U.S. Postal Service CPO Talks Privacy Strategy

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Reprinted by permission from INSIDE 1to1: Privacy, June 2002

Few companies know more about balancing customer need, data security, and regulatory compliance as the United States Postal Service (USPS). We recently sat down with Zoe Strickland, chief privacy officer at the USPS, to find out how this corporate and federal giant is combining its customer-focused vision with strong privacy policies and practices.

Running with the pack

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The USPS faces the same strategic, technical, and operational challenges common to businesses looking to leverage and protect customer data. The key issue, explains Strickland, is, “How do you coordinate these two trends that are happening at the same time?” Like many firms, the USPS is in the process of bringing a product-focused approach—and the accompanying data silos—into the customer-focused era. “In the late 1990s,” recalls Strickland, “a lot of companies were building stuff around products, and programs were siloed not only in terms of management but also in terms of back-end systems. Firms often had the same data on the same customer but in different places, and they weren’t even aware of it.”

The similarities end there

But unlike any other company in the United States, the USPS touches every consumer in America about once every week and a half, and 7 million consumers go through postal lobbies every business day. Another unique difference is sheer size. “We’ve got 800,000 people, $68 billion dollars of revenue per year, and a lot of active programs and customer data,” says Strickland. Add to this its connection to the federal government, which requires the USPS to comply with a number of statutes, most notably the Federal Privacy Act. The act was created in 1974 for a hard copy world, so applying it to modern technology and marketing concepts is challenging indeed.

Formulating a privacy practice that also permits the USPS to maximize customer data is no easy task. Strickland says step one is, “asking your business and technology teams, ‘How do we get consistent practices out there so we can unlock the value of that data?'” Success turns on collaboration—working closely with marketing, IT, and other stakeholders to develop an enterprise privacy policy that not only secures data, but also allows the USPS to capture customer preferences to build long-term relationships. Once created, the challenge is bringing the policy to the thousands of USPS employees who touch customers and their data. To that end, says Strickland, “We’re getting a handbook together, and we’re planning a big training session at the end of 2003.”

Step two is consistency, says Strickland. “The goal is to have an integrated policy instead of having a separate policy for the Privacy Act, a separate policy for Graham Leach Bliley, and separate ones for online and offline.” This may be difficult, she adds, but the payoffs are also considerable. Backed by a consistent policy, “You can not only take into account different channels, you can also maintain a unique relationship with each customer segment based on business need, and integrate privacy into each segment.”

Meeting the needs of millions

“We have marketing initiatives to meet the various needs of our customers, from the national ‘mailers’ and the multi-million dollar customers down to the individual,” says Strickland, “and we’ve developed privacy practices appropriate to each.” Getting there required integrating data from across the enterprise and touchpoints in order to eliminate data redundancies. The result is a significant reduction in unnecessary cost. Another big success is CPO visibility. Strickland and team have become key components of the core business processes of the USPS.

Some parting thoughts

So what privacy advice does Strickland have for her fellow CPOs and other execs? “Know who is collecting what data and what they’re doing with it,” she says. Second, know your organization and be prepared to lead. “The postal service has developed a cross-functional team to advise on privacy policies and processes,” explains Strickland. Also, use your internal communications team wisely to disseminate your message across the firm. Most importantly, have a vision, stresses Strickland. Ask yourself, “Where do I want to be a year or two from now, in developing policies, training, and positioning my organization appropriately in terms of customers and privacy?” Only then can you start to make a difference, one customer at a time.

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