Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Gotta love NCOA

You can’t live with it. And you can’t mail without it.

I have to admit: We’re good do-bees. When the USPS says thou shalt NCOA all addresses before you mail, that’s what we do. But what is it really doing for our clients?

NCOA—National Change of Address—checks the validity of addresses on a datafile. It answers the questions (1) is the address accurate? and (2) does that individual/business still reside there?

OK. What constitutes an “accurate address”? NCOA gives more than 40 reasons why an address can fail. Some are fatal like a state abbreviated AM (what the heck is that?)…some are mere inconveniences like “Street” instead of “St”…and most errors are somewhere in the middle.

If you’re like most clients, once you get over the shock of potentially having 40 blunders in three simple lines of type, you start to determine how many precious records have fatal flaws…how many addresses are readily fixable (and who are you going to assign to do the heavy lifting)...and how many do you throw the dice on and “takes your chances.”

After you’re over that emotional and logistical hurdle, things get easier. NCOA now tells you if the intended recipient still resides there.

Sounds pretty black-and-white, doesn’t it: Yes, he does or No, he doesn’t. But of course it’s more complicated than that.

IF the person has moved within the US and IF the person has given the USPS a forwarding address and IF the address is typed accurately (human error creates a lot of bad data), then NCOA will tell you where to find that person. Maybe.

IF he’s a college student and has left home to study, maybe you can find him. IF he’s moved out and she’s still in the home, then maybe NCOA can track him down. IF he’s moved to Heavenly Acres Cemetery, then he’s probably left no forwarding address.

That’s a lot of “ifs.”

So you clean up the data you can, expunge the records you must, and do the mailing.

That’s exactly what our client, Jane, did. Only she put an endorsement line on her envelopes, requesting the post office to return all undeliverable mail.

Now Jane has six mail tubs of envelopes with USPS-affixed yellow stickies proclaiming No such address …Undeliverable as addressed … No Forwarding address and the like.

These addresses had all passed through the rigors of NCOA just days before. Yet a large percentage of the mail was clearly undeliverable.

We were commiserating over lunch about the problem.

“How long does it take to get an address change into the NCOA datafile?” she asked me.

“How can an address pass NCOA on Monday and be undeliverable on Friday?”

“Does a sticker that reads ‘Undeliverable as addressed’ really mean that? Or did the harried clerk pick a sticker at random and slap it on my letter? I’m pretty sure this letter got to the recipient before. What gives?”

Frankly, we don’t know what gives, so we called our regional postal authority to answer some of Jane’s many questions. Here’s what we learned:

* It takes 3-4 days to get an address change listed in the NCOA if someone fills out and mails the yellow address forwarding forms found at every post office.

* It takes about one hour and $1 if the person submits the information online. (The USPS sends a confirming letter—hence the $1 fee.)

* Sticker fatigue? Well, maybe. We looked at the returned envelopes and saw what looked to be good addresses. Each envelope had been read by a postal scanner to check for why the address was in error, and that information was compared to The Big Database in the Sky.

Address order could have caused some of the come-backs. Sometimes the address was 123 Apple Ave T1 (apartment T1) which is the correct addressing format. Sometimes the address was T1 123 Apple Avenue. That second presentation could have confused the smartest USPS computer.

* A couple of the envelopes had someone’s nickname. The computer doesn’t know that Robert is also called Bob, Rob, Bobbie and Robbie. Nicknames can lead to computer confusion.

* And since so many of Jane’s returns were from college students, we can assume that they didn’t bother to register when they changed housing each semester. Records older than 24 months can make the computer reject an address, too.

* Finally, the ubiquitous response: human error. Not infrequently, the USPS hardcopy change of address form is not readable. The USPS keypunchers are left to take educated guesses on spelling. Guesses lead to inevitable errors. Similarly, people who enter their information online make typing errors. Those errors can result in rejected mail later.

Want to check an address? The USPS suggests you to go their website: www.USPS.com. In the upper left corner click on Zip Code look up. Follow the steps and you’ll find out why the USPS computers have rejected that specific address. Maybe.

Whew! Now Jane’s got her answers. But she’s still got six mail tubs to sort through, ensuring her clerk will have job security for weeks.

I repeat: Gotta love NCOA. You can’t live with it and you can’t mail without it.

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