Think about your company mail center operations in terms of football strategy, with the object of delivering the ball, or mail, to the goal post or, in our case, to the right addressee as economically as possible. It's not easy. The field is fraught with obstacles: invalid addresses, improper mail sorting, rising postal costs, changing regulations, and more - all of which translate into higher costs that hit the bottom line of the ledger sheet. The good news is that today's sophisticated technology and solutions can ease the pain of putting together a successful mailroom game plan. Consider these power plays designed to tackle a variety of mail center issues.

Evaluate Address Cleansing Services

The U.S. Postal Services (USPS) is keenly aware of the problems resulting from poor address quality and has created a host of services - such as CASS (Coding Accuracy Support System), ACS (Address Change Service), etc. - to help companies expedite mail handling by ensuring that postal addresses are correct. Integrating these USPS offerings into a mail center operation is challenging, and many mailers are looking to third-party vendors to help them establish new systems and processes to take their operations to the next level as cost-effectively and efficiently as possible.

As an example, the USPS requires mailers taking automation discounts on postage to adhere to its CASS certification program. CASS products evaluate if addresses are valid and deliverable by using sophisticated matching algorithms to look up each address in USPS address libraries. When found, standardized values and small corrections can be returned from the USPS in order to enhance the quality and deliverability of the address.
Advanced address quality and cleansing software on the market enables mailers to be notified in real time of invalid addresses. A solution utilizing this software has the ability to suppress the undeliverable pieces of mail, print them as originally addressed, or print them with an updated address.

Address cleansing can translate into huge savings for high-volume mailers leveraging first-class delivery. Imagine a mailer with 200,000 addresses in its database. Not all the addresses will be accurate at any given point in time. A percentage will be returned, wasting time and money. Not only will extra postage be required for resending the piece of mail, but somebody will have to open the mailpiece and figure out what to do with it.

In another scenario of a lack of address quality assurance, a mailer could incur penalties for failing to deliver a valuable piece of correspondence - tax notices and insurance termination notices, for example.

Explore Postal Optimization Solutions and Services
Postal Optimization is all about minimizing postage expense. The USPS offers postage discounts to mailers who produce mailings that conform to USPS requirements for address accuracy, physical mail preparation, and are presented with valid, accurate documentation. Third-party software, combined with CASS, is one option for sorting the pieces into a ZIP Code-ordered mailing that organizes the mail into trays and pallets, and generates the accompanying physical and electronic documentation necessary for the USPS to automate the handling of the mailing.

The steepest USPS discounts are based on volumes of mailpieces going to individual ZIP Codes. Typically, print and mail operations receive output files from disparate sources, created independently, without regard to production efficiencies. Indexing the individual mailpieces out of those files and intelligently recombining them into larger and/or more efficient jobs for production and mailing are made more manageable with postal optimization services. The ability to selectively pool more mailpieces into a single job that can be run through the third-party sort software significantly increases the opportunity to achieve the ZIP Code densities that yield the optimal savings.

So what does this mean for mailers? Well, here's an example: For the average mailer, a one-ounce, first-class letter requires 46 cents worth of postage. Fully discounted by tapping into the USPS' discount offerings, the rate drops to 36 cents. If a mailer sends out six million statements a day at the rate of 36 cents versus 46 cents, that mailer has the opportunity to save $600,000. Even for a mailer getting discounts from a Presort Vendor, the savings opportunity would still be significant.

However, should an organization submit mail to the USPS with poor address quality or mail that does not conform to automation standards, the USPS can rescind the sender's discount privileges. Postal optimization solutions should provide mailers with optimal savings, and the third party that implements the solutions should provide on-going support to ensure that the mailer stays compliant and doesn't lose those savings.

Stay in the Know
The USPS is making more and more mailpiece postal delivery information available electronically to mailers who register with USPS and subscribe to receive the information. However, updates can slip through the cracks. How can mail center managers stay on top of updates?
Tracking-identifier solutions that enable the USPS to provide feedback can be a feature in an Intelligent Mail Bar Code (IMb) implementation. This feature can capture key mailpiece characteristics that identify the specific correspondence to a particular recipient, and correlate the mailer's identity of the mailpiece to the USPS's identity of the mailpiece.

Similar features can include the set up and function to handle the receipt and processing of the USPS feedback on behalf of the mailer. When the feedback is received, the solution can correlate it to the particular mailpiece identity as the mailer knows it to be.

Features of such solutions can include:
Delivery and Addressee Tracking - a mailpiece leaves a mailer's premises and is turned over to the USPS for delivery. The post office scans the barcode through the envelope window as the piece moves through the USPS network, and a variety of information is reported back to the mailer: time and place piece was scanned, out for delivery, move-update on file, house burned down, etc. Such tracking-identifier solutions can correlate the feedback to the specific recipient and correspondence sent, so that the mailer will receive sender-specific information, such as confirmation of delivery or new address of someone who has moved.

Undeliverable Mail - Because an "undeliverable" notice can be correlated to a particular mailpiece, arrangements can be made for the USPS to securely destroy the mailpiece, thus eliminating the need to have it returned and manually processed.

Reply Mail Tracking - When mailers include a reply coupon or envelope with a piece of correspondence, tracking-identifier solutions can notify the mailer when that reply or remittance envelope has been placed in the mail because its IMb has been scanned and included in the automatic feedback.

The timely notification that reply or remit responses have been mailed can be of critical benefit to mailers in a number of ways. For example, when a "last notice before termination of service" is sent to an individual, tracking-identifier solutions, through an alert by USPS, can advise the customer that the recipient has mailed the response envelope, and the termination of service can be avoided. Another example would be when service turnaround time is important. If a Netflix customer, for instance, returns a DVD, Netflix will receive a feed from USPS stating the item has been mailed. Netflix can send out the next DVD in queue immediately, speeding up turnaround time.

Determine When to Use Standard vs. First-Class Mail
Many direct mailers using Standard Mail take the "spray-and-pray" approach, which is to say that the mailer may tolerate mail not necessarily reaching the intended target - as long as somebody in the organization or the household receives it. Although accuracy is preferred, the mailing database is limited to what the mailer can effectively afford, and precise accuracy is not always worth the extra cost. Even if the database were 100% accurate at the time a print run was generated, approximately 4.5% (a figure mentioned at National Postal Forum 2013) will go through a change of address, and another two percent will have incorrect forwarding information. So over time, the address list will constantly degrade, at approximately one percent per month. Keeping in mind the overall monthly cost of mailing, there is a serious need for mailers to update their address lists real time.

Now, let's consider a mailer using First Class mail to reach an important audience. Perhaps these mailers have more range of affordability than the Standard Mail example, but what do they do with the information once the tools have done their job? In an ideal situation, the result of the tool(s) automatically feeds the up-line application or database. Complications can arise the next month, however, when another update is identified from a different source or when the upstream application is not processing returned mail.

Costs are a big factor in this case. During the National Postal Forum, the consensus was that the total cost of an undeliverable mailpiece is approximately $3, factoring in the cost of preparation, print, handling, postage and disposition. At $3 per returned mailpiece, the savings potential at companies doing large mailings is enormous.

One solution that could help slash that cost is identifying a Centralized Address Resolution function within the mailing operation. Monitors could be put in place to identify changes, confirm accuracy, and be the final arbiter on acceptance. Here are four areas to consider:
· Appoint single point of ownership for USPS address management
· Utilize ACS/UAA address results from one application to all applications
· Monitor upstream applications on address change quality
· Centralize and reduce return mail processing

It's important to note that solutions mentioned in this article are not entirely dependent on in-house skills and tools. Plenty of third-party providers are willing to assist mailers in implementing time- and cost-savings solutions to help them score a touchdown in the new tasks that await them on the field of mail center operations.

Theresa Lang is vice president of solutions and services, Ricoh.