Snail Mail 2.0
The remodel of a dining hall at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro was going to displace more than 5,000 student mailboxes.
While thousands of those mailboxes were used infrequently—having been abandoned in the age of email and social media—they couldn’t be discarded entirely because there were still care packages from mom and dad and the occasional Amazon order to deliver.
The problem was less postal than logistical. No wonder, then, that UNCG turned to a technical development specialist to solve the problem when the head of postal services left her position.
“It was a big shift. I’m one of the most technical people I know,” says Robert Walker, UNCG’s new director of business services and systems. “I’m basically a programmer and database guy at heart, and they said, ‘Now you’re going to be in charge of all this paper.’ ”
Analyzing the data, Walker discovered that only about 2,000 mailboxes were in use during any given semester and that mail to students had dropped about 15 percent. The university could cut its postal capacity but had no way of knowing which students would receive mail and when.
Rather than fight students’ evolving communications habits, Walker embraced them. In the Spartan Mail Management system he set up, mailboxes are not assigned but are used on an as-needed basis.
When mail—either an envelope or a package—arrives for a student, it is placed in one of the boxes or on a shelf, and an email message is sent to the recipient requesting a pick-up. Once the mail has been retrieved, the box or shelf space is free to be used for other students’ mail.
Under the old system, in which each student had an assigned box, much of what was delivered was bulk mail. Students disliked having to go to their mailboxes only to find junk.
Now, though, “they love the fact that they don’t get an email from us unless it’s specifically for them and it’s important,” he says. “We’ve basically become Amazon fulfillment services. We’re all about getting those boxes in the students’ hands. That’s what they want, so why not change and do it that way?”
Spartan Mail Management enabled UNCG to cut mailboxes by 80 percent and the size of its mail services operation by 70 percent. The system saves the university about $65,000 annually in personnel and maintenance expenses. Implementing a homegrown solution—rather than buying a system from a vendor—saves an additional $100,000, plus recurring fees.
And in keeping with how his project began, as well as his own background, Walker relies heavily on analytics to make sure things run smoothly.
“We had suspicions, but now we have data,” he says, “and some of the stuff has been surprising, so it let us know how to shift our resources.”