Signed, sealed ... delivered?

Publishers might like to moan about domestic UK postal provision, but the likelihood is that it doesn’t keep them awake at night. The same can’t always be said of the black hole that is sometimes international distribution. But things are changing. Nicola Rowe and David Robottom look at some of the measures being taken to improve quality of service in the international arena.

By Nicola Rowe

Quality of service is at the heart of international publishing distribution. You can have excellent prices and a range of discounts related to different countries, not to mention added value products such as data enhancement and returns management, but – and it’s a very large but – these things are worth very little if your magazine doesn’t turn up how, when and where you want it.

The situation is further complicated by the current economic climate. With publishers’ budgets under increasingly severe pressure, cost control and value for money are more important than ever before. Yet it is crucial to ensure that cost reduction does not have an adverse impact on quality of service performance.

As one publisher observed: “There is currently too much emphasis on the view that the lowest price is all that matters. This is the start point for some customers and then suppliers act accordingly. The snag is that with international distribution, you really do get what you pay for. The key is to strike the right balance between price and quality of service.”

Feedback from publishers highlights a number of common quality of service problems in the area of international distribution. These include no delivery for several weeks and then three or four issues arriving together; ongoing non-delivery; or copies only arriving when sent in an envelope rather than polywrapped. A further frustration seems to be difficulty in resolving these complaints, with very limited feedback and apparent lack of investigation on delivery complaints being two of the most commonly cited problems.

Whilst a good place for publishers to start is being very clear from the outset that quality of service is a top priority and taking the time to work this out with suppliers at the beginning of the relationship, this can only take you so far. Consistent quality of service reporting would be extremely useful but frustratingly there seems to be a lack of reliable data at an international level. As one publisher commented: “It is frustrating that the technology is not always available to us for international mail in the same way that it is for domestic UK mail.”

Yet all is not lost. There is an increasing number of quality of service initiatives across the globe which it is hoped ultimately, either directly or indirectly, should benefit publishers and their international magazine traffic.

The global solution

Most global quality of service initiatives stem from the Universal Postal Union (UPU) based in Switzerland. The UPU has the ability to commission global initiatives due to the financial contribution from its members who comprise all the public post office / universal service providers. Current initiatives include the development of systems to monitor international air mail quality of service and also putting in place the means for continuous testing. As quality of service improves within the participating countries, these monitoring systems will undoubtedly benefit publishing mail streams if they are using the same networks, which they often are, although the spread and range of improvement will be limited to the universal service provider (USP) or public postal operator (PPO) networks and would not include alternative operators.

Country initiatives

The UPU also enables a number of countries, particularly the developing nations, to access funds to help finance projects to improve their quality of service. Through its quality of service development fund, contributions from industrialised nations effectively finance quality of service improvements in developing nations’ postal networks. This is not some act of philanthropy, merely the realisation that improved quality of service in the postal networks of developing nations will benefit industrialised nations in their international distribution activity.

These initiatives cover a myriad of different areas designed to improve quality of service, including tracking, automation, customer needs satisfaction and standards accreditation. Publishers benefit where the initiative has a direct impact on the operation of the participating country and leads to improved quality; the country in question may become more attractive if previously the publisher was forced to use alternative networks rather than the national operator (PPO).

Network initiatives

Quality improvement is seen as the key to success for postal operators in today’s changing environment. Industrialised nations’ universal postal operators are affiliated to groups such as the International Post Corporation (IPC), which focuses on international network initiatives. At the heart of the IPC’s activity, funded through member post office contributions, is the overriding objective to improve quality of service.

One such initiative involves the sending of over 500,000 priority mail test letters each year between 43 countries, each one containing a small radio transmitter (RFID) tag. At specific reading points, the RFID tag transmits its identity, and then each reading is sent to the IPC’s system in Brussels, which tracks the progress of the test letter from sender to receiver. This system ensures that postal managers can react and identify bottlenecks and problems within the postal system.

RFID technology is slowly beginning to have an impact on mail. It’s hoped that in future this technology can be applied to other mail streams such as magazine traffic. When this happens, the management of the stream will improve dramatically, avoiding problems and smoothing mail flows.

Interestingly, the rise in popularity of the budget airlines has had a negative knock-on effect on the carrying of mail. Whilst the budget airlines have transformed the passenger business forcing established carriers to trim their costs, one result has been reduced capacity for carrying mail. Regular cargo products are usually booked in advance, but fluctuations in mail volumes can make this difficult. The IPC’s ‘Future of Mail by Air’ initiative aims to improve the visibility of mail in transport and ensure sustainability of the network for mail carried by air. There have been three pilots to launch the project:

* Development of a forecasting tool to tackle the capacity issue.

* The creation of a postal airway bill number - a reference number that enables airline cargo systems to track mail and communicate with customs for mail clearance.

* A more transparent handover procedure between postal operators and air carriers whereby airlines can now register the mail by creating an electronic date-time stamp of the handover.

It’s hoped that this initiative will give publishers improved options in the future, particularly in the area of tracking and the use of electronic date stamps, so improving delivery speed through IPC member networks.

Quality improvements through accreditation

The International Mail Distribution Accreditation Scheme (IMDAS) is a quality standard, specifically developed to test the procedures and processes of international mail distribution. Commissioned by PPA, it was designed by publishers in conjunction with the Mail Consolidators Association (MCA) and now has eleven accredited companies.

The scheme’s objective is to generate customer trust and confidence in the field of international mail distribution. For accredited companies (international mail consolidators / distributors), it can help provide a competitive advantage over non-accredited international mail consolidators / distributors and for clients it can provide added value and greater confidence and surety in the selection process. (For more information, see: www.ppa.co.uk/all-about-magazines/circulation/imdas/)

Through its Quality Committee, the MCA also works on a variety of initiatives to improve overall quality of service. Consolidators have worked in partnership with postal operators to determine the commonality, or not, of transit measurement and to harmonise a system which will ensure clients’ trust and confidence in international mail is preserved and enhanced. Since MCA members handle the majority of magazine traffic from the UK, this initiative should have a direct impact on the final quality of service for international magazine traffic.

Future benefits

Whilst the long-term picture in international distribution is a little hard to predict, what is clear is that the huge economic drives made by the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China will undoubtedly kick into gear again once we move out of the economic crisis. This presents huge market opportunities for publishers and it is essential that consolidators and distributors work within these markets to develop their logistical networks to ensure publishers can benefit from market growth with a high level of quality of service.

Quality issues for publishers

Publishers are constantly striving to improve the quality of service of their international distribution. Within this focus there are many issues linked to quality of service performance:

* Data quality. Correct address formatting is essential. Incorrect formatting has always been a concern, but automation in countries like the US and Europe has amplified the problem. Mail is even more likely to be rejected by an automatic sorter if the address does not contain the correct information or right postcodes. Even those that are partly right could incur delay by having to go through an additional sortation process. A useful guide can be found at www.worldvu.com

* Production. It is essential the production process works smoothly and avoids any delays which could have a knock-on effect on final delivery. Any discrepancy notification should be immediate with swift resolution.

* Reporting. Discrepancy reports from postal operators should be encouraged and engaged to ensure minimal impact in final delivery.

* Transparency. Transparency of services should be actively encouraged and should be the norm. Publishers should request a matrix of route options and changes on a regular basis, thereby benefiting from any route and service improvements.

* Complaints handling. All customer complaints should be documented and dealt with effectively. Such customer complaints may help in identifying problem delivery areas, so rectification will lead to subsequent delivery improvement.

* Contingency. Contingency plans must be in place by the client’s supplier / consolidator to ensure any disaster can be dealt with quickly, causing minimal delay to the client’s final delivery target.