Over the past year, the USPS has been inundated with system process changes, an overwhelming holiday season, a worldwide pandemic, and a shift in priorities toward packages. This leaves mailers with a greater degree of uncertainty than ever before. While many complaints about the USPS from mailers are about delivery performance, it is really assurance that most mailers are looking for. If the delivery system can’t provide built-in certainty, then visibility is the next best option.

The USPS provides considerable data points at no cost to assist a mailer in optimizing their business processes. Extracting value from those data points is the challenge. Amid the many recent disruptions, monitoring your mail is more important than ever. But there’s a lot of data and a number of elements that need managing to draw out the insights that will improve your customer communication effectiveness.

Data available from the USPS can feel overwhelming at times. While much of it may seem simple on the surface, you can quickly find yourself overwhelmed by the volume and unexpected issues found withing the data. There is a myriad of data elements available, including Informed Visibility (IV) mail piece tracking data, bundle scan data, tray-level and container-level data, Secure Destruction, and ACS information. Plus, by taking advantage of recent incentives, you can start to bridge the gap between physical and digital using Informed Delivery scan events.

Managing and interpreting the data requires not only a knowledge of the data itself, but a team to process and manage it. The decision to build a postal data management platform within your organization or to use a mail tracking provider depends on several factors, including your business needs, short- and long-term goals, and availability of resources. Either way, there’s a cost.

Free Isn’t Always Free

While USPS data is freely available, there is still an expense.

Remember you've paid postage on your mail pieces, and part of your postage costs is funding the development and provisioning of the data elements. (Warning: If you're using Marketing Mail, there could be additional charges associated with ACS data.)

Once you have opened up the firehose of data into your company, you must set up operations to handle it. This involves taking raw data and transforming it into actionable information.

The Spoils of Good Mail Tracking

For many, the first justification for mail tracking is what I call the ‘insurance aspect.’ It’s insurance for when the CEO or executive leader calls down to the operations group and says, "I just heard that we are having mail delivery problems." Instead of responding with averages and SLA, you are prepared with answers.

You can provide a dashboard that shows, "Here's the data, here's what's going on. We don't have a universal mail delivery problem. We have a mail delivery problem in Minneapolis only. Here's the map. It shows green or red, and the scope is clear.”

This aspect is as real as any other business need and it's an important aspect that I don't want to downplay, but ROI can be hard to justify in hard dollars at times.

"Evaluate your options and be realistic about what your organization can do."

For most companies, initial success comes when focused on one single hard-dollar ROI. That may be found by putting a plan in place that justifies all effort from a return-on-investment perspective by reducing the number of calls that come into its call center or speeding up the interactions with the call center.

Another company’s priority may be to reduce its undeliverable mail or reduce return mail and ensure credit cards are delivered in a timely manner. Regardless of the project, the successful ones have straightforward and clearly identified success criteria.

The initial setup is the hard work: IMbs assigned, data delegated, ACS information rolling in, Secure Destruction, and Informed Delivery data in the CRM/ERP. Once that work is complete, you can see the next level of value.

What we have seen happen in numerous cases is somebody from a different department comes in and says, "Oh, I saw that data show up in the call center. I was wondering if I can get that information available for the web group, or for our credit card activations? Can our fraud department have access to these others?"

When In-House Makes Sense

If you are working with a single mail service provider and a single database, then this is something that can be feasibly managed by a single person or a small team.

I'm not a fan of a single point of failure, so I would never recommend just a single technical person. For anything beyond that, you need a robust team with diverse skills that has experience in data analytics, application development, database management, and an understanding of how to interpret that data from a postal and internal business perspective. It should include at least one member who can help understand all aspects of the Postal Service, but also needs to understand how it all connects to your own data environment.

In our environment, we have a data team that manages the underlying data infrastructure; a software development team that provides the bridge between the data and our customers in the application development; an analytics group that works to provide reports and visualizations; and, finally, we have an operations team that manages IT infrastructure and security that are essential for a modern IT operation.

Many organizations already have domain expertise in-house. They are key parts of your core business. If that is the case, then it is really a question of how many resources do you want to dedicate to postal-related operations depending on the scale and scope of your current operations.

Challenges in Managing Your Own Data

I have had conversations with a number of groups at enterprise-sized companies that have in-house operations, and I find two different shortcomings. First, it is common to find the in-house operation only handles one data element whether that is ACS or IV-piece tracking data. Second, in many cases, the in-house operation is costing more than anticipated and they are not able to commit the resources to update as needed.

A good example is a manager who tells me: “I'm in the insurance business, not in the mail tracking business,” or “I manage customers and I want to be able to manage the data and leverage it for marketing activities, but I don't want to have to technical resources focused on the latest USPS data elements. I want to have my team focused on our core business.”

Benefits of a Mail Tracking Provider as a Partner

If you're considering a mail tracking partner to help you manage this aspect of your business, you must keep your unique business needs and goals in mind. Does your company need data kept for very short periods of time or available for years? Do you have specific security or regulatory compliance (SOC II, HIPAA) challenges? Look for a provider focused on your particular niche and who supports your particular use cases.

"Once you have opened up the firehose of data into your company, you must set up operations to handle it."

There are a wide variety of providers that offer various levels of services and target different volumes of mail. One big advantage of a mail tracking service is the experience these professionals have dealing with all sorts of mailers from various industries, locations, and types of mail. That helps the service have a better pulse of what's going on within the USPS, such as when disruptions are going on in a particular area within the USPS delivery network. That is something that would be challenging for an in-house operation, especially if you have low densities to a particular area.

If you're primarily in the northeast, and you've got a limited volume going to the southwest, is having five pieces delayed a symptom of a much larger issue or is that just five pieces were put on the wrong tray?

Working with a mail tracking provider, you can access reports, data, and trending information that helps you see how the entire USPS system is operating. When there's an issue happening, the provider can look across all the mail it is tracking. They’ll notice if 10,000 pieces go into this facility today, and none of them have come out. Now, yours may only be 30 of those 10,000, but the service provider can leverage its entire user base to provide better insight to everyone.

Another benefit of a mail tracking provider is the multi-year history that can be leveraged to understand the seasonal or regional variations within the postal network. What's normal in May through the end of August is very different from what's normal in October through December. Having years of history available to understand those aspects can have a real impact on your business.

Requirements to Manage Postal Data

If you are a business that's looking for an in-house solution, here’s a sample of what you likely need:

Develop expertise to set up system programming and understand your unique regulatory and business aspects of any changes that are made and ensure business rules and structures are in place.

Technical expertise to manage and interpret data at scale in-house, especially as you get into millions or even billions of mail pieces a year. At that point, architecting a solution for this substantial amount of data becomes a challenge.

Postal experts who understand the USPS and its intricacies to help you interpret what you're seeing in the data and then leverage that as business-ready intelligence for your enterprise.

IT support to stand up the proper hardware to ingest substantial amounts of data and manage that data over time.

Also, I would suggest to someone who’s going at this on their own to make themselves familiar with PostalPro and published policies and processes for the verification of eligible business mailings, and to start downloading the documents and reading through them carefully. That's what service providers do as changes come along; they look through those documents and try to understand exactly what's happening and the impact the changes might have.

Take Stock of Your Organization

Evaluate your options and be realistic about what your organization can do.

If you're waiting six to 12 months for tech resources to make a change to an existing application, then building your new postal data management platform and expecting rapid iteration is probably not something that's going to be successful.

But you know your own internal organization better than anyone and understand your ability to access resources and how budgets are managed. These are all deciding factors on the buy versus build decision.

Outsource vs In-House: There’s a Right Choice for You

If you already have the required skill sets I’ve mentioned in-house and a substantial IT team in place, then having a quarter or half of a person from each of those categories available to work on your system, especially if it’s going to be tightly integrated with your CRM or ERP, may be more efficient and cost-effective than using an outside mail tracking provider. You have to consider all your needs, advantages, and drawbacks that come with partnering with a provider.

Whether it's with a mail tracking provider or in-house, find that one project that justifies the return on investment in a straightforward manner. As better-quality information is available to your enterprise, more and more people want to latch on to that resource and gradually build it into an indispensable tool that will become a key element of your enterprise.

Everette Mills is the Director of Technical Product Management and a key member of GrayHair Software’s team of postal experts. He brings almost 20 years of experience in the mailing industry with a diverse set of specialties including mail tracking, address hygiene, postal operations, and presort. In his current role, he is responsible for translating between customers and our internal technical operations to analyze needs, craft custom solutions, and deliver ROI for both. You can reach Everette at emills@grayhairsoftware.com or connect with him on LinkedIn.

Hear more from Everette on how to make the choice in this video here.