Let's Make '06 the Year of Address Quality

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Let me guess that as far as the U.S. Postal Service and the mailing industry are concerned, 2006 will not be the year of postal reform. So what will be the issue to focus on? I will posit that it should be the year of the address. Or, more properly, the year of the correct address.


We've been told for a long time that incorrectly addressed mail costs the USPS $2 billion a year. Unfortunately, the study to confirm this figure, and highlight the specific areas causing the expense, is nowhere to be seen. This study, presumably of importance to the USPS and the industry, has been ongoing for an awfully long time. You'd think that someone at postal headquarters would be pushing this study to completion. Maybe they are, but it's the results that count, and to date - no completed study. I might add that neither is any preliminary information from the study available.


Let me segue for a minute to the upcoming April Postal Forum. I just received a very colorful, newly formatted brochure announcing the forum. As part of the forum there will be a "new" Address Quality Symposium. The brochure notes the "... new comprehensive UAA [undeliverable as addressed] cost study identifying substantial hurdles that need to be solved to improve the overall situation, you need to know what actions to take to meet the growing challenges of your business."


That's all well and good, but I wish we could spend more time at the forum figuring out how to meet the growing address challenges facing the USPS business. Instead, the new track seems to feature Confirm, the one code vision, Mail.dat, intelligent mail, etc.


I'd like to start the discussion with the way the USPS receives information about changes of address. I was in my local post office the other day and picked up two different change-of-address forms. One was just a card directing me to a Web site to change my address online. The other was an envelope, the postal service's "official change of address kit."


First, let's look into the kit. Inside are several loose sheets of advertising and several change-of-address cards that one could mail and use for address-change notifications. Then, of course, there is the COA card itself. The form is 15 inches long with two-thirds of it used as a catalog COA and/or request card. The actual change-of-address portion of the card is pretty normal.


Because of the possibility of an individual member of a family moving while the rest of the family stays put, there is some complexity associated with the form. The instructions explaining how to use the form are straightforward. However, it's obviously impossible to prompt the mover to correct unintentional or inadvertent errors or omissions that may occur.


The card then gets put into the mail to be sent to the postmaster at the old address. Interestingly, the old city or post office must be written in by hand on the front of the card. Presumably, after receipt by the local postmaster, the card is redirected for data entry into the USPS address-change system. Note, therefore, all the steps of card handling in the postal delivery system and the data entry have minimal automation.


Let's look at the alternative, the postal service's Web site at USPS.com/moversguide. I tried to change my address online, but the system didn't recognize my current New York City address, with or without my apartment number, as a valid address. I was quite surprised since I have lived here 10 years and it is a rather large apartment building. Clearly something was amiss.


The system then directed me to use the COA card. Another observation: The COA card has a separate line for apartment or suite, while the Web site asks for the apartment on the same line as the address. I personally found the separate line preferable. The USPS should consider changing the entry format.


Ultimately, I entered another set of addresses into the online system that it considered valid. However, they were deliberately entered with an incorrect ZIP code. The system properly corrected the ZIP code. After the accepted addresses were entered, the system notified me that "to prevent fraud we need to verify your identity with a valid credit card. The card will be charged a $1.00 fee for the verification service." Well, that was quite a turnoff. For the privilege of using a system that is presumably cheaper for the USPS, with the mover doing the data entry, that provides a verified existing address (ignoring my own problem), that is faster, with less postal handling, for all of those postal service benefits, the mover pays.


Now, I can understand the need for verification, and the credit card check seems to be the online method of choice. What I don't understand is the $1 charge. I've been told that $1 is the minimum credit card charge, but that could cause many movers to revert to the offline system, especially given the no-cost COA card alternative.


Why not provide a financial benefit to the mover for the monies he/she will be saving the postal service? Why not send a refund of postage stamps worth $1 for the verification, plus stamps for whatever additional monies the online entry is saving the USPS? Supportive advertising highlighting the stamp refunds could cause a move to the online version.


Does the money (stamps) back concept make sense? Who knows? What I do know is that postal officials won't cut in half the $2 billion annual expense for handling incorrectly addressed mail unless they change what they've been doing. If they keep doing what they've been doing, they will keep getting what they've been getting - which is more than $1 billion of unnecessary expense. Fresh thinking is required.


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