June 24, 2009, 11:30 AM — Nearly every type of organization receives mail, and the larger the organization, the more complicated and critical the mail delivery process can become. Opening and logging in mail as it is received, sorting and labeling incoming documents, photocopying materials that have multiple destinations, and delivering the mail is a time-consuming process. Outgoing mail that has been returned means paper records or databases need to be updated. Incoming mail needs to be date- and time-stamped, and time-sensitive material needs to be delivered to its destination as quickly as possible. Interoffice mail means valuable information is constantly in transit, keeping the mailroom staff and records managers on their toes. Sometimes, mail is transported in mail bags and on carts or moved to file storage, requiring constant movement and occasionally heavy lifting.
Although many organizations today employ data entry clerks as a cursory nod to electronic record keeping, the potential for the digital mailroom goes far beyond logging in mail. This article outlines ways that scanning, digital storage, and process automation can help organizations save time, money, and backaches associated with traditional mailroom processing. It also shares ideas for reallocating mailroom staffs to parallel duties in a digital world, ensuring their skills are maximized for the good of the organization, and enabling organizations to do more with existing resources.
Centralizing information: creating electronic documents and transaction records
Good business decisions depend on complete and timely information. From accounts receivable through policy renewal, loan approval, and signed contracts, time is of the essence. Unfortunately, mail that is “in process” means that all too often, decisions are made as critical, decision-changing information awaits processing in the mailroom. Even the quickest and most efficient staff still has to get the mail from the mailroom to where it is needed, and that takes time.
Document scanning puts all of a company’s paper-based information – including letters, forms, photographs, and other images – into a centralized system that provides instant access. Also, it has the advantage of letting an organization pre-designate which documents, and even which pages of documents, can be viewed by which persons. In addition to date- and time-stamping the receipt of materials, it tracks who has accessed or had any interaction with the records, facilitating organizational compliance while requiring minimal human involvement.
Matching like documents for speedy delivery: bar codes and batch scanning
Companies that process loan applications, insurance claims, patient admissions, or student applications have to process a high number of similar documents every day. From copying and filing to typing in contact information, reference numbers, and other critical data, mailroom clerks have to process information quickly, while verifying data integrity and quality before records are delivered or filed.
Companies that add critical customer information to bar codes on their outgoing forms dramatically expedite processing as completed forms are returned. As documents re-enter the office, identical document types can be sorted into batches for quick scanning. Bar code recognition software pulls up the correct document, scans the typewritten or handwritten material on the forms, and immediately puts the documents into a queue to be indexed and then validated. A process that would have required minutes, or even hours, can be done in a matter of seconds. Scanned material that the software recognizes as insufficient in quality sends an alert for manual verification, helping to ensure accuracy.
Ensuring successful search: different strokes for different folks
After documents have been scanned into the system, they need to be indexed sufficiently so that the different types of people who will ultimately access the materials can find what they need without difficulty. Robust document management systems have the capability to take batches of like documents and pull information from pre-designated fields automatically, which dramatically expedites the indexing process. Persons responsible for indexing documents receive scanned documents in their work queues, and can add further indexing information and verify indexing data that appears on their screens. Piles of documents that previously required hours of manual data entry and data for tracking can be scanned automatically and indexed in a fraction of the time.
Indexing information in a way that addresses various end user needs requires careful planning. It is important to take time to understand the information diverse people need from the same forms, and what terms they typically use to organize and search for information. For example, a college application might contain contact information, a student identification number, financial data, college loans, grade point average, and more. One person might need to pull up a list of students with a certain grade point average; another might need a list of students with a particular type of loan; and others might pull student lists by financial need. All of these fields need to be indexed clearly so people get the lists and related documents they need to perform their jobs efficiently.
Providing secure, desktop access: Web-based document storage
The ability to access information whenever it is needed, from any location, delivers additional flexibility not only to workers, but also to their constituents. The moment new mail is scanned into the system and indexed, it is immediately available to everyone who is preauthorized to access it. Is the claims office waiting for supporting documentation or images to settle a time-sensitive claim? A document management system can be set to send alerts as soon as missing information is received. Is a prospective student waiting for your decision letter so he can decide whether to attend your institution? As soon as the last piece of documentation is received, your office can be notified so you can make the decision, notify the student, and elicit a quicker response. Do you have business executives or agents on the road, who are waiting for important mail? You can put an end to repeat phone inquiries about the status of information, ensuring that document receipt results in immediate, automatic notification, wherever your workers happen to be, as long as they have Internet access to your system.
Pushing work where it is needed: digital workflow as the mailroom runner
Adding digital workflow to your document management solution is a major step forward in any organization’s efficiency. The arrival of new mail, photos, images, or data in the digital information repository can launch a series of job-related tasks in accordance with your preset business rules. If a claim was missing vital photo documentation, and the required photo images are added to the digital repository, the system can send the claim and all of its supporting documentation to be processed. When a college application arrives without requested financial information, a letter can be generated automatically to ask for the missing materials. When a loan application is received without the necessary signatures, the application can be returned along with a note indicating a signature is required. Materials that are marked as urgent can automatically be put at the top of the worker’s queue to ensure that they receive priority attention.
The power of electronic workflow lies in its flexibility. Just as a mail runner can take the mail wherever it needs to go in order to ensure paper lands where it is required, digital workflow pushes work forward in a hierarchical sequence, following the rules that you establish. A mail runner may deliver sensitive mail to its destination, only to find the employee away from his desk, resulting in files that are susceptible to unwanted views or necessitating a second delivery attempt. With workflow, only individuals who are permitted to view information can do so, and materials are delivered for processing when the time is right. Digital workflow ensures that the most important tasks are handled first, that work moves forward to pre-designated alternate staff in the even of absence, and enables all persons to receive materials simultaneously when multiple reviews are required.
Process automation mechanizes your business processes, ensuring that information and procedures are complete and consistent. No matter what your business rules, processes, and standard exceptions for business are, they can be handled more efficiently and effectively with digital workflow. Putting the power of mail delivery and process execution onto the desktops of your workers allows you to redirect the talents of your mailroom staff. They can process more work, faster, helping your organization to get ahead of rising costs and increasing information.
Maintaining directories and processing returned mail: avoiding costly delays
Another advantage of automation is the efficient maintenance of internal and external mail directories and timely handling of returned mail. A digital mailroom that is integrated with other line-of-business applications can be instructed to notify persons who are using those systems that a modification to the central mail system has been made, and should be added to their systems. Outgoing mail containing bar codes with encrypted information such an address, a reference or ID number, and the type of document that was enclosed have the potential to launch an entire sequence of events that result in quick, updated information. As returned mail is received, the mailroom staff can scan the barcodes, which can create a log (and ultimately a list) of mail that was returned on a specific day, indicating whether the address was insufficient or incorrect, or that the forwarding date has expired.
When a document management system is tied to digital workflow, an insufficient address note in the system can send the addressee’s telephone number to designated staff for a follow-up call to request the correct address. If it is also tied to a phone system, automated calls can be made to request this information, making data collection faster and smoother, without human intervention. If a new address is noted in the system, electronic workflow can deliver alerts to the appropriate staff that information needs to be updated in other systems, or the system can be pre-instructed to update information in other business software systems so that all information matches.
Automating business processes directly from the mailroom puts Mercury’s wings back on the heels of the mail runner, without any physical exertion. No longer restricted to performing a series of all-too-urgent runs in sequence, the magic wand of digital workflow lets him run everywhere simultaneously, within seconds. The possibilities for process efficiency are limited only to the power of the system that is chosen and the vision and creativity of the organization that is using it.
Reallocating staff wisely: maximizing knowledge of the mailroom
If the phrase “mailroom automation” instills fear in your workers that they might lose their jobs, there are positive ways to address this that can help them to embrace the change. Many companies reallocate mailroom staff from photocopying, sorting, delivering mail, and creating mailroom reports to similar duties in the automation process. Mailroom staff can easily shift their focus to scanning and indexing documents, and can process much higher volumes of material more quickly. Tedious mailroom reports that were previously compiled on paper or through extensive manual data entry can be pulled directly from transaction information that is tracked digitally in the document management system. Staff talents and time can be redirected toward providing more and better services to constituents, and over time, attrition through retirement and turnover can address management’s concern of what to do with members of staff who are no longer needed.
Keeping costs down and attitudes up
One of the most noticeable benefits of digital mailroom processing is the considerable reduction in mailroom costs, and that should bring a smile to any mailroom manager’s face. Document photocopying costs are eliminated, replaced by digital storage that can be available digitally to those who are permitted to access them. Paper and printing costs are dramatically reduced as result. Distribution and delivery costs (postage and shipping) decrease with the addition of workflow, pushing documents and files along with the appropriate instructions to the right people electronically – both faster and less expensively. Staff can do more, without physical exertion and with less stress. Customers and other staff who frequently interact with mailroom staff receive more accurate and complete information, faster. “I can’t seem to locate that document,” “we don’t appear to have received it yet,” or “that information was delivered to department X this morning,” are phrases of the past. Speedy service with a smile can return to your mailroom.
At its most basic level, Web-based mailroom automation allows your staff members to collect, organize, and store information efficiently for your organization, so the right people can access it securely whenever and wherever they need it. When deployed to maximize its potential, it gives the mailroom staff the keys to launch, or add to, business processes that are vital to every area of the company through the arrival and expeditious digital handling of mail. Eliciting buy-in from your mailroom staff and communicating with them regularly is vital for them to embrace change and be successful. Everyone wants to be a star, and an effective digital mailroom gives staff a little ‘mailroom magic’ that takes them closer to the dream, one step at a time.