Organizations have been talking about the Intelligent Mail barcode (IMb) for over five years. Now, with the Full Service implementation deadline just weeks away, many mailers are simply ready to move on. But you can't slow down now.

When it comes to the Full Service IMb program, consistent and reliable execution is everything. Organizations interested in saving as much money as possible will use the next month to help ensure they are prepared not only for January 26, 2014 - but also for the additional requirements that will follow in the months ahead. The three words to keep top of mind every day are compliance, verification and adaptability.

Today: Earn Up-Front Discounts

Effective January 26, 2014, all First-Class Mail, Standard Mail, and Periodicals, including incoming reply envelopes, must conform to the Full Service Intelligent Mail barcode requirements in order to earn automation rate discounts. Not conforming could cost you more than seven cents per piece - and potentially even more with the next USPS price increase -so compliance is critical.

Of course, Full Service IMb compliance is much more than appending a unique barcode to your letters and flats. There are new barcode requirements for sacks, trays and pallets - and mailers must be able to track which envelopes are in each. In addition, electronic submission of postal statements and online scheduling for drop ship appointments are required.

While some organizations have already implemented these new requirements, many mailers are still not ready and are at risk of losing significant postage discounts.

If you're not sure where you stand, investigate the long-term compliance requirements - the programming, dedicated IT and administrative resources that allow you to update and manage the program for the long haul. If you don't have everything in place, it's not too late to get the help you need to achieve compliance ahead of the upcoming deadline.

While some organizations use third-party presort service providers for the myriad of activities associated with the IMb program, and others will tackle everything in-house, perhaps the best solution is a mix of both in-sourcing and outsourcing. This strategy allows you to maximize the investments your organization has made in IMb technologies, while leveraging third-party processes and logistics to optimize postage savings and improve delivery.
There are other areas as well where you may choose to rely on outside expertise:

Database management (generating IMb data, postal coding and move update processing)Physical mail production (actual barcode printing)Mail preparation (generating and applying sack, tray and container labels)Mail presentment (eDocs electronic documentation filing)USPS feedback (Start-the-Clock, ACS data, quality reports, etc.)Customer intelligence (Analyzing and incorporating this data into day-to-day processes)
If your organization is struggling with compliance or looking to take advantage of IMb data, it may make sense to work with a third-party provider that can help provide the necessary expertise, technologies and workflows in time for a January rollout.

Next Six Months: Avoiding Assessments

After your mail is inducted, you may still end up paying more than expected. That's because the USPS will audit your mailing to validate that discounts taken were actually earned.

Once you produce mailings under the IMb program and submit mailings using the USPS eDoc system, the USPS can monitor and audit your mail against a host of factors; validating that you've submitted accurate documentation and that IMb barcodes are properly applied to sacks, trays and pallets. What's new about the IMb verification, however, is that because your postal paperwork is filed electronically - and because each mailpiece can be electronically tracked as it moves through the USPS logistics and processing network - the USPS is in position to be far more effective in identifying instances where a mailpiece is out of compliance.

Within 48 hours after the eDoc is processed, the USPS will audit every container, handling unit and piece in electronic documentation and evaluate for specific errors. Whether you are handling mail in-house or relying on third-party services, it is more critical than ever to help ensure that you have internal quality controls in place to review, verify and validate mail protocols prior to induction.

The first steps to help ensure you are on your way to compliance are:

· Mailer ID is valid and registered with the USPS
· Service Type ID is valid and appropriate for the class of mail and service level
· Mail Owner and Mail Preparer are provided for each mailpiece
· Barcodes on mailpieces, containers and trays are unique across all mailings by class submitted for the past 45 days

Starting July 27, 2014, the assessment phase will become automated as the USPS introduces Full Service Postage Adjustments. The USPS will automate postage assessments and issue invoices for any mail preparation errors, reviewing eDoc submissions across an entire month (not just individual mailings). Postage adjustments will occur if a particular error is over the established threshold. These postage adjustments will be calculated by multiplying the number of pieces in error over the threshold times the difference between the "postage affixed" rate and the "presort rate."

To assist you in self-auditing prior to induction, the USPS has created a "Mailer Scorecard." This scorecard provides a dashboard view summarizing performance. It allows for comparison across facilities, a view of trends across months, and drill-down reports that provide you with an easy way to pinpoint and investigate specific mail preparation errors.

While the USPS will not be using this scorecard to determine postage adjustments until July, smart mailers will begin monitoring and managing to this report right out of the gate. Identifying issues and taking corrective action now will help minimize costly postage upcharges later.

Long-Term: Stay Flexible

Above all, mailers need to remember that the Full Service Intelligent Mail barcode rollout is part of a long-term postal initiative toward a fully automated mail verification and acceptance process.

Ongoing regular software updates and new programs initiated by the USPS will require dedicated resources to help ensure that all systems remain online and compliant. Some of the upcoming USPS enhancements will include Electronic Induction and Seamless Acceptance.

· Electronic Induction is designed to streamline the induction of drop shipments and expedited plant load mailings. With this approach, scanning devices will validate that containers are fully paid for and inducted at the correct facility. While already available, this is not yet required. However, mailers should take the time now to learn what this involves and what process and/or systems changes may be required.

· Seamless Acceptance will close the loop, with mail entry and payment technologies providing for an end-to-end mailing validation process. The USPS will be able to collect sample data using handheld devices at the point of induction and piece data from USPS Mail Processing Equipment. This scan data will be compared to electronic documentation to create trending reports for mailer discussion and eventual postage adjustments.

In short, while we've all been discussing the Full Service requirements for years, the upcoming implementation deadline should be viewed more as a starting point than an endpoint. Organizations need to be diligent in verifying that current and future requirements are implemented with precision, and to identify resources to complement in-house capabilities as needed. Those who plan well will be able to maximize postal savings and unlock the value of the Intelligent Mail barcode today and in the years ahead.

Intelligent Mail barcode, IMb, First-Class Mail, Standard Mail, USPS and ACS are trademarks owned by the United States Postal Service.

Debbie Pfeiffer is President, Pitney Bowes Presort Services.