NCOA? CASS? AKA: My New Job

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It’s about time that I posted exactly what it is I’m doing now that I left Bulldog Solutions. As I told a friend in an e-mail last week, I’ve gone from a job that is 2 miles wide and 2 inches deep, to a job that is 1 inch wide and 10 miles deep! And, so far, it’s been fun.

I’m now a Senior Consultant of Marketing Information Management at Nationwide (yes, that Nationwide — Nationwide: Car Insurance plus home and property insurance plus financial services — a company that has roughly 1,000 times as many employees as my last job. That has been an adjustment in and of itself, since Nationwide is still ~10X as big (employees-wise) as National Instruments (NI), which was by far the largest company I had ever worked for before my current position. Beyond the first six letters of their names, the companies have a lot of similarities — both are driven by a belief that, at the end of the day, they are in the business of improving the lives of individuals (NI through technology, Nationwide through insurance and financial services). Both have a strong focus on their employees that they back up with innovative programs designed to drive employee development and employee job satisfaction. They both have a strong commitment to their local communities. So, in a way, I feel like I’m coming home, even if it’s to a different house!

As for my role, I’m also coming home in some ways. I’ve joined the Customer Insights and Analytics team, which has many of the same responsibilities as the Business Intelligence team that I managed at NI. It’s a matter of scale — where I had one person at NI, there are dozens of people at Nationwide. And, Nationwide is primarily a B2C company, while NI was primarily B2B, so it’s not an exact mapping. Specifically, I’m focussed on address management. Nationwide is a company that’s been around for a long time, has a diverse set of products, and has a diverse set of systems supporting those products. Nationwide sends a lot of mail in support of the insurance and financial services products it sells. And…mailing addresses can get pretty messy. My role, in a nutshell, is to improve the way the company manages mailing addresses across the company.

As it turns out, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) does a lot to support the cleansing and management of mailing addresses in the U.S. Specifically:

  • Standardization of addresses — have you ever noticed that, if you go to Google Maps and type in an address, the actual address that displayes in the results is often slightly different? For instance, if you search for “6903 Treaty Oak Circle, Austin, TX,” Google Maps will return “6903 Treaty Oak Cir, Austin, TX.” That’s basic standardization: Circle –> Cir. The USPS has a robust standardization and  validation system called the Coding Accuracy Support System, or CASS. In addition to standards such as how to properly abbreviate Circle, Drive, Street, etc., the standard includes rules on where apartment and suite numbers are placed and how they are formatted. It also includes:
    • ZIP+4 data — the four digits you sometimes see tacked on to the end of your zip code that you’ve always known further narrow down your location beyond the broad area covered by the basic 5-digit zip code
    • A database for actually validating a particular address is deliverable called Delivery Point Validation (DPV) — a sender can look up that the street number (and suite/apartment number) in an address is actually a place that the postal service knows how to deliver to
    • A system for looking up addresses that have been changed to improve 911 responders capabilities. A lot of rural routes get converted as local municipalities upgrade their 911 systems. Heck — I grew up on “212 S Mitchell” in a tiny town in southeast Texas, and that address got changed when I was in my teens for just that reason. More commonly, it’s the “RR 9″-type addresses that get changed.

You can actually go to a USPS page and enter an address to get the full, CASS-certified address (or, in many cases, addresses — the system will show you if you’ve entered an ambiguous address) in return. HOURS (or at least a couple of minutes) of fun…

  • Management of moves — when you move, be it across town, to another state, or to another country, you (hopefully) fill out one of those yellow cards at the post office. This puts you in the National Change of Address (NCOA) system, which serves a much broader purpose than just telling the post office where to forward your mail. The USPS actually makes that data available to companies so that they can update their records with the information. This is a lot trickier than you might think, as I’ve personally experienced. Suppose, for instance, that our system has “John & Mary Smith” as the addressee on a mailing address. Suppose John and Mary get divorced (so sad…) and Mary moves out. Now, hopefully, they contacted us and got their policy updated, but the divorce is messy and rife with stress and details, so it slipped their mind. Mary did fill out one of those yellow cards, though, when she moved out. So, then we find out that Mary has moved. What do we do? Obviously, the best we can do through automation is notify the appropriate people that a manual follow-up is needed.

Ultimately, there’s only so much that can be automated. In this area, all any company really wants to do is ensure that the mail it sends to you gets into your hands. The above only scratches the surface of what is involved there. And, Nationwide is actually delivering on this end goal fairly effectively, but not necessarily efficiently. My role? In collaboration with our IT organization, drive a fairly wholesale change as to how all of this address management happens. It’s efficiency first, but will also garner some incremental quality gains in the process. And, it will position us for further quality gains in the future. It’s actually…fun stuff!

A final note on a couple of mental adjustments that this role has brought on that I totally didn’t see coming (I saw the “Big Company” thing coming, even if it’s still thrown me a bit):

  • U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A! — I realize…now…that there has been a steady and growing undercurrent of “The World Is Flat”-ness running through my various roles over the past 5+ years. I haven’t worked on a system that hasn’t run into “the dual byte issue.” I can articulate how “localization” is different from “translation” and why the distinction matters. I can quickly calculate the time in most major foreign countries give or take a couple of hours if I know the current time (geography was never my strong suit, but we’re talking practical time zone differences here). All of the sudden, I’m working for a company that, at least customer-wise, is almost exclusively US-based. I’m still adjusting to the fact that that is just how this industry works — it’s not a major oversight!
  • Um…ever heard of e-mail? — my involvement with internet marketing goes back over a decade now. My last job was at a company that was actively trying to figure out how to market effectively in the Web 2.0 world. And I’m working on snail mail! That’s actually an easier adjustment than the above. Nationwide has scads of initiatives going on that are driven by the internet — from a discussion with a fellow I initially met through Twitter who is now at Nationwide, the company is actually fairly forward thinking about Web 2.0 and social media (if this blog entry mysteriously disappears after a few days…we’ll all know I was wrong on that front!). The reality is that I’ve been living a somewhat insulated existence — immersed in internet-focussed jobs, with internet-savvy friends and relatives (do YOU have an octogenarian great-uncle who is on the internet every day and reads your blog?! I do!). While there has been an explosion of Internet usage, that doesn’t necessarily mean the masses have a high level of comfort with the Internet when it comes to managing their relationships with their insurance company! Snail mail isn’t going away any time soon! And, compared to e-mail, it’s expensive, so companies need to manage it effectively.

So, that’s what I’m doing, in a gargantuan nutshell. I’m hoping to start getting settled in to the point that I’ll have the mental energy to share my thoughts and challenges on the occasional evening via this blog!

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