What's Possible for the USPS? - Actually Great Things
The following is a contribution to the PostCom Bulletin by William Holden, President & CEO of Holdenart. The views expressed are solely the author's.
When conversation comes up about the USPS, it often seems negative. Likely, it's the nature of the business and the fact that we're living in a technologically advancing time like no other in history. We take it somewhat for granted that we can text and get email on smartphones.
Customers expect mail and package delivery and are never surprised when it happens, but they tend not to forget when it doesn't. It can be a thankless service, but it's a little more complex than that. Talk to anyone who's moved and they rarely say that Mail Forwarding worked great. Even the occasional error hurts US Postal's reputation. The Mail customer could have a better experience in the age of technology and convenience.
It's essential to improve the customer's experience in any business when revenue is down. In the case of the USPS, that means providing more convenience and perfect delivery service. There is one thing that currently keeps this objective impossible: the address system. Even though an address is necessary to find a location, it's inconvenient to use and inefficient for actually contacting someone. Writing an address by hand is equivalent to calling a landline from a rotary phone. Mail Forwarding is similar to having a phone call rerouted from one landline to another. There are better ways to call and contact someone.
The USPS has an opportunity to lead in a time when many believe it is becoming obsolete. There's a simple way to merge the digital world with the physical. It starts with the way Mail and packages are addressed. The address, by definition, represents a place.. But, Mail is rarely for the building it goes to; it's for a person that could be there or somewhere else.
The Account Concept
Let's change the way we think about sending and receiving Mail. Consider an online account that contains information including a street address and possibly a credit card or Paypal account number. What if this mail account contained a calendar for picking days to forward Mail or hold Mail? What if the account specified if a signature was required or not? Or a note for a substituting carrier, "We're behind the coffee shop". If an account had payment information, a letter could be dropped into a mailbox with no postage; the sender's account would be charged for the postage during processing.
What if we shortened the address to make it easier to write, type, and speak? This new virtual address could even be a phone number or an email address. What if this shorter address could be retrieved from the contacts in a phone? There is the potential to write a simple one-line address from a phone's contacts on a postcard and drop it in a mailbox with no postage. This is the kind of convenience people would use and arguably celebrate.
Examples of how a new address might look:
The person's name is in the address, no more info needed.
A checksum is included for accuracy assurance.
A phone number with a heading. The item could be routed to a payment service company located anywhere.
A name would be necessary for a phone number address to insure an accurate OCR read.
A name would be necessary with an email type address.
How would this work? Each person or entity that wanted these options would get an account with an ID or account number. For clarity, let's call the ID a "Vmail ID". The format of the Vmail ID could be a phone number, email address or other ID, either existing or newly issued, all determined by the managing entity (USPS, Google, Amazon?). The Vmail ID would be used in place of the address on envelopes and labels. As items enter the local sorting facility for processing, the Vmail ID's would be scanned just like addresses are scanned today. The account information, including the destination address, barcode, and postage, would be applied to the envelope or label.
People could get a Vmail ID and send to a traditional address with or without postage. Anyone could send to a Vmail ID whether or not they had one themselves. Users should have one Vmail ID that is accessible by FedEx, UPS, and other carriers. This would present licensing opportunities for the USPS or whoever implements the data management.
All the technology for this is available now. A pilot program could be conducted in an area where customers could open accounts and encourage people they correspond with around the globe to open accounts. For the pilot, all mail addressed with Vmail ID's would leave from Post Offices that feed the capable sorting facility. (Accounts would be available for those without Internet access via paper forms.) As more sorting facilities come on-line, Post Offices could advertise with signs and banners spreading the news. With 250, or so, sorting facilities operating, the cost of equipment would not be great.
The whole endeavor could be privately funded. Investors could buy shares to pay for necessary upgrades. Shareholders could be paid dividends from a portion of Vmail postage once the Vmail system was determined to be profitable
What would prevent someone from trying to send something using another person's Vmail ID to avoid paying postage? There are many ways to prevent this from happening. Some possible options include:
- The feature could be enabled or disabled with a smartphone app or by calling a phone number. A text message could alert the account holder when items are sent.
- Use "constraints" in the account. For example: a list of valid "send from" zip codes. Again, a text could alert users if constraints are exceeded.
- Reports available online would show all activity and ease any apprehension.
- Offer a changeable password that is amended to the sender's Vmail ID.
Why would someone send something with someone else's return Vmail address? If it got rejected because it didn't meet a criteria, it would be sent to the return Vmail address. Not many would take a chance on losing something so easily.
Vmail vs. Virtual Post Office Boxes
Recently the Office of Inspector General produced a white paper about the concept of Virtual Post Office Boxes. The concept is similar to Vmail in that the receiver has options for the arriving parcels. It's a step in the right direction, but it falls short of moving Mail to the digital era. Many of the items under "Benefits" below would not be available. A partial list of why Vmail would be better:
- With Vmail, the sender would have the option to send with no postage and use account setting options including things like: No Signature Required, Packages over 10 lbs go Parcel Post, etc. All without going online or setting foot in a Post Office.
- VPOB still forces people to write a full (analog) address even if it only represents a "virtual" place.
- VPOB would use the current Mail Forwarding process. Mail Forwarding is admirably implemented, but it will never work 100% of the time with analog addresses. To a degree, it's guesswork when multiple people share similar names and move into or out of a household. Each year Mail Forwarding costs $300 million and returned Mail costs $800 million. If each individual had a digital Vmail address there would be no confusion and no mistakes.
- With Vmail, it would be possible for the recipient to authorize COD's from their account listed senders.
- If Mail Marketers sent with Vmail ID's, then people could easily remove themselves from their mailing list through their account by entering the Mailer's Vmail ID in a "Do Not Send" category. Direct Mailers benefit if mail recipients get the appropriate marketing material and lose money when the marketing material isn't a good match. In a Vmail account, there could be options for what kind of marketing material is of interest. Within a user's account there could be check boxes for things that apply to them at that particular time like: new auto, local landscape maintenance offers, clothing catalogs, gadget catalogs, sporting events, etc, etc. After a vehicle purchase, the user could uncheck that field and the direct mail for new vehicles would stop.
Quick story: Growing trees near my house caused my Dish Network reception to be flaky. I called DIRECTV who offered free installation to put a new dish in a suitable location for better reception. The installer came out and determined that there was not a suitable spot for clear reception. He then recommended that I subscribe to cable service instead. I did. A year later, despite my efforts, I continue to get DIRECTV offers in the Mail.
What the Vmail ID does in essence is give the USPS a means to go directly to digital processing by reading the Vmail ID's on the parcel. Any options or documents linked to accounts would be available as tools for added value both to consumers and carriers.
The obvious benefit is Change of Address / Mail Forwarding where addresses and forwarding options would easily be updated online. This would be real time Mail Forwarding that could be updated as many times as needed and would never fail.
Some various scenarios and benefits include:
- No postage required if payment information is included in sender's account.
- As people enter their street address into the system to get their Vmail ID, addresses would be validated as valid delivery points. No more interpreting erroneous addresses.
- Foreign residents or companies could sign-up. Their address, in their native language, would be printed on the parcel making for easy processing once it arrives on their soil.
- International e-commerce would be much simpler and automated. All necessary customs information could be linked to the account making transactions and shipping simple.
- Activity in business accounts would serve as receipts for shipping expenses.
- Direct Mailers are required to apply Intelligent Mail barcodes. This is a burden for small businesses; they could be easily printed by the carrier in real time as items are processed with Vmail. The barcode will someday change again and with Vmail, it will not affect Mailers.
- When ordering something online, provide only a Vmail ID. It's simple and doesn't disclose a location. Amazon, E-bay, and others selling online can Google an address to see a residence in street view. Buyers should not have to compromise their privacy to receive a package.
- Addressing Mail is easier. Instead of name, street #, street name, city, state, zip, only a simple ID or phone number is required that could be retrieved from a user's phone contacts.
- Small businesses that relocate won't have to notify anyone or print new documents with a new address.
- With immigration reform on the horizon, immigrants could update their information: work place, documents, address, and phone in their account.
- What if Vmail became the basis to bring information together about people in general? What if medical records could be linked where only that information was available by healthcare professionals when the account holder supplied a password?
The US Postal Service needs to update by allowing each person and entity a permanent "address." The Vmail address would not only create more business through standard Mail and e-commerce by being more reliable and more convenient, it would reduce costs, improve processing, and allow new technologies for the future. Congress should allow the Post Office the flexibility and the opportunity to introduce Vmail to enhance commerce and communication.