The Customer Perspective and the Postal Paradigm

I was reading an article on the USPS, written by one of the largest mailers in the country, about the potential downfall of the postal service. It was a plea to get the postal service to listen to the voice of their customers about products and services. It referenced other customer groups who were upset at the poor customer service at each of the 37,000 “retail” outlets.

It got me thinking about who the customers of the postal service really are. So I came up with the thought of trying to identify all of their different customer groups, and then look at the different perspectives of each one.

The Universal Theme / Everyone is a Customer

Everyone gets mail delivered to their residence 6 days a week. The current population of the US is about 310,000,000. So in essence, this represents the USPS’s customer base. Some have no more contact with the postal service than to put mail in and take mail out of the box at their residence. In this instance, how can you have bad service? Others choose to actually go to the post office and those would fall into one of the following categories.

The Retail Customer / Personal

This would be the occasional stamp buyer and those who send packages out for birthdays and holidays. These occasional customers know what they are getting into when they go to their local post office and expect to wait in line and have a moderate customer service experience. It’s the post office for crying out loud, it has always been like that and they put up with it. These people generally view the postal service as a government run agency.

The Retail Customer / Small Business

These customers view the USPS more as a business and this group is a bit deeper into the “customer service” mentality and do not take kindly to inefficiency and complacency. To them, time is money and a trip to the “retail” counter of their local post office is a painful experience. These customers stand in line with the other customers who may or may not value their time the same way. The “retail” counters are basic store fronts located at the processing facility necessary to get the local mail delivered, and these “retail” counters are basically viewed as a revenue side-business. There are no retail industry measurements made here to justify existence, so the term “retail” is used loosely when identifying customer service interaction with the USPS.

The Commercial Customer / Small to Mid-Size Business

These folks are the backbone of the direct marketing industry and represent a vast network of printers, lettershops, envelope manufactures, data processing firms, and marketing agencies to name just a few. These folks are the most under-represented group and this makes life extremely difficult for small to mid-sized mailers. The mailings must be taken to the local Bulk Mail Entry Unit (BMEU) and mailers are made to jump through hoops to hopefully get their mail accepted. Oh, and by the way, in their mind you are not the customer here, you are just the mailing agent. The customer service attitude at this level went into a black hole sometime back in the 1990s and the environment is more concentration camp than customer service. These customers have the right to be angry. With that said, are you over it yet? Now get back to work. Such is life in the trenches at this level.

The Commercial Customer / Large Volume Mailers

Here is where you generate so much mail that the postal service will actually bring the post office to you. These customers generate such a large amount of revenue that they experience customer service on a level all its own. They work the acceptance of mail into a fine art and you must when you are generating many truckloads of mail daily. Not to say that they don’t have problems at this level, they are just easier problems to fix. These customers are well represented and some are even involved in the planning process within the postal service. The decisions of equipment and procedure are crafted at this level and the outcome will most likely dictate future postal requirements.

So there, in my humble opinion, is the breakdown of who I believe constitutes a postal customer and a bit about their perspective on postal customer service.

Now let’s look at the postal service as a customer focused, service oriented, retail outlet, delivery business. Everyone these days likes to compare the USPS to a corporation and that may not be the best comparison.

A corporation is controlled by a Board of Directors who agrees to hire a CEO to lead the business in an agreed upon direction to achieve the greatest return for the stockholders. The Board of Directors is represented by experienced industry professionals. The CEO is given the reigns and then makes decisions to achieve the greatest return possible. The decision to expand the business in good times must be balanced with the decisions to reduce costs and downsize during bad times. We saw DHL pull out of Wilmington, Ohio and decimate the local community with the loss of 10,000 jobs. Sad, yes but it had to happen for the benefit of DHL. The company shifted focus and is working to remain profitable in the US market.

The USPS is controlled by a political Board of Governors who agree to hire someone to lead the business, but they must continue to offer universal service to every address six days a week, without closing under-performing facilities, without lowering payroll by reducing hours or by layoffs, by only raising rates based on inflation and only with a lengthy approval process, by pre-funding the employee retirement fund, and to do this all without making a profit. By law, the USPS is not allowed to make a profit. They operate under a break-even mandate.

The postal service is a government run agency disguised as a business. If it is to compete in the real world, it must shed many of the governmental restrictions and be allowed to function as a business.  Maybe then they will be in a better position to listen to, and act on, customer feedback.