How to Evaluate a Service Bureau

by Stephen Lett

Evaluating a service bureau is a difficult task. Comparing one service bureau with another is even more challenging. Do you compare pricing, services, products?  We say, compare everything!  Just as pricing on processing is important, the postage discounts will equally affect your bottom line.  It is important to choose a stable company, as well as a company that takes risks to improve their product line and technologies to assist their clients.  The following will help provide a basic checklist of what to look for when choosing a service bureau.

One of the first items that every company is interested in is price.  It is not only important to look at the actual costs, but you must also factor in the postage discounts and the response rates for having your mailings reach the intended person.  When we obtain price quotes for our clients, our first order of business is to request that the various service bureaus submit their quotation in our format.  This enables us to compare prices fairly and consistently from one service bureau to another.  For this purpose, we have developed a pricing template, shown on the next page, which we ask every service bureau to follow when requesting a price quotation.  This may help to understand if there is any additional pricing that might arise which they are not currently including, or, if a particular line item has been excluded from our price comparison. By using this template, we price an actual project and prepare a Proforma invoice on a line item basis.  As you can see, the template provides the necessary detail needed to compare service bureau pricing.  One thing to remember is that most service bureaus will quote pricing based on the volume that you will be processing with them.  Typically, any mailing fewer than 500,000 records per month will be considered on the smaller end.  If you are one of these businesses, you will want to consider a smaller service bureau.  They are usually more willing to negotiate pricing to close the deal.

Once you have narrowed down your prospective service bureau based on the processing cost, we suggest running an exact test with the one or two firms you are considering, using actual files (not to be mailed, only tested).  The backend costs are just as important as the processing costs.  Depending on the service bureau's convert process, hygiene packages, and merge logic, the results from one service bureau to another can be quite different. The CASS certification is important for the postal discounts.  The more records that are coded, the better the postage discounts.  We also recommend running NCOA as often as possible.   If one of your best customers moves frequently, it is important that you are still able to get your mailing to them.   Although NCOA has strict match logic, you will still be able to improve your response rate if at least 5% of your file is corrected by NCOA.  There are additional hygiene products, such as LACS, DSF(2), and proprietary hygiene products which should also be considered.  These are different from one service bureau to another.  Since many service bureaus will charge these products per hit, you will find the greatest benefits of running these products if you are able to make the corrections to your house file.  This will lower the probability of paying for the same changes on the same records.  When running the test, ask for the same data (such as the zip+4 corrections or the NCOA changes) so that you can easily compare which service bureau is correcting more records.  In respect to pricing, the merge/purge logic is also critical so that you are not “over” or “under” killing.   If the service bureau does not catch enough duplicates, then you are paying to put extra catalogs into the mail.  If the service bureau is over combining records, then you are not mailing either to existing customers or rented customers, and therefore losing out on potential revenue.

In addition, review your own business rules and how you would like to mail.  When running the test, ask to see “dupe galleys” from each service bureau after the merge.   Do the dupes they're providing look like they fit your business rules of duplication?  If not, ask to see if there are options to tweak their merge logic so that you are satisfied with the results.  What other logic can be incorporated into the merge to match your own business rules?

What other products are available at each service bureau?  A service bureau should be dedicated to changing with the current technology and offering advanced services and products which will set your mailings apart from your competitors.  If you mail internationally, be sure that you inquire about their international products.  If you send out E-mail promotions, be sure that they have the capabilities of assisting you, if desired.  Other perks would be data enhancement capabilities, analytical services, and consulting.

Ask questions about the company.  It is important to find a stable company with stable employees.  If your contacts are always switching, not only does this require more of your time to explain your mailing to another person, they also won’t be in a position to consult you on your processing and suggest new ideas until they are finished learning exactly what it is that you do.  It is also necessary to find out what quality control procedures they enforce.  Do they provide you with enough reports that are easily understood so that you can also check the processing?  Are the Customer Service Representatives required to use checklists while checking the processing?  A single error can cause your company thousands of dollars.  What will the service bureau do for you if there is an error?  If the correct quality control procedures are not in place, you will want to stay away from that service bureau.

In order to find the right service bureau for you, it is important that you ask the right questions. We have developed this handy checklist which you can use when evaluating service bureaus. Although this covers some of the more important areas of concern, it is necessary for you to determine which aspects are most important to you and focus on those items:

SERVICE BUREAU CHECKLIST

Processing

Pricing:

    • How does the pricing compare amongst various service bureaus (use the template)?

Software Packages:

    • How well do they code records and catch dupes?
    • Do they outsource any services to other vendors?
    • How do these processes affect timing, postage discounts, and response rates?

Flexibility of the Merge:

    • Can they suppress using various levels of matching logic?
    • Can they change list priorities without having to rework the input into the merge?
    • Can the service bureau retain records with contact names over than those without regardless of their priority in the merge (in a business-to-business merge)?
    • Can additional logic be added into the merge?
    • Can you choose how strict or loose you want the merge to match?
    • Can they family group their lists to prevent false multis?

Customer Service:

    • Will there be a dedicated person assigned to the account?
    • How willing is the service bureau to change the dedicated person at your request?
    • Do your contacts at the service bureau provide you with updates on new products and suggestions on how you can improve your processing?
    • Do they show an interest in learning your business and partnering with you rather than just processing your account?
    • What is the average number of years an employee remains with the firm? 
    • How often will the Customer Service Representative change?

Quality Control:

    • What checks do they have in place?
    • How do they handle any errors that might occur?
    • What data do they provide to you so that you can also check the work accurately?

Schedules:

    • How long will it take to complete a project? 
    • Is there any flexibility with schedules?
    • Are there any fees charged due to a tight schedule?

Other Services:

    • Email?
    • Data?
    • Analytics?
    • International processing? 
    • Consulting?

Databases:

    • What platform will it be built?
    • What are all of the costs of development and maintenance?
    • How long does it take to ‘build’ you database (whether flat or relational)?
    • Will there be easy access to data?
    • How often can it be updated?

List Rental Fulfillment:

    • Are there limitations on the number of fields that can be maintained on a list rental file?
    • Is the turnaround time more than one business day?
    • Are there web-enabled database tools to allow you to submit Change of Addresses, Do Not Mail and Do Not Rent records and related requests remotely?

Reports:

    • Are there standard reports that are easy to understand?
    • Can they be obtained electronically or via the Internet?
    • For Business-to-Business processing, can they create penetration reports to show unique and total penetration into any one company?

Contact Person:

    • Is there a contact person to discuss opportunities and complaints when needed?

Testing:

    • Did you run duplicate tests amongst several service bureaus?
    • How did the pricing compare to the overall savings?

The Company

Stability:

    • How many years has the company been in business?
    • Are they stable and financially solid?
    • Do they have a nice balance of large and small accounts (not only does this determine stability, but it is important to make sure that the service bureau is a good ‘fit’ for you)?

Disaster Recovery:

    • A must!  What is their plan and procedure if a disaster does occur?
    • Will you be able to recover your data if the service bureau maintains your database?
    • Will mailing still be able to be processed and mailed?

Clients:

    • How long have their clients been with them?
    • Do they have much client turnover?
    • Will they provide references for you to contact?

New Products:

    • Are they dedicated to developing new products and services to continue to help your company grow?
    • Do they have all the products and services that you require?
    • Are they technically advances to keep you ahead of your competitors?
    • Are new products and services communicated to you immediately and in detail?

Selecting a service bureau is an important and critical decision. Be sure to consider all of the factors we have mentioned in this article. Most importantly, be sure you like and trust the people. After all, they hold the company jewels, your house file. Of course the pricing must be competitive however, other selection critical must be used and considered in order to make your final decision.