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Special Section Mailing & Fulfillment -- Don't Blame Merlin

November 2004
By Robert B. Swick

Merlin, the progeny of ABE, has acquired the persona of its predecessor in its formative years. Some would say, particularly those in the original test areas, that the reputation is well earned. And yet, Merlin—or Mail Evaluation Readability and Lookup Instrument—is simply a tool that helps expedite the mail flow by assuring that consistent, readable mail enters into the automated processing system.

So why has Merlin become such a lightening rod in its early life?

The root cause of this stigma, which came early and held as Merlin rolled out nationally, was an intense desire to bring a more exacting standard of accuracy to market without adequate preparation, evaluation and dialogue. Exacerbating the situation was the inability (for whatever reasons) of the postal and industry partners to work together in the start-up period.

That's history. But like many tight knit industries, memories are long and recall tends to get exaggerated. And that's been the marketplace condition as Merlin's scrutiny expands to read ZIP code extensions for the purpose of preventing improper -0000s and -9999s from entering the mail stream.

So why have mailers and mail service providers raised such an uproar? Or have they?

It's certainly easy enough to understand the practical concern of a major mailing rejected because of a failed Merlin sample evaluation. Imagine the cost and logistics of delivering 1 million mail pieces to a business mail entry unit dock.

Now imagine having to reload all the skids of prepared mail and return them to the mail center. The alternative, of course, is to pay the difference of the next-higher postage rate—in this case perhaps an additional $60,000.

An emotional, expensive conundrum such as this often causes blame to be placed on the system rather than the source. In other words, faulting Merlin rather than the mailer. Is this example reality? Are there an abundance of mailers attempting to cheat the system? Is Merlin rejecting huge numbers of mailings?

The answer in both cases is no. Merlin, in fact, has verified the honesty that prevails in our profession.

High Scores

Specifically, as presented at the February Mailers Technical Advisory Council meeting, Merlin passed 99.9 percent of the 34,341 mailings examined since Jan. 17. Only 22 mailings were rejected for inclusion of false -0000 extensions and only 17 mailings kicked back for incorrect -9999 extensions. In other words, this was much ado about nothing. Or was it?

The angst attributed to expanding the scrutiny of Merlin is a manifestation of the communications gap that continues between the mailing community and its postal partners. Fortunately there are serious initiatives under way by all concerned parties to improve the dialogue on Merlin. There is an expressed desire to resolve the myriad standardization processes existing in industry as the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) strives for one final depth of code standard employed by this diagnostic tool.

One of the most important communications initiatives is the planned formation of a new MTAC Work Group that will concentrate on the prickly matter of "final depth of code" standards. Concurrent with this effort, which is expected to be active for at least six months, are a number of other industry groups and coalitions that will fill the news channels with concerns, problems, resolves and stumbling blocks along the way.

Collectively, this becomes a much-needed communications improvement of a complex initiative designed to greatly improve the quality of mail entering in the mail stream.

It's ironic that the underlying purpose of Merlin is often forgotten. Merlin raises the quality standards of an already powerful medium. In so doing it injects greater efficiencies, which help keep USPS costs in check. These same standard improvements prevent corrupt addresses from entering the mail stream, which improves overall delivery and response, the common objective of all mailers.

The importance of Merlin comes at a pivotal time. Its full deployment will have direct bearing on improvement of the postal service's delivery efficiency which, in turn, will aid in achieving ad mailer's ultimate goal: day-certain delivery.

The mix of mail has changed and the importance of Standard mail continues to grow. This long-sought achievement will bring untold new successes and increased growth to our direct mail business. Indeed, it's time to embrace change.

Robert B. Swick is director of data quality solutions for Pitney Bowes.

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