The mailing industry was stunned earlier this year when a report rang out that poor data quality was costing US businesses an estimated $600 billion a year. The good news cited in the report, however, was that "achieving high-quality data is not beyond the means of any company." Moreover, according to the report's sponsor, The Data Warehousing Institute, "companies that have invested in managing and improving data quality can clearly cite the tangible and intangible benefits."
Never before has data quality been as critical for mailers of all sizes. And never before has the technology to achieve data quality been so versatile and flexible. A big leap in technology for mailers has been the recent introduction of Web services that clean and correct address and phone data.
The advantage of using the Internet as a data hygiene gateway is that processing can be done at the point of entry or in batch mode. A company can build its own custom Web or PC applications using developers' components (often called COM objects), or it can rely upon the hosted solutions of an applications service provider (ASP). Either way, a mail house or IT manager can instantly correct and standardize addresses to U.S. Postal Service specifications, update area-code splits, parse names, identify gender and append latitude and longitude to the ZIP+4 level.
Just look at the results achieved inside the mailing department for a division of a Fortune 500 company: Simon & Schuster, Inc.
By the Book
Simon & Schuster, the publishing arm of Viacom Inc., is using developers' components to help verify, standardize and enhance US addresses in batch mode from an Oracle database.
Bad data was costing Simon & Schuster thousands of dollars a week in shipping fees and processing returns. By implementing server-side data hygiene, the publisher has been able to reduce the cost of sending review copies of books to journalists by $8,000 to $10,000 per month. This initial savings of nearly 50% per month since April is expected to climb to 70% by year end. ·
"Developers' components allow us to catch ZIP-Code errors and reduce delivery time for the thousands of packages we send each week to reviewers," says John Soldano, systems analyst for Simon & Schuster. Prior to using these developer components, address errors would be discovered and corrected in the field by UPS agents and billed individually to the shipper. External address correction was costing Simon & Schuster up to $250,000 per year. "The benefit of batch processing using the Internet is that it's all automated. We can verify addresses and append ZIP+4 Codes and other information without having to export any data," added Soldano.
Simon & Schuster uses developers' components that were designed for Oracle databases and can easily be integrated into applications running on the Web. Through a bimonthly subscription service, Simon & Schuster receives the most up-to-date data possible compiled by the Postal Service.
The Shari's Berries Way
Shari's Berries, a cataloger and Web retailer based in Sacramento, California, uses the Internet to verify addresses in real time, the benefit being that errors are identified and corrected before being compiled into a mailing database.
Customers who order California strawberries from berries.com are promised that their indulgences will arrive fresh, anywhere in the US on the day requested, guaranteed.
As it prepares to ship gift packages of its foods for the holiday season, Shari's Berries will rely on Internet address validation to prevent costly undeliverables.
"Web-based address verification allows us to process more orders smoothly, especially during big holiday periods when we are taking up to 200 orders per hour," says Lowell Feil, vice president of Operations. "We have been able to reduce address errors on shipped packages to less than one percent," he adds.
Shari's Berries made the switch to real-time address verification earlier this year, just in time to ship a record 14,000 orders for Valentine's Day and 12,000 orders for Mother's Day. Sent in packages that are designed to withstand extreme weather conditions, the fruits are delivered year-round in the US via Federal Express.
Prior to using the Internet, Shari's Berries would not detect a bad address or ZIP-Code error until an attempt was made to print a shipper's label. The discovery of an invalid address would often require a phone call to the customer to correct the address, a process that could easily strain the customer service department on a busy day. Now address correction is done right when the customer enters his order on the Web page.
Component Object Modules Technology
Component Object Modules (COM) are developers' tools used by programmers to write custom applications such as data entry routines or dealer locators. Address, phone number, name and geographical objects are often combined to quickly generate clean, updated addresses and telephone information and append valuable geographic data.
CASS-certified address objects, the most popular, are used to match input data against the Postal Service's database of 130 million deliverable addresses. The beauty of address objects is that they integrate with most Windows programming languages such as Visual Basic, FoxPro, SQL, Oracle Forms and Access.
Shari's Berries uses a name object to discover the gender make-up of the recipients of its gifts. A name object splits a full name into its components and appends a gender code using a database of thousands of first names.
COM objects require a programmer to integrate and customize their use for Web or PC applications. This is a relatively easy task since sample source code is included for easy copying and pasting, and technical support is usually free from most companies. It is recommended that address-object data files be updated on a bimonthly basis.
The Web Services Alternative
For those companies who do not wish to update the address files at regular intervals, there's another solution: a hosted Web service. With a hosted Web service from an ASP, there's nothing to install, update or maintain.
Data quality Web services may utilize the resources of multiple COMs such as address, phone, name and geographic objects. This means that in addition to correcting addresses, the Web service can also update telephone area codes, append latitude and longitude coordinates, parse names, apply gender and detect vulgar words all in real time.
One company using a Web service to improve the deliverability of mail is Marketing Solutions Inc., of Birmingham, Alabama. Marketing Solutions uses a hosted Web service to standardize, verify and CASS certify up to 150,000 records per month for its bank clients. Data is updated automatically on a nightly basis from a bank's operational systems. This way, the bank is always working with the most recent customer data when it generates direct mail letters, coupons, postcards and call lists.
"The delivery aspect of the Web service is very strong," says Josh Dennis, executive vice president. "We think that Web services like this are the wave of the future."
Real time address validation, from your server or an ASP's, is fast and efficient and will help you reduce the cost of doing business by improving the accuracy of your data.
Jack Schember is media relations manager for Melissa Data. For additional information on data quality tools and services, please visit them on the Web at www.melissadata.com or call 800-800-6245.