Forms ware links agency, bulk-mail customers

The U.S. Postal Service plans to test this summer forms software that will provide an electronic interface between the agency and some of its largest customers.

The software will provide USPS with detailed information on bulk mailings before they enter the mail system. It will also give large mailers a way to find out when their mailing has been accepted and if there are any discrepancies between what was sent and what was received.

"It will help us with workload planning, transportation planning, when the mail is coming and where it's going," said Rosemary Hamel, manager of customer information and product support for marketing systems at USPS. "Mail statement documentation—that's the level we're targeting for electronic exchange."

The detailed mailing information that comes from list processors and bulk mailers is traditionally submitted in hard copy and shared only on a limited basis internally. "Because of the timing issue and because there is so much detail, it's difficult to partition the data when it's in hard copy into segments that help you focus on what kind of volume is coming to what facility," Hamel said.

Using software developed internally with the help of contractors the agency declined to name, USPS will now receive this information electronically. In electronic form, that data can be easily routed to USPS employees who need to see it and can be kept for internal audits. It also will allow USPS to develop a historical database of its customers during the pilot phase this summer.

The database will capture and store the history of the mailer, the quality of specific mailings and results of verification done on the mail. The database "allows us to accept their mailing in the future easily and without a lot of scrutiny," Hamel said.

The mailers will also be able to access the database to view their records.

USPS eventually plans to share the forms software with the 2,000 bulk-mail entry units nationwide. USPS will start with two post offices and multiple mailers at the beginning of the pilot. This will likely grow into a larger pilot as mailers come prepared to send information electronically, according to Hamel.

As part of the pilot, USPS will test handheld devices that receive and send mailing information to a central computer. USPS employees would check the physical mail and input information into the handheld computer.

"We'll use that information [in the] central computer to develop verification plans for postal personnel looking at the mail itself," Hamel said.

USPS also plans to test software in the future that will eventually allow small- to medium-size mailers to fill out mailing statements on the USPS home page and send them electronically. USPS would have 10 or 15 varieties of forms, depending on what type of mailing is being done.

A lot of work has been done by the mailing industry to develop a data standard called MAIL.DAT, which "will form the basis of the USPS having a direct electronic connection with most of our largest mailers," Hamel said. The MAIL.DAT standard defines the mail makeup, including information essential to calculating the postage bill and needed by postal clerks to verify and accept the mailing.

Postalsoft Inc. has incorporated the MAIL.DAT standard into its Postware Presort software, which is used by list processors, printers and presort bureaus, among others. Postalsoft was involved in developing the standard because it wanted to "supply our customers with a utility that would create fields according to the standard," said Judy Blank, a software engineer at Postalsoft.

"It's a big deal," said Daniel J. Minnick, director of postal and industry services at Direct Marketing Technology, a direct-mail company. "We've captured [the information] electronically, and we've never done that before. Now we can manage the information."

The amount of paper this will replace is enormous, Minnick said. Before a mailing is sent out, different reports must be completed and sent to the postal facility. One mailing can produce boxes of documentation, much of which is not checked. "This will integrate and streamline the procedure," he said.

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