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Familiarity is key in choice between bureaux and DIY processing

Data processing packages are increasingly available, but it is worth considering the advantages of outsourcing your data processing to a specialist, writes Steve May, data consultant at Occam.

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Many packaged data processing products are coming on to the market, including those that are accessed exclusively via the internet. There are arguably some tangible benefits to these products, otherwise there very clearly wouldn't be a market for them in the first place. Indeed, in many ways they are user friendly, allowing non-specialists to offer customers a basic level of data processing.

This will obviously appeal to certain service providers within the direct marketing industry such as printers and mailing houses but also some direct marketing agencies as well. This is largely because being able to process data obviously extends the range of products that a given company can offer its clients without having to outsource to a bureau. However, it is certainly worth considering the advantages of getting your data processed by a data bureau, which is manned by real people.

Data processing is a service that requires both specialist skills and relevant experience gained from hands-on data manipulation over many years. This principle is arguably also true for other niche areas such as creative, printing or fulfilment. Indeed, can you imagine placing your creative work with a specialist data processing bureau that went out and bought themselves a Mac and Photoshop?

When using a bureau you know that your data is in safe hands because the people processing your data will be doing the same specific job every day, all day. They will know the best way to approach a complicated or intricate data processing brief and it's also likely that any challenges encountered with your data will have been seen before and a solution will be obvious.

At the same time, the programmer will also spend a lot of time "eyeballing" the data while they are working with it. This constant scrutiny ensures feedback to both the data owner (if required) and also the processing systems themselves thus benefiting the in-house systems of the data processing bureau.

Data is such a key part of any direct marketing campaign that it really needs to be handled professionally and with real care. As we all know, data is processed to allow quality records to be separated from poorer quality names and addresses.

Furthermore, processed data allows the detection of duplicates and suppression matches and drives the split into mailing cells. More than this, data builds the resulting address block that delivers your clients message and generates the salutation that greets the mailing recipient.

It does not make much sense to place such a task with a non-specialist data processing bureau perhaps using packaged data processing software which they have yet to get fully to grips with.

Another key service benefit of a typical specialist data processing bureau is that it will take raw PAF data directly from Royal Mail and develop in-house systems to match, validate and enhance client-supplied address data. Such bureaux will work with a large variety of UK commercial and charity organisations and so have worked with all kinds of variations within client data.

A good quality data processing bureau will also have extensive lookup tables to help the processing of name and address client data. These lookup tables will help the data processing systems correctly elementise each string of data, for example allowing data such as "Radstock Male Voice Choir" to be identified and classified as relating to an organisation or phrases such as "Not completed" to indicate that a record is not fit for mailing.
 
A specialist data processing bureau should also have a team of developers and system administrators who are continually adding to the functionality and accuracy of their own in-house systems via a system testing process. Such systems are in effect the "crown jewels" of any specialist data processing bureau and should never be neglected. 

It is interesting to note that most specialist data processing bureaus do not package and sell their data processing system as packaged software -- these systems are the product of many years of processing data and are deemed too crucial to their core business to be "sold off". In addition, to get the best from such systems requires extensive direct user experience. This is something that can't simply be packaged in a box.

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