Bernard Baruch, a 20th Century Wall Street financier and wartime presidential adviser, had a saying about how he planned for the future: "We can't cross a bridge until we come to it; but I always like to lay down a pontoon ahead of time." That notion holds true for mailers as well as moguls, and never more so than now as the industry prepares for the full implementation of the Intelligent Mail Barcode (IMB). Getting it right will be even more critical than getting it fast.
Why the IMB Is So Important
The IMB, a height-modulated barcode that encodes up to 31-digits of mailpiece data into 65 vertical bars, is a critical tool for the Postal Service to continue with its transformation plan and to reduce undeliverable as addressed (UAA) mail by 50% by 2010. The ultimate vision is to deploy information-rich barcodes on all mail and packages so that the USPS and its customers can obtain end-to-end visibility into the mailstream. This unprecedented visibility will also help capitalize on the value of information about mail; better manage resources; reduce operating costs; and anticipate, adapt and respond to present and future market conditions.
How mail producers implement the IMB could have long-term implications for their organizations. For example, the USPS's "Full Service" Option will provide access to the full range of IMB benefits and services, including the lowest postal rates, track-and-trace capabilities, address change services, cleaner-looking mailpieces, improved scanning and the ability to participate in the USPS Seamless Acceptance program. This option will require special barcodes on letter trays, sacks and other containers. The mailpiece identifier will need to remain unique for each 45-day period. Plus, mailers will be required to submit their postage statements and mailing documentation electronically. The "Basic" IMB Option will require that mailers use the new barcode and 31-digit data payload, but added requirements for trays, sacks, pallets, reporting, unique identifiers, do not apply.
As the first mandated barcode change since the USPS invented POSTNET in 1980, some organizations may find themselves in uncharted territory. In addition to new data and processing requirements, the graphics, fonts, coding and print specifications for the IMB are different from any existing barcode used today. Organizations will have to create the new barcode plus phase out any current barcodes, such as POSTNET or PLANET Code.
An Evolutionary, Collaborative Approach
First announced in 2003, the IMB became available in 2006 and hundreds of mailers are already taking advantage of IMB-enabled intelligence. Industry-wide implementation has been pushed back to May 2009, and the story behind this delay is an interesting indication of the Postal Service's commitment to collaboration.
In January 2008, the USPS released an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the Federal Register, which stated that mailers would be required to use the IMB to access automation prices for letters and flats as of January 2009. What this meant was that beginning with the new year, automation discounts would no longer be available for mailers who use the POSTNET barcode. To qualify for the lowest postal rates, mailers would have to implement the new IMB.
At the same time of this advance notice, the USPS welcomed feedback from the mailing industry. They received an unprecedented response and interest, indicating there was an increased willingness to work together to ensure that the IMB was a success for all parties involved.
The USPS took this feedback under account and recognized the existing challenges for mail producers from an operational and cost perspective. For instance, updating and modifying operations to comply with the IMB is a complex requirement, and there are a variety of software and operational implications. Also, many organizations have multiple databases and business rules that make adding or modifying software a particular challenge. For example, some financial services and insurance companies have a lock-down period for several months when no coding, software changes and modifications to systems can occur based on their own internal rules.
Recognizing the importance of these challenges, and having a collaborative, evolutionary approach to the successful implementation of the IMB, the USPS pushed back the mandate to May 2009 to coincide with an anticipated price change that same month. In addition, the Postal Service changed the proposed rule on the POSTNET barcode so mailers can earn discounts until May 2010. This collaborative approach to IMB implementation is a huge step forward to ensuring its success.
Preparing to Implement the IMB
For mailers, this collaborative approach and changes to timing of the IMB are a major benefit. The other critical component is to heed Baruch's advice and take action now to prepare for implementation. Below are a few key steps to consider:
Leverage Available Resources to Educate Yourself One of the most important things that mailers can do right now to prepare for implementing the IMB is to get educated and close any knowledge gaps. The USPS is hosting IMB conferences and an educational seminar series in major US cities. In addition, mailstream technology providers are offering IMB webinars and customer education opportunities.
Pay Close Attention to Technical Specifications Mailers should dig into the details of the technical specifications issued by the USPS and work closely with their own IT departments and external service providers to maximize the opportunities that the Intelligent Mail Barcode has to offer.
Participate in Trade Associations and Groups If you don't already belong to a postal trade association or group, consider joining one, such as: Postcom (Association for Postal Commerce), www.postcom.org; The National Postal Policy Council (NPPC), www.postalcouncil.org; or the USPS's Mailers' Technical Advisory Committee (MTAC), http://ribbs.usps.gov/mtac.html.
By taking a proactive approach to prepare for the implementation of the IMB and taking these actions into consideration, mailers can help position their organizations for future success. The rewards will include the opportunity for greater postage discounts, reduced costs, improved operations and maximized customer response rates. It's time to start laying down those pontoons; it will be time to cross before you know it.
John L. Campo is Vice President of U.S. Postal Relations at Pitney Bowes. He is responsible for building key industry alliances at senior levels with other stakeholders interested in the future of mail, posts and carriers, and through these relationships, influence USPS policy, the Board of Governors and Postal Rate Commission. John can be reached at email@example.com.