By MARK JAMISON
It looks like the folks in L’Enfant Plaza will be the last to acknowledge what everyone else in the country already knows — customer service at the Postal Service is going way down hill, and fast.
The plant consolidations have resulted in delayed mail, late delivery, and countless other service problems. Under POStPlan, service has declined due to reducing hours at post offices and replacing experienced postmasters with poorly trained and underpaid personnel. The shift from door and curb delivery to cluster boxes has confused and angered thousands of customers. When customers try calling to complain, they can’t even get hold of their local post office.
Everyday there are news reports about such problems. Postal officials say they’re just trying to make the system more “efficient” and to act “like a business,” but what they’re doing is taking the “service” out of Postal Service. When they’re done, we’re going to end up with a United State Postal Corporation, and customer service is not going to be high on the agenda.
Much of the problem has to do with the way policies and initiatives that come out of postal headquarters get interpreted in the field. As much as the Postal Service is a top-down autocracy that tries to micromanage everything, many senior and mid-level managers at the district and local level can get quite creative about how they understand directives from above. In their zeal to please their superiors, employees can end up interpreting policies and regulations in ways that make very little sense.
For example, it’s well known that the folks at headquarters would like to see a shift from door delivery to cluster boxes, but it’s postal policy not to change a customer’s mode of delivery without permission. Nonetheless, last year the managers in the North Florida District decided to negotiate with the government agency that oversees Jekyll Island, Georgia, and together they decided that the island could keep its post office only if residents gave up door delivery — without getting the residents’ approval for the change.
In Freistatt, Missouri, Rick Belcher, the POOM representing the Mid-Americas District, decided that cluster boxes were the only alternative form of delivery that would be made available to residents after their local post office was closed because of a lease issue. This was in spite of the fact that rural curb delivery was already available throughout the area.
Then there was the story about the book publisher in Virginia who was told by a local manager that he could no longer use Media Mail to send his books — even though he’d been mailing that way for 22 years. His customers, by the way, are members of the military.
Making up the rules
During my postal career I witnessed many examples of local managers making up new rules or interpreting existing rules in ways they thought fit with initiatives being pushed from the top. Delivery extensions were often denied pro forma, even though customers met the requirements. Customers who should have qualified for Group E post office boxes — the free post office boxes available to customers who don’t get street delivery — were sometimes told they weren’t entitled to a free box based on narrow and often fictitious interpretations of the regulations.
When Priority Flat Rate envelopes first came out, managers across the country directed clerks to implement all sorts of rules about how much tape could be used or how much a customer could stuff into an envelope — without much regard for what the actual policies were. (For the record, you can’t rebuild the sides of the envelope to make it broader, but you can use tape to reinforce the existing seals.)
Another issue has to do with the policy on Saturday hours at post offices. A couple of years before POStPlan, the Mid-Carolinas District, where I spent much of my career, began eliminating Saturday hours at many small post offices. This was done based on questionable data and with minimal justification, but there probably weren’t too many complaints because the post office was open a full day, Monday through Friday.
But then POStPlan came along, and weekday hours were reduced at thousands of post offices. The Postal Service decided to maintain Saturday hours for those that were still open on Saturdays, but that didn’t help the post offices in the Mid-Carolinas District where Saturday had already been cut, and there was naturally no possibility that these offices would get their Saturday hours back. That lack of Saturday hours undermined the very purpose of POStPlan, which was supposedly instituted to match hours to need. Cutting weekday hours in offices without Saturday hours only exacerbated the inconvenience.
The Mid-Carolinas District has also taken to pressing the regulations regarding holiday closings. In recent years, post offices often close early the day before legal holidays — a tactic that can result in significant delays for outgoing mail.
Logos on the box
After all I’ve seen, I really wasn’t surprised when I walked into a Mid-Carolinas District post office a couple of months ago and watched a retail clerk tell a customer that he couldn’t mail a box of books using Media Mail. There wasn’t any question what was in the box — the customer opened the box and showed the clerk that it contained nothing but books. What was at issue was a new “ruling” that had been circulated to retail offices. Henceforth packages being sent at the Media Mail rate could no longer bear any markings other than the address and return address.
Now, in this case, the customer was not reusing a Priority box, which would have been against the rules, and we’re not talking about a box whose markings indicate it had originally contained a non-mailable item. Both those prohibitions are well known. No, in this case clerks had been instructed to ban any boxes with logos or other markings, ostensibly under the regulation that Media Mail cannot contain advertising.
That, however, is not what the regulations say. Notice 121 states pretty clearly what the restrictions on Media Mail are. The ban on advertising applies to the content of the box, not the box itself, and if there’s a suspicion that a Media Mail box contains prohibited materials, there are established procedures that allow postal employees to inspect it.
Now why would a clerk say that you can’t use Media Mail if there’s a logo on the box? My guess is that some overzealous manager at the District level had decided to reinterpret the regulations in his or her own unique way, perhaps in order to limit the use of inexpensive Media Mail. In this instance, the clerk suggested that the customer use a Priority mail box or buy a Ready Post box, both of which would have generated more revenue for the Postal Service.
After witnessing this exchange, I went to three other postal counters in the area and found the same information on Media Mail packaging was being given out. I began asking questions of some folks I knew in the District, and I also filed a FOIA request for any memos relating to the Media Mail policy in the District. I never got an answer to my FOIA, but I was told by one employee that when he asked for further clarification on the policy, he was pointed to Notice 121. Previous instructions weren’t even acknowledged.
Need a Certificate of Mailing receipt?
The other day I stood in line at a local post office and watched as the retail employee told a customer who was dropping off a prepaid Parcel Return item that if she wanted a receipt showing mailing she could pay $1.30 for a Certificate of Mailing. Never mind that when the clerk used POS to do an entry scan a receipt was automatically generated. It shouldn’t matter anyway since the whole point of all the scanning is to provide transparency for prepaid items like Parcel Return or Priority mail done through Click-and-Ship.
I called around to people at several offices and got varying stories about why a customer would need to pay extra for a Certificate of Mailing receipt. It appears there had been a teleconference where this was discussed, but it’s not clear what the goal was. The point may have been to give retail clerks a new item or service to sell — “Hey, do you want a receipt that shows you mailed the item? Well, for $1.30 you can get a Certificate of Mailing.” Or perhaps the District was trying to capture a source of leaking revenue — all those people getting “free” receipts for something they had scanning evidence of anyway.
Both explanations are a problem. Either way, the Postal Service has failed to act as an organization whose primary reason for existence is service. In the first instance, asking if you want to pay for a service you shouldn’t need and probably don’t want seems like just another example of the Postal Service viewing customers as little more than ATMs – easy sources of revenue extraction. In the second instance, one wonders why the Postal Service would suggest to customers that they should pay for a proof of mailing, especially when considering how well the USPS vaunted tracking services work. (Reading some of the message boards where people who do e-commerce congregate leads one to believe that maybe the scanning and transparency aren’t as good as the PMG claims.)
While the PMG takes every opportunity to brag about USPS scanning, the performance acceptances scans have lagged far behind determined targets. Just a few weeks ago, the OIG issued a report entitled “Readiness for Package Growth — Customer Service Operations” that found the Postal Service had failed miserably in meeting its acceptance scan targets. Despite an FY2013 national goal of 98 percent, the Postal Service only managed to achieve rates of 90.70 to 92.61 percent, with a final reading of 94.8 percent for scans in the critical areas of Parcel Select and other package services.
Customers, especially retail customers, are led to believe that the items they return through Parcel Select and Parcel Return are receiving end-to-end transparency, when in fact there remain significant holes in the system. The integrity of the system relies on accurate scanning. Customers shouldn’t need receipts to prove they mailed an item that receives scanning, and they certainly shouldn’t be charged because the system fails to offer its promised performance.
Setting the record straight
I e-mailed the Mid-Carolinas District Manager asking if the two instances I’ve mentioned above are a reflection of District policy or the result of an overactive POOM or perhaps just overzealous employees. I got a reply from Monica Coachman, the District’s public relations manager, saying she would get back to me with a response. A week later I hadn’t heard from Ms. Coachman, so I e-mailed her again. Eventually I got a response pointing me to sections of the DMM on certificates of mailing and Media Mail – neither of which addressed the specifics of my questions.
Actually that’s pretty standard fare. Question a District policy and you’ll typically get a response saying that they are just following existing regulations. If a local policy is questioned in the press — like when a postmaster tells customers that they’re getting switched to cluster boxes without their permission — the District will say the instructions are being “clarified” or rescinded or it was all just a “misunderstanding.”
That seems to be the case with what I witnessed concerning the Certificate of Mailing and the Media Mail box. Some of the folks I spoke with said that they had received clarifications on both policies, essentially referring them to the same sections of the DMM I was sent to. But these “clarifications” don’t really address the heart of the problem.
The Postal Service is very good at papering over such complaints, and it is well practiced in issuing self-serving press releases that attempt to cast a positive light on deteriorating service. Dave Partenheimer, Manager of Media Relations, has been very aggressive lately in responding to criticisms of the Postal Service. He has placed comments in the comment sections of news blogs and regular news media, and on at least two occasions he has written to STPO to question our reporting. Recently the Postal Service announced an internal website that would be devoted to “setting the record straight” on misinformation in the news.
After a few observers questioned why the page would not be available more widely, the Postal Service set up a “Setting the Record Straight” page on its website. Unfortunately, the articles and letters on this page are filled with even more misinformation. For example, one effort to set things straight says, “Staples joins with more than 65,000 retailers . . . who currently provide expanded access to postal products and services.” The statement doesn’t mention that these 65,000 locations just sell stamps, and none of them is a postal counter in a big box store.
The Postal Service is going to tell the story it wants told and it’s going to spin things its way. If you listen to the PMG and USPS spokespersons, the Postal Service always puts its customers first. That’s fine if you’re one of the Postal Service’s customers. Unfortunately, these days “customer” seems to apply primarily to the big mailers. If you’re an average person who wants to mail a box of books or have your mail delivered promptly or get your mail the way it’s always been delivered, you’re pretty much out of luck.
Oops, there goes Peoria
While the Postal Service often replies to complaints with empty public relations statement that tell us all’s well even when it isn’t, there’s supposed to be a check on performance. The Postal Regulatory Commission has a system for accepting rate and service complaints, and when a customer files a complaint, the PRC forwards it to the Postal Service for resolution. The law also gives the PRC the authority to monitor the types and frequencies of complaints. If the numbers warrant it, the PRC can initiate an investigation into just how well the Postal Service is performing.
But the power of the PRC is severely circumscribed. The Postal Service must go to the PRC for approval of rate increases and Negotiated Service Agreements, and it must ask for an advisory opinion on some types of service changes, but in many instances the Commission can only offer recommendations. In the recent Load Leveling case, for example, the PRC recommended delaying implementation until more customer outreach and field tests were done, but the Postal Service simply ignored the advice.
Under current statutes, the PRC has the power to investigate problems with how the Postal Service treats its customers, but the statutes also create a situation where the PRC rarely gets sufficient information to justify more intense investigation. Under proposed legislation, the PRC’s powers would be weakened even further.
The Postal Service uses something called a Customer Experience Measurement Survey (CEM) to measure its performance. Unfortunately, like many such initiatives, the CEM is open to internal manipulation and poor survey design. Rather than leading to a serious examination of how customers are treated, the survey can lead to an automatic pat on the back or become a source of corporate bragging rights.
It has been said that the plural of “anecdote” is “data,” and in the case of the Postal Service that might be very true. Because there isn’t a robust system that filters rate and service complaints, it’s hard to know just how well the Postal Service is fulfilling its responsibilities to the American public. Complaints that get resolved at a local level don’t get reported to or collected by an independent agency. In dealing with local postal officials, “resolved” often means that a customer simply gives up.
The customer service problems are just getting worse. In a speech before the Postal Vision 20/20 conference last week, PRC Chairman Ruth Goldway criticized the Postal Service — and postal systems in general — for the direction things have been going.
“Everyone is using the mantra of we’re going to be ‘customer focused’ and ‘customer sensitive,’ said Goldway, “but they don’t really mean it. What they mean is that they want is to be as easy on their own management as possible. They want to eliminate the pesky customer who complains that the mail comes late at night. We just won’t hear that complaint. Just get used to it. Live with it… We have to realize that satisfying the current customers and making them part of the system is the only way that it’s going to be maintained for future use.”
Many years ago Saturday Night Live featured comedienne Lili Tomlin in a fake advertisement for the phone company, which was then a large, poorly regulated commercial monopoly. The tag line for the ad was “We don’t care, we don’t have to, we’re the Phone Company.”
That could be the new slogan for the Postal Service. It would be catchier than “We deliver for you,” and it might better reflect how more and more people are coming to view the nation’s postal system.