I'm reaching out in the hopes that someone has come up with a streamlined way to process returned mail. We do receive NCOA files for each mailing, but we still receive a lot of returned mail, especially for our two largest mailings. Other than receiving huge stacks of mail and making updates, has anyone found a better way to manage this?
The USPS offers a service called ACS (which originally stood for Address Change Service, but now seems to be referenced only as ACS). Essentially, it's a way to receive the same information electronically that you might otherwise get on little yellow stickers.
We set it up at a previous institution, where the traditional method had created entire file cabinets of mail pieces with little yellow stickers that were awaiting manual entry, and the backlog vanished almost immediately.
Essentially, you work with the USPS to establish a Mailer ID that you use with the service (if you don't already have one) and to set up ACS service.
ACS works through an Intelligent Mail barcode that includes your Mailer ID that identifies you as the mailer and a Serial Number that uniquely identifies the individual piece of mail. It seems like it's a little different now than when we set it up in the days of Traditional ACS rather than the OneCode ACS, which seems a little less flexible?
In any case, we were able to include in the unique identifier for each piece the coding that identified the record in the database and the specific address on that record.
With ACS, rather than getting the returned mail with the sticker, you log into a USPS website and download all the updates electronically, including Change of Address information and other nondeliverability information like Moved Left No Address, and Foreign Move and also some interesting codes like Refused or No Mail Receptacle! We would log on once a week, put in the date of the last date we logged in, and pull all the new records.
There is a user-side programming task, to read those records and make the necessary updates to your particular database. Our program added the changes of address and also inactivated addresses based certain codes like Moved Left No Address. In the latter case, our program would check to see whether we have previously received a notice and, if not, set a counter indicating one return, but inactivating the address if it has already been returned once. For other codes (deceased, for one, I think), we sent an exception report for further review. When we set it up, we basically looked at each possible code and decided what we wanted to do.
In our process, it was key to know exactly what address we have sent, so that we could take appropriate action (and also handle cases like the address having been updated since we pulled the mail file).
The Intelligent Mail Bar Code includes other information like the presort code for automation-rate eligible mail and so on. The good news is that your mailing vendor probably does this sort of thing all the time and they can very likely walk you through the entire process.
Again, it is a little bit of work to set up. At another previous institution there was a privacy issue using our usual constituent ID, so we have to add a random alphanumeric ID to every record to use for this purpose (which also helped to shorten the space required to 4 or 5 characters!). There's the coordination with the USPS and coding the mail pieces (both probably via your mailing vendor), and setting up the programming to read the electronic records and take appropriate action. But it can be transformational!
As with the little yellow stickers, you pay for the notices, which are billed electronically. When ACS first rolled out, the fees were much, much cheaper than getting the physical mail returned, but they were creeping up when we were using the service. Though it's hard to imagine that they're not still cheaper than physical returns, since it's so much less work for the USPS.
Perhaps someone with more recent experience can comment?
Some information is here, here, and here.
My US$0.02 worth; the usual disclaimers apply.
Alan S. Hejnal (he/him/his)
Data Quality Manager