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May 8 2012 11:03 AM

I hate Kool Aid. Always have. I do not wear rose colored glasses either. I know from experience, and years of observation, that with every pat on the head the USPS hands out they deliver two kicks in the you-know-what. I'm not looking for that kind of recognition! That said I support the USPS's effort to require our software vendors to be mail.dat compliant for PAVE certification, and soon. I have wanted to provide electronic documentation to the Postal Service for many years. The USPS, and the direct mail industry, has been working on electronic documentation since the National Postal Forum was last held at the Washington Hilton in the mid 80's, and as a very young boy I was a fan even then.

What I have been looking for over the years is a reasonable process of delivering electronic documentation to the USPS that is compatible with my company's operations. My wish list is a system that allows me to push a button on my presort software and upload whatever documentation the USPS wants for mail acceptance. I want the process to be as seamless as producing paper documentation.

I do not know who is doing what, who has advocated for what, or which party (the industry or USPS employees) is the impediment to customers easily providing full service documentation to the Postal Service, but these impediments have to be eliminated. What I do know is that this simple task currently requires the purchase of complex and expensive software (that is absolutely not necessary in my operation) or the re-keying of my paper documentation into the postal wizard.

While complaining to postal management last year, they asked what it would take for me to go full service. I again told them that I wanted push button functionality and no mail.dat editing requirements. They asked if I would be part of their team (certainly a big pat on the head) to streamline the mail.dat acceptance process. I cannot complain and then be unwilling to help, so I said yes.

The requirement to edit our mail.dat file during TEMs testing was waived and we were asked to critique the TEMs program as we progressed through the process. What we found was surprising. Most of the problems in passing TEMs were the result of our software being unable to place data it collected in the proper positions in a mail.dat file. We, of course, also found the typical bureaucratic impediments to successfully completing TEMs such as instructions to follow links that were not there and an 83 page check list to be reviewed before starting the process.

I was shocked, dismayed, and a little ticked off that not only my software (from a company whose software we have used since 1985), but its biggest competitors' software could not populate the header information correctly. Our first few attempts at testing found that neither software package put the CRID information in the proper slot. CAPs information for Periodicals testing was also not slotted correctly by one of the packages. The other package asked for the address of the mail owner and put the mail owner's zip code into the mail.dat position that required the entry facility's zip code. This same package asked for the date of mailing and stated very specifically which date format to use; unfortunately it was the wrong format. And on and on and on!

We spent a month getting TEMs approval for 1st, Periodicals, and Standard Mail. We have never completed a full service mailing since. With all the necessary tweaks to force our software to place information into the right mail.dat boxes we knew we could never duplicate the process on live mail. The reason we are not a full service shop today is that our software does not produce an acceptable mail.dat file. It is long past time for the USPS to mandate this functionality!

As I said earlier, with a pat on the head comes a kick in the butt. I have already lost several customers to the new on-line small business postal tool (IMsB) introduced at the last forum. We provided NCOA, list sortation, printed labels, printed tray tags and the necessary documentation so these customers could apply labels to their printing and produce mailings in house. The USPS will soon provide all this functionality and full service discounts to them for free! I have always found it difficult to compete with free. But what the hey, according to postal management the IMsB tool was designed for use by only very small customers. Postal management stated many, many times at the Postal Forum that no one in our industry wants to provide services to mailers mailing less than 10,000 pieces anyway.

So yes, I will leverage (use) the USPS to require vendors to provide the necessary functionality for my business to continue making mailings. The vendors are unwilling to do it on their own. At the same time I am willing to p!$$ off these vendors by rubbing their noses in the fact that the USPS is providing competing software services (the new IMsB small business tool) for free. I will do whatever it takes to get our industry to band together and keep the USPS from providing any mail preparation or software services, for free or otherwise. Software and other vendors have more contacts and leverage with postal brass than I do, and being quiet and passive certainly has not been effective!

I'm a little guy. I don't have a lot of money, and I cannot bring a big corporation's power and influence to bear on postal decision makers to protect my company. What I do have is a belief that there are thousands of mail service providers (like you) that do not want to compete with the USPS! Our software vendors are all lining up to get a big lucrative postal contract that will allow the USPS provide NCOA, postal presort, and full service documentation (before it's available to us) to our customers. And as anyone working in an ivory tower knows, little guys can't do anything to stop the assault on our businesses from the collaboration of our vendors with the USPS.
But, what if the winner of this postal software contract lost most of their small business customers? What if small MSPs sent a very clear message that working with the USPS to provide free services to our customers is unacceptable in any form. Either we all hang together or we will surely hang alone, is as true today as it was during the revolution. Our industry must work together to prevent unfair postal competition.

Todd Butler, Butler Mailing Services, eKEY Technologies can be reached at 513.870.5060, or  Making postal delivery, an interactive, multimedia experience!