Sprint's Green Connection
by Allan Nahajewski
Sprint finds environmental goodness and savings in two-way ecoEnvelopes
How would you like to save a half-million dollars a year, mitigate your impact on the environment and build your brand’s reputation as an environmental leader?
That's exactly what Sprint is doing with the launch of their new paper bill that allows customers to receive and remit payment using the same envelope-making bill payment easier, minimizing mail costs, reducing paper use, and lowering environmental impact. The Kansas-based company, with more than 56 million customers, was actually named No. 3 on Newsweek's 2011 Green Rankings.
The two-way mailer created by ecoEnvelopes (watch a video about ecoEnvelopes) means customers reduce paper waste and conserve natural resources. In just over a year, Sprint estimates the new envelope format will save just under a half-million dollars in operational costs and the equivalent of:
• 447 tons of paper
• 1,669 tons of wood, or 11,565 trees
• 9,931,834 gallons of water, or 15 Olympic-sized swimming pools
• 859,047 pounds of solid waste, or 31 loaded garbage trucks
• 2,692,185 pounds of CO2, or 244 cars off the road/year
The vision of the concept was several years in the making, ultimately requiring the efforts of eight external partners and 12 internal departments. From approval to pilot, the implementation was completed in nine months.
“This really is a breakthrough,” says Gale Ward of the Minnesota-based ecoEnvelopes. “To my knowledge, Sprint is the first large mailer to implement a two-way mailing initiative of this scope.”
Sprint mails invoices in two-way envelopes to 9 million wireless customers per month. Like most companies, many customers still want to receive a paper bill, despite the benefits of electronic billing. Given that 65% of Sprint's wireless customers still choose to receive their bills via mail, rather than electronically, Sprint went about finding a more eco-friendly solution "Mail is a viable channel for Sprint," says Keanon Swan, manager, Postal strategy and vendor management for Sprint. "We cannot alienate customers simply because they haven't chosen to go electronic. We believe in customer choice, and all channels are important to us."
How it started
Swan first learned about ecoEnvelopes several years ago at a trade show. He was immediately intrigued by the idea, but he realized the timing had to be right to champion such a major change in the company. At the time, Sprint was going through a merger, then a major bill redesign.
In 2008, Sprint tested the ecoEnvelope on high-speed equipment in its Sacramento facility with promising results. "Initial high-volume machine testing gave us the confidence to move forward," says Swan. The project, however, was delayed again as Sprint was transitioning to a new mail service provider.
So when the timing was right, Swan approached DST Output, Sprint's new customer communications provider, and envelope manufacturer Tension Corporation to discuss ways to produce the ecoEnvelope and then process it in a high-speed statement processing environment.
"They welcomed the innovation with open arms," he says. "We worked on a new prototype in January of 2011, and by June, we began testing prototypes. In October, we launched our pilot."
The three-month pilot involved 300,000 customers.
"Being first meant there was no reference data available about customer acceptance, so we built objective data collection tools and created analytic techniques," says Swan.
Sprint's opinion on the matter
"From the focus groups we conducted, customers said they thought the envelope was cool, they felt Sprint was leading the way, and they felt connected to our sustainability efforts. The feedback was neutral to positive," says Swan.
During the pilot, Sprint conducted phone surveys. The results echoed the focus group input. The official rollout of the two-way envelope began in February with a staggered launch so that internal customer support systems experienced no changes in call volume. Phone surveys continue as an important part of Sprint's continuous improvement process.
"Our goal from the beginning was to implement a two-in-one envelope that helped Sprint engage our customers in our sustainability efforts," says Swan. "We viewed the monthly bill as an appointment with our customers. When our customers received the ecoEnvelope, we wanted our environmental message front and center, and to use the ecoEnvelope to actively engage our customers in our sustainability efforts."
Swan said they were able to implement several paper reduction and Postal incentive initiatives along the way to further their cost benefit efforts. The initiatives included lighter-weight paper and envelopes. They also worked closely with the Postal Service to participate in the Reply Rides Free Incentive Program and the 2011 Mobile Barcode Promotion. Sprint reinvested some of the savings from those efforts into other sustainability initiatives, including the ecoEnvelopes project.
"We looked at the ROI and saw that there were both hard savings and an environmental savings to the tune of over 400 tons of paper," says Swan. "We saw it as a way to reduce our Postal material costs and our paper consumption and drive environmental benefits. We also saw it as a way to give our customers a responsible choice of continuing to use mail while being more environmentally sustainable."
Green mail is cool mail
Internally, the project is being celebrated as a success. Project manager Patty Carlson received a Circle of Excellence Award, one of the company's top honors for employees, for pulling together the pilot effort.
"It was exciting for us to pursue such a large-scale project because we felt it was the right thing to do to engage our customers in a way that reinforced our brand's commitment to sustainability and impacted our bottom line," says Swan.
"We have an organization that encourages innovation and fosters creativity," he adds. "I think the lesson learned here is to fully leverage all of your opportunities. It's easy to focus on migration to paperless billing and payment, but that doesn't mean that we should stop trying to find ways to make the mail channel more innovative tor the customers who still choose to use it."
Swan says the project has "reinvigorated the conversation about mail in our company," and comes at a time when the U.S. Postal Service is offering compelling incentives. Sprint is now exploring revenue opportunities, since the new envelope allows inserts, in an effort to better communicate to customers and to engage them in sustainable practices.