Many factors go into a successful mailing strategy, but none more important than address accuracy and quality. Returned mail means money wasted and opportunities missed.
If your company experiences higher-than-anticipated
volumes of return mail, you are spending more than necessary to deliver the mailpiece to the recipient. As any quality-improvement program would direct, you must look for a way to correct the problem at the front end of the process, before mail enters the mail stream.
Consider this: a one percent return-mail rate for a high-volume transactional output (HVTO) mailer sending 10 million pieces per month means 100,000 pieces that must be
handled, researched, reprinted and mailed a second time.
The big hitters in most document production center expense budgets are postage, labor, supplies, equipment and maintenance costs. Madison Advisors’ industry research shows that postage can be as much as 66% of an annual transactional document production budget.
There are many reasons that cause the USPS to return mail. A few of the most frequent (and potentially preventable) are:
1. Insufficient address
2. Not deliverable as addressed
3. Moved, no forwarding address
4. Forward expired
5. No such street/number
Industry reports indicate that it costs the USPS as much as $2 billion per year to correct return mail. Considering the postal rate increase this year and the proposed rate case for next year, the more mailers can do to reduce return mail, the more they can ease pressure on the USPS and their own budgets.
Postmaster General Jack Potter has called for a 50% reduction in undeliverable-as-addressed (UAA) mail by 2010. That challenge to the USPS last fall spurred the Mailers Technical Advisory Committee (MTAC) to form Workgroup 97, which has conducted a study on address quality methodologies. The report is due out in the second quarter of 2006 and will contain recommended best practices for addressing quality.
Within a organization, departments may have disparate definitions of what constitutes a successful mail strategy. A marketing department may have a very focused mail strategy intended to deliver a 20% sales increase to a targeted product in 90 days — whereas in an HVTO document production department, the strategy may be more broad, highlighted by efforts to contain total production costs, reduce errors and maintain quality standards. Toward this end, there are software products designed to help your organization create the infrastructure of an addressing process.
Most HVTO First-Class document mailers are already using a Coding Accuracy Support System (CASS)-certified software product to improve address preparation for presort and USPS handling. A software product that has been CASS-certified by the USPS will improve the accuracy of addresses by improving the carrier route, five-digit ZIP, ZIP+4 and delivery point barcode match to the address. The CASS-certified products also take the address provided by your address database and correct or “scrub” the address to meet USPS standards and provide the required USPS Form 3553, the CASS Summary Report, which is required when submitting automated (barcoded) or carrier route mailings. You have the ability to determine if you allow the software to overwrite the address in your database.
If you use a CASS product, you are also almost certainly presorting using a Presort and Accuracy, Validation and Evaluation (PAVE)-certified product on mailings that do not require co-mingling. The USPS certifies presort software to determine its accuracy in sorting address files to its standards. Using a PAVE-certified product allows you
to print your documents in presort qualification order.
By using CASS- and PAVE-certified software, addresses are cleaned or “scrubbed,” ZIP and ZIP +4 codes are properly matched to your addresses and you are qualified to receive major postage discounts. The more deliverable the address is made, the fewer rework-associated costs (e.g., postage, labor, supplies) your organization will incur. Additionally, preparing mail properly can lessen the workload on your customer-service representatives by reducing call volumes. And if you are mailing corporate statements, your cash flow should benefit from prompt delivery.
Ensuring Accurate Addresses
Using CASS- and PAVE-certified software are two important steps in the addressing process, but there are other products you can consider that will help ensure your mail is deliverable as addressed. For example, the USPS approves many solutions that can help you ensure address accuracy and deliverability. Let’s look at a few.
When you run your addresses against a CASS-certified product, you expect to come up with the correct five-digit ZIP, ZIP+4 or delivery point barcode match to your address. If you allowed the software to update address fields, you should have corrected any errors. But what if the address doesn’t exist?
The USPS maintains a database of more than 145 million confirmed mail delivery points in the US. It licenses Delivery Point Validation (DPV) software to run against its database to determine if your addresses are valid as deliverable addresses. DPV intakes CASS-certified addresses with a ZIP+4 and determines if it is a confirmed delivery point. There are several CASS products on the market that provide DPV as a feature. If your customer-service representatives can run new addresses through a CASS product with DPV at the entry point in your corporate system, you can avoid problems later on in the process and reduce UAA mail.
The US continues to be an extremely mobile population. It is estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau that more than 40 million Americans move every year. That number poses a formidable challenge for mailers to keep address lists current.
The USPS licenses software products to access its National Change of Address (NCOA) database. The NCOALink process searches for names of individuals and family groups using addresses run through a CASS process, identifying who has moved and filed a change of address with the USPS during the last 18 months. Confirmed moves are provided with updated standardized addresses. Software licensed to access NCOALink can help reduce undeliverable mail and unnecessary expenses. ·
Recently, an enhancement to the NCOALink product Address Not Known or ANKLink was announced by the USPS. ANKLink searches beyond the 18-month NCOA (up to 48 months) and will indicate if there is a probability that a move occurred, allowing you to make informed decisions about how to handle an address or account. The USPS estimates Attempted Not Known or Forward Order Expired delivery error categories. ANKLink can play a major role in reducing your UAA mail.
Another USPS product to help you with address quality is Address Element Correction (AEC). When CASS cannot match an address to a ZIP+4, AEC corrects and standardizes address elements such as nonstandard abbreviations, incorrectly ordered element fields, misspellings, etc. Addresses that require further correction can be run through AEC II, which requests upgrades from the local delivery unit.
The Future of Address Accuracy
Address blocks are congested with up to five lines of address information, Postnet codes, PLANET codes, correction codes and sometimes, an endorsement line. Mailers are simply running out of space in which to present all the required information in addition to a standardized, quality address. To overcome these challenges, the USPS has worked with the mailing community (both software providers and mailers) to develop a new solution as part of the Intelligent Mail initiative to create data-rich, machine-readable mail that is unique and trackable.
As part of the Intelligent Mail initiative, the USPS has developed the OneCode Vision or four-state barcode. This is a barcode that can contain up to three times as much data as the Postnet barcode used today. How? The barcode features vertical bars of four different heights that combine sorting and tracking information (including Certified Mail and Registered Mail requirements) in one barcode; an initial round of live testing revealed that this new code can be printed by many of the production printers now in the field. Innovations, such as OneVision, that can place more control data in less space are part of the future of addressing quality.
Among the many issues that disrupt the ability to resolve address quality, one important factor stands out as a major unresolved issue: address field standardization. Although the USPS provides standards for address field lengths, many mailers are unable to adhere to them due to internal system constraints. USPS Publication 28 creates a standard for addresses, but many mailers have legacy systems with non-standard, usually shorter, field definitions.
When mailers are unable to create standardized addresses as recommended by their CASS-certified product, they have to use non-standard abbreviations instead. This is an important issue at the heart of addressing quality. Mailers, software providers as well as the USPS need to work together to establish standards for field length that can help reduce UAA. The result will be a benefit to the entire mailing community.
Getting Started with an Address Quality Program
With a major portion of your expense budget at stake, improving address quality should be an important part of your overall mailing strategy. Your strategy must look at address quality improvement both as a means of postage cost-containment and as a customer-communications priority.
Confused about where to begin? First, appoint someone in your organization as your address quality manager. This person will be responsible for analyzing your current process, reviewing your metrics and developing strategies for improvement. The second step is to educate your address quality manager to ensure he or she understands your internal addressing process and your postage budget expenses and is prepared to analyze your strategy.
The USPS Internet site, local postal customer council (PCC) meetings and training offered by the local USPS are all valuable educational resources not only for the address quality manager, but for others in your organization who are involved in mailing processes. The Annual Postal Service National Postal Forum offers excellent training seminars, workshops and symposiums on addressing quality and standards.
Stephen Watters is a principal analyst with Madison Advisors. He specializes in transactional print and mail production environments. For more information, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.madison-advisors.com.