Oh, sure, maybe 10 years ago, "Where'd my package go?" would have been a legitimate question to ask any of the overnight express carriers. But it's the 21st century and the express carriers have sophisticated tracking and tracing systems that can pinpoint your package's every move and location, practically right down to where the package sits on the courier's van. But even after their ninety-nine-point-blah-blah-percent delivery success rate, what they can't tell you, is where your package is after the courier has delivered it.


A typical morning in a company mail center probably goes something like this: A delivery service van pulls up. On it are packages of varying sizes, from small, flat letters to cardboard boxes destined for workers at your place of business. The delivery driver, in usual fashion, is on the move, so she scans these packages with a scanner that is either pulled from a holster on her belt or built into her clipboard. You count the packages, confer with her on the total, sign your name and say goodbye.


At this point, your mail center may operate in one or a combination of processes. You may have the type of operation that employs internal mail workers using carts to deliver packages. Or instead of you taking the packages to them, they may come to you, so you simply sort the packages into mail slots or bins, call the recipients and then await their arrivals. Or maybe the packages merely sit on a table until the recipient comes inquiring.


The bottom line is that you now have packages that people are eventually going to ask about. You know the importance of keeping track of packages that arrive, so what method will you employ to record those packages? It is not uncommon in most mail centers to reach for your three-ring binder filled with logs, turn to a fresh log page, write the date at the top and begin the process of recording the tracking number and maybe even the carrier, sender name, recipient name, recipient department and/or any other information deemed necessary for the sake of thoroughness and accountability. When a recipient receives a package, you may have them sign the line corresponding to the package record in the log book.


At the end of the fiscal year, you take the contents of the binder and walk to the storage box marked "2005-present" and insert the 250 (business days) or so pages in the front. These boxes (otherwise known as "fire hazards") are kept in storage for seven years or however long you determine it takes for someone in your company to realize they never received their package.


With automation being a necessary component of most administrative operations, from payroll to accounting, doing things the old-fashioned way is becoming less fashionable or acceptable. Many mail centers are now equipped with computers some even provided by express carriers wanting their outbound shipping business (although the trend is for express carriers  to fund the initial purchase of a computer loaded with their shipping software as long as the customer maintains it). With mail centers now provided with the tools, they are ripe for a little automation of their own.


There are at least two requirements with regard to processing inbound packages electronically that are common The ability to create and print a delivery manifest and other hard copy reports and the ability to store, manipulate and retrieve data electronically regarding inbound packages.


Customization is also an important feature. Since no two mail centers are alike, no two mail centers have the same needs. An operation should be able to determine how they want to control the storage of data, not only in what form but also for what duration. And being able to use the data outside the software program in spreadsheets and databases gives the mail center operation more flexibility. Buying an expensive off-the-shelf inbound processing software package is risky. If it is without the ability to customize and lack report options, you'll be settling for something short of ideal.


With automation in place, a mail center worker should be able to select carriers and other stored information from drop-down lists. He could key in how little or how much is needed to accurately account for the package. And with the addition of a barcode scanner, the worker could scan the barcode and the automation would date- and time-stamp the record into storage. Not only is the date important, but the time a package is recorded is becoming ever more important to an efficient operation. Once all packages are recorded, a few clicks of a mouse should provide the ability to print a delivery manifest and/or reports.


There are surprisingly few tools available today to accomplish this task. Certainly, there are few tools that are standalone software packages. Instead, the expensive total solutions providers focus primarily on the outbound shipment and seem to throw in, as an afterthought, an inbound manifesting add-on that may not meet the needs of your particular mail center operation and has little or no customization offered unless you're willing to pay for it.


Automating your inbound receiving operation by recording and storing your data electronically can enhance your image as a viable component of your company's operation. It can improve the look and feel of your mail center, make your operation more efficient and save paper in the process.


Robert Chapman is a software engineer and founder of Pageant Software. Email at president@pageantsoftware.com. Visit www.pageantsoftware.com.