Monday, August 3, 2009

The Deadliest Quote!

Determining postage is not for the faint of heart

I work in a very dangerous job. No, I’m not snagging crabs out of a frigid arctic ocean, or felling 3-ton trees in a rainforest. I don’t work in a coalmine or build bridges. It may not be one of the most death-defying jobs, but I promise you, my job is even riskier!

You see, I work with the US Post Office.

It starts out innocently enough: You’re on the phone with me. You’re a new client, with a new direct mail project—your first! The boss is pushing you to get answers. But you don’t know if you want to mail a postcard, a flyer, a brochure, a newsletter or a letter. And you don’t know your own data.

We select an option and work through all the necessary specs. Size of piece. Number of colors. Paper stock. Bleeds. Number of pieces. Class of mail. Stamp, meter or indicia. I am feeling better about this process. We’re working toward a manageable end goal in tandem.

And then the wheels fall off the wagon.

“What’s my postage going to be?” you ask me innocently.

Oh no! It’s the dreaded unanswerable question!

I stall. I sweat. I try to change the subject. My mind races. I’m stepping into a bottomless pit and I know it. Any answer I give you will be wrong.

What kind of a person are you? Will you accept when I say this is ESTIMATED postage? Will you hold it against me 2 weeks later when we discover I was one tenth of a cent off? Will you question my expertise when I tell you I can’t give you a simple two-digit answer—NOW? Will you understand that to be perfectly accurate we have to have your data and determine its distribution while factoring the size, weight and thickness of the piece you’ve decided to mail?

Will you wait patiently while I try to explain how I can’t answer that question with absolute accuracy? Will your mind wander as I present my truncated explanation of 5-digit sorts…3-digit sorts…AADC…Automation…letters…flats…dropshipping…co-mingling…SFC or BMC rates?

Will you cut me short so my carefully crafted, oft-rehearsed explanation makes no sense? Will you graciously allow me to finish and then ask again, perhaps a bit impatiently, “OK, so what’s the postage?”

My mind is awhirl with the possibilities.

All the possibilities are jumbled up in my head as I’m calculating what would work best for you. There is a lot to consider, and my circuits are overloading.

But curious minds want to know. You repeat a little more insistently since I obviously didn’t hear you earlier: “What’s my postage going to be?”

Deep breath. Clear the mind. Calm the raging mental storm. A sip of tea. Another deep breath. OK, here we go, plunging in without a life jacket:

Dearest Client, let me help you. Please tell me about your data. Is it local? Regional? National?

If you can’t tell me that basic fact, I can’t give you anything remotely accurate. I can give you ranges, but your boss is looking for a nice, neat, simple answer. Something he can put in a spreadsheet. A range of numbers won’t hack it.

If you don’t know your data distribution, how am I to know how it will split out over the 27 different rate categories that this one piece of mail could qualify for?

If you’re unsure about the size of the postcard you’re mailing, there could be 54 possible rate categories—just in Standard mail. Add CRRT and you’ve added another 9 possible rate categories. Add First Class Presort as a consideration and you’ve just added another 6 categories.

Complicating the situation even further, in many mailing projects there can be 5 or more postal rate categories, depending on the distribution of your mailing list.

The USPS’s rules are so complex they fill a volume the size of the Manhattan phone book. Even their experts in mailing requirements disagree as to the interpretation of various rules and sub-rules. It is a daunting question you put before me. And you want your answer NOW!

I know my chance of calculating your postage rate exactly right is comparable to my chances of winning the Lottery: nil.

If I under-calculate your cost, I’m a goat if when we presort your job. “Ellen promised me the postage would be xx-cents each! We won’t pay a penny more!”

If I over-calculate, we lose the job. Some guy in Florida has promised he’ll print and mail your 20,000 postcards for $100 over the postage cost I’ve just quoted you.

I know that $100 won’t buy the paper to print your job on, much less print and mail it. I know you’ve given me one set of specs and him another, but you insist you’ve given both of us exactly the same thing.

Pfffft. Just like that your job is gone.

Trying to explain to you, Dear Client, the byzantine postal regulations and relating them to your job is a guaranteed anxiety attack.

Trying to explain to your boss why you lost a simple postcard job to some guy in Florida who is clearly not playing by the same rulebook is another.

Like I said, mine is a business fraught with risk. Thank you, USPS.

Working in a coalmine is looking better all the time.

43670 Trade Center Place,
Suite 150,
Dulles, VA 20166
Phone: 703.996.0800
Fax: 703.996.0888

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