do things to work with a vendor, then that vendor is probably not a great fit.

Send the specifications as you normally would.  Provide instructions, samples, mock-ups or artwork files as you would for a normal production job.  This is where the evaluation process starts, not when they respond to your RFQ with their quote.

Do they respond in a manner that works for you?  Is their communication professional and efficient?  Do they ask questions that are valid?  Asking for clarification about your specifications is not in itself a red flag.  Rather, are they asking you questions about things that are included in your specifications or things that don’t have any bearing on what you’re asking them to quote on?  Does one vendor not ask the question that all the others are?

When you receive the RFQ response, compare them to your baseline.  Are some quotes out to lunch?  A quote that is drastically different than the rest is a good indication that the specifications were not properly understood.

When you have considered all of these factors including the quote, prepare your shortlist.

What you see is what you get

Once you have arrived at your shortlist, do on-site visits.  Go for a tour.  Take some co-workers with you.  Make it a road trip.  See the equipment and meet the people that you might have working on your mailing.  There’s no need to be well-versed in the detailed equipment specifications.  The sales person taking you on the tour will gladly tell you all those details.  Don’t worry if you understand or absorb them all.  Let your eyes inform you.

Is it a clean, well-organized shop or does it look like your mailing could get lost in the chaos?  Is there overflow capacity beyond the minimum equipment required to run your job?  Furthermore, do the production floor employees look like they want to be there?  Trust your instincts and intuition.  If it does not seem like a happy place, then it probably isn’t and we all know that a happy employee is more likely to go the extra mile than an unhappy one.  Sooner or later, given Murphy and his laws, you are going to need an employee or employees of your production partners to go that extra mile for you.

Finally, meet the people that you’d be interacting with on a daily basis.  The CSC, CSR, Production Coordinator – or whatever they are called at that particular shop.  Get an idea of how they work and communicate.  Do you feel comfortable with this person?  Are they someone you can work with easily or do you see potential communication issues?  Meet their boss.  Find out who is on the escalation chain so that you have a clear idea of the accountability within their organization.  When an issue arises, is it going to take five people to figure out how to solve your problem or two?  Do you feel confident in the escalation chain to efficiently arrive at a solution that will serve your needs – not just theirs?

Trust your gut

Finally, remember that your time and sanity is an important evaluation metric.  So if you don’t feel right with the choices available to you, don’t be afraid to widen your search.  If you do find the one that checks enough boxes for you to feel comfortable, do some trial production runs to be sure that they are the one.

Trust in your production partner is invaluable.  As in any relationship, that trust must be earned!