This article appears in the Fall 2017 digital issue of DOCUMENT Strategy. Subscribe.

Image by: Ryan McVay, ©2017 Getty Images

We have all been busy over the last few years improving design, simplifying content, and setting standards to make it easier for customers to understand the business correspondence that they receive. Across the industry, we are also seeing a convergence of companies organizing around the customer, while technology advances are merging print shops with digital services to provide a wide range of communication tools. That’s why now is the ideal time to re-focus on building comprehensive document inventories and re-structuring your data to make it easier to search and update the critical information you will need.

Inventory management may sound simple, but the reality is more complex. Today, businesses can have multiple administrative and document management systems, numerous repositories, gold copies with varying degrees of version control, separate product lines, and one-off processes—just to name a few. These factors make it difficult to gain a holistic view of what is being sent out to customers and to capture and track cross-channel delivery. By effectively managing your document inventory, you will be able to create consistent messaging using reliable systems and repeatable processes. So, how do you get started?

Step 1: Dust Off Your Last Inventory List, and Take a Close Look.

How is it organized? Does it include the source system and delivery method? What about those hidden manual inventories? Don’t deny it; they’re out there. Yes, I’m talking about those non-document management and legacy systems, workaround databases, and outdated mail merges that send out letters and notices.

Once you collect and validate the packages that are being generated from all sources, you’ll need to add and track emails, texts, and website visits so you have a broader, customer-centric perspective. Your complete list should include everything from print locations to envelope size, along with document samples so you can ensure your content is consistent across all channels.

Step 2: Examine Your Newly Created, All-Inclusive Inventory.

Is it easy to determine and recognize what documents are listed, or do you need a decoder ring? This is where it all comes back to the metadata. Here’s a hint on how to get the organization to rally around cleaning up your metadata: Don’t call it metadata (have you noticed people’s eyes glazing over when you say the word?). Instead, get the team excited about being able to quickly search and easily locate their key documents in seconds.

One way to help simplify your naming conventions is to conduct user testing with different internal teams that need to obtain documents. Through focus groups or surveys, you can determine what keyword searches are being used. You should also pull metrics from your digital platforms, including internal and external systems and sites, to see how users are searching for forms online. All of this feedback can then be used to structure your data for quick and easy retrieval.

Think of metadata as your GPS to help find and focus on both your internal and external customer communication needs.

Step 3: Repeat Steps One and Two Often.

They are never complete, and that’s okay. Inventories and metadata should be reviewed and updated regularly as part of your continuous improvement disciplines. Get rid of outdated documents, and consolidate, update, and create new tags regularly so that metadata can be easily changed. Your classifications should reflect the company’s organizational structure so any branding, product, or legal name changes can be identified and altered seamlessly.

Once you have a clear picture of what’s in your inventory and how to find it, it’s much easier to start evaluating and consolidating delivery methods, preferences, and truly moving to an exceptional customer journey. People don’t want “all digital,” “all phone,” or “all paper.” What they want is exceptional service and choice. So, if you can actively manage and instantly find your communications inventory, you’ll not only be more efficient but also well on your way to deliver a simplified customer experience.

Nancy Green is part of the US Customer Communication group at MetLife and serves on the Advisory Board of the DOCUMENT Strategy Forum (DSF). For more information, visit