Sometime this month take a stroll through the back of your mail center. Somewhere stashed out of sight you might notice stacks of mail trays filled with returned mail. It’s a condition I observe in nearly every operation I visit.

Organizations stockpile undeliverable mail because doing something meaningful with it is difficult and time-consuming. Companies don’t usually assign returned mail processing to a staff member as part of their regular duties and no real deadlines exist. Predictably, the issue is regarded as a “when we have time” sort of problem. There’s never enough time, and the stacks continue to grow.

Procrastination is understandable. No one wants to do this job. Opening and sorting returned mail is boring. Determining the reason the USPS returned each piece and identifying the data source that generated the mailing address so they can make the corrections is tedious labor.

In most shops, returned mail is entirely uncontrolled. No one knows which pieces are in the piles or what information may be on the documents.

Mail operations managers need a strategy for dealing with returned mail. Here are some ideas:


Obviously, the best way to avoid compounding the returned mail problem is to stop sending documents to undeliverable addresses. Shortly before mailing, make sure you run your address lists through postal software that flags or corrects address defects and updates addresses for customers who have moved. If the software can’t assign a postal barcode to an address you should remove the record from the mailing and initiate research so the missing address elements can be updated.

Some companies operate under regulatory guidelines that force them to send mail to a customer-supplied address even if the USPS tells them their customers have moved. If that is true for the mailers you support, develop a plan to acquire the new addresses in an approved manner. The restrictive rules usually apply only to certain types of documents, not every mail piece. Set up automated processes to mail a customer communication to the new address supplied by the USPS. Explain to customers they are missing some important mail and ask them to verify their new address via a postage-paid reply card or a call to customer service, for instance. This will prevent you from continually sending mail to the same known bad addresses and then repeatedly handling the material when it comes back.

Plan Ahead for Processing Returned Mail

Mailers will always have some mail returned to them. Why not create procedures in advance to make undeliverable mail processing easier?

Invoke Address Correction Services (ACS) by enrolling in SingleSource ACSTM from the USPS and adding the proper indicators to the intelligent mail barcodes on outgoing mail. The SingleSource ACS service combines corrected addresses from all sources in a single file format and delivers the data to the mailer electronically. With ACS, the burden of sorting through physical mail pieces will be reduced.

For pieces that you must handle manually, add a scannable 2D barcode visible through the envelope window that identifies the customer account number, type of document, and data source. With this information, the mail center staff can sort returned mail and send it to the appropriate department or client for remediation-without even opening the envelopes.

Before adding endorsements like “Return Service Requested” to envelopes or IMb barcodes, evaluate the mailing list. If it is out of date or the list was rented, the number of returns could be high. I can recall one company who was buried in returned mail pieces and blew their budget in a big way. The USPS charges mailers First-Class postage for all the Standard Mail pieces they return with this endorsement, which was included in the mailing by mistake.

Buy a Returned Mail Processing Solution

Several vendors in the mailing industry can supply systems designed specifically to help mail centers process returned mail, with varying degrees of automation. These systems include a scanning operation that collects data such as the mailing address and the USPS reason for return from the front of returned mail pieces. The returned mail processing solution may capture other data, such as images or text that identifies the originating department. This information is used to create electronic messages sent to the appropriate departments to help them update the bad addresses in their source data files.

Print service providers don’t always see the returned mail. Those pieces may go directly to their clients who may also struggle with handling the undelivered cards, letters, and flats. To them, returned mail represents wasted time and money, disconnection with customers, or lost opportunities. Taking the initiative to help your clients discover and correct addresses is the kind of thing that helps build customer loyalty in a highly competitive marketplace.

Regardless of the structure of your business, if you send materials through the US Postal Service, some of it will probably be returned to you. Taking steps to ensure you have a way to manage it (besides piling it up in the corner) will pay off in the long run.

Mike Porter at Print/Mail Consultants helps document operations build and implement strategies for future growth and competitiveness. Learn more about his services at and Follow @PMCmike on Twitter, or send him a connection request on LinkedIn.