Special Section Mailing & Fulfillment -- Leveraging Your Maili
By Mary Ann Bennett
Mail since the 1990's and into the foreseeable future can be likened to a stool supported by three legs. The three legs are the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), the mailing industry and software. Remove any one of the legs and the stool cannot stand. Conversely, any one of the three legs could not exist without both of the other legs.
* The mailers of the mailing industry would have no method of getting their mailpieces delivered to intended recipients without the USPS. Mailers cannot produce quantities of mail in today's technologically advanced world without software.
* Software developers that produce mailing software for PCs, mini or mainframe computers that drive high-speed mailing equipment and perform numerous processes that meet USPS requirements would have no reason to exist if the mailing industry did not have a need for their products.
* The USPS cannot process and deliver mailings utilizing its automated equipment without the mailers of the mailing industry providing them with automation-compatible mailings produced by mailing software that meets USPS requirements.
The illustration shows a stool with three legs of equal length. Most members of the mailing industry have a far different view of what the actual leg lengths are. Some mailers think that software vendors have the longest leg and that they (mailers) have the shortest. Other mailers believe that they have the longest leg and that they are in control of what drives the industry.
I believe that the USPS has the longest leg, software vendors are second and the shortest leg belongs to the mailing industry. That needs to change and it can change.
Historically, those in the mailing industry have seldom experienced the luxury of being able to be proactive in their dealings with the USPS. Unfortunately, the vast majority of industry mailers have traditionally been in a reactive position, paying higher postage rates and meeting new and ever-changing requirements from the USPS.
Truth be known, software developers are in the same position and have been since the early 1990's. They, too, seldom have the luxury of being proactive in developing enhancements and features in their software that they believe the mailing industry could really utilize (and purchase) because they are continually reacting to changes in sorts, rules, rates and certifications that come from the USPS. All of these processes have become more and more complex and cumbersome as the last decade evolved.
In the late 1980's there were basically three discounts that mailers could claim when preparing a mailing. Three digit, five digit and carrier route. Marking of bundles consisted of a green three, a red D or the occasional MS (mixed state) sticker. Remember the blessedly simple days when the mailing statement was accompanied by a handwritten listing of carrier route counts? That was all the mailer needed to claim the deepest postage discounts. In 2004, there are more than 3,000 discounts available from the USPS and nothing handwritten is acceptable.
"The Postal Service is in the midst of one of the most fertile and innovative periods it has ever experienced, driven largely by advances in technology. Over the last few years, we've seen more product introductions and service enhancements than we have over the previous quarter century," then-Postmaster General William J. Henderson said in 2001. Most of the "advances in technology" that Henderson mentioned involve software in some way, shape or form.
In the 1990's the mailing industry began looking with an eye for automation at the physical characteristics of the printed pieces that were to be mailed. All printed pieces began to be reviewed at the design stage from a "postal point of view."
Mailpieces that were designed to comply with automated requirements resulted in significantly reduced postage costs and experienced an improvement in deliverability.
In 2005, if the mailing industry is going to lengthen its leg of the stool, it must add mailing software into its "postal point of view," and much earlier on in the mailing process. Mailing lists must be processed through CASS-certified (Coding Accuracy Support System) software to receive ZIP+4's and the ability to generate delivery point barcodes. The use of PAVE-certified (Presort Accuracy Validation and Evaluation) software is required to achieve many of the lowest postage rates and to generate barcoded sack/tray tags.
Using CASS software can provide the mailing industry with many more benefits than just identifying a ZIP+4. CASS-certified software is really the cornerstone of barcode discounts. The process of ZIP+4 encoding a database can result in reduced costs of printing, processing and postage; increased response rates; and improved deliverability of mailings by identifying addresses in your database that—according to the USPS—are undeliverable as addressed.
Many software packages also provide demographic information as part of the encoding process like identifying the county name for the address, building type (single family, etc.) and Congressional district. All of this information is a result of the, now-commonplace act of ZIP+4 encoding an address. It is up to the mailer to be fully informed of the myriad of information that they may be receiving from their software vendor.
Using PAVE-certified software to meet USPS sortation requirements also provides mailers with a significant number of benefits of which you may not be aware. Many software developers that have successfully achieved PAVE certification (the number has dwindled significantly since 1997) also provide their users with features and capabilities that allow them to operate their mailroom with ultimate efficiency.
Machine readable bundle markings, options for generating mail in reverse sequence to accommodate finishing processes, writing presort information to an electronic file for custom processing by other mailroom equipment (high-speed lasers, intelligent inserters, etc.) are a few examples of capabilities that exist in some mailing software packages.
Do you know the real capabilities of your mailing software? Are you really maximizing a tool that may have the ability to minimize your mailroom production costs, as well as produce mail properly prepared to meet the lowest postage rates?
Let's face it, mailing software has become an integral part of production by the industry and is essential to mail acceptance, processing and delivery by the USPS. But mailing software is unlike any other software that a mailer uses in the course of operating its business. It is likely that no other software package that you utilize is updated every other month. Do you see an update come across your desk from, let's say Microsoft Word, or maybe QuickBooks every eight weeks? Mailing software developers are required by the USPS to provide their users with updated software or risk the loss of postal certifications.
To get the most from your mailing software, you should take advantage of those frequent updates. Most software updates are accompanied by some sort of documentation from the vendor that explains what changes are in the software. In the case of mailing software, this usually means new sorts, rules, preparation requirements and, more frequently than anyone likes, new postage rates are identified for you.
Take advantage of the work the software companies do in deciphering the postal-ese. They usually provide easy-to-understand information that should be read and discussed at your facility. They will frequently identify changes in USPS requirements that could affect your bottom line. The software vendor is giving you a heads up and can help you to avoid processing and acceptance problems before the problems occur. And the best part is, this is not information that you have to go looking for—it gets delivered to you on a regular basis.
Today's mailers need to get involved and get informed. This investment of time and effort is critical to the successful growth and development of the mailing industry and lengthening the leg on the stool. Take a closer look at your mailing software. Are there hidden treasures in the form of capabilities and features that you have not discovered? Also, take the time for a closer look at your mailing software vendor.
Developing and enhancing the relationship you have with the right mailing software vendor could lead to an across-the-board ROI for you and your company. Your mailing software can actually be the key to increased sales and greater profits. Given the current status of the economy, can any of you afford not to take a closer look?
Mary Ann Bennett is president and CEO of The Bennett Group, and has 28 years of experience that have focused on education, production and marketing for the mailing and printing industries.