In the United States, a service-oriented economy, the postal service could set standards for the rest of the world to aspire to achieve. It has a long brand heritage to draw from and an inspirational if unofficial motto: "Neither rain, nor sleet, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."
However, like most postal services, the United States Postal Service suffers from apathy. It is a monopolistic giant that, in spite of numerous efforts, never seems to deliver consistently at every contact point with its customers. Over the long term, daily neglect accumulates into bad repute, and sometimes results in customer antipathy.
The USPS is not alone. Trying to repackage itself, the Royal Mail, which delivers 82 million letters and packages a day throughout the UK, changed its name to Consignia before realizing that the perception issue was deeper than cosmetic. "I laugh at the name Consignia every time I stand in an enormous queue in my extremely badly run main local post office," wrote a customer in a BBC News online forum. One year later the brand changed back.
In the US, television comedy programs such as "Seinfeld" and "The Daily Show" make mail delivery the butt of jokes. Comedian Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show" recently raised an eyebrow at a postcard that took over 20 years to be delivered. Ten years earlier, a heavily overweight and negligent postman became the nemesis of Jerry Seinfeld in one of the most popular series in the history of television.
For most customers, carriers (the "postmen") are not the face of the postal service anymore. The village postman who knows everybody and stops for a drink—as portrayed by director Jacques Tati in "Jour de Fête," for instance—is long gone with the emergence of modern (sub)urban life.
Today, the brand image of the postal service is largely shaped by its customers' visits to the local post office, and occasional undelivered or late mail.
A recent visit to a branch of the US Postal Service on a busy December afternoon fully illustrates the depths to which the organization has sunk. This is the busiest month of the year, and most retailers look forward to it. Is the Postal Service going to prove the jokes wrong?
This particular USPS station is located in New York City, near Columbia University. On a snowy winter day, over 50 people crammed into the overheated post office. The letterbox was jammed, the line was long, and complaints were shared with personnel. Requests to speak with the manager fell on deaf ears. It was a failure of organizational management.
Half of the crowd patiently snaked in the main line for about an hour. Only half of the windows were manned at any one time. A picture of the manager hung on the wall by the line; some customers suggested that he intervene to fix the situation.
Complainers (who nonetheless demonstrated good form and even good humor at times) were told that the manager was indeed on the premises, and were bluntly redirected to yet another line of about ten restless customers. Rather than showing care and empathy, the floor personnel simply ignored the problems, and did not call for the manager's intervention.
A phone call to the US Postal Service to speak with the station's manager was lost in the ether. Directory assistance warned that many USPS office numbers are not updated, and advised the caller to use the main number, 1-800-ASK-USPS, listed at this and other stations. A call to that number was disconnected after several minutes of surfing the customer relationship management system.
Running an organization such as the Postal Service calls for fine management acumen at all levels. There is nothing more difficult than ensuring a service business provides the same high quality customer experience every day at every contact point with its customer.
Britain is taking up the debate with its own Royal Mail. Five years ago, Anne Campbell, the Member of Parliament for Cambridge, already argued that the postal service was showing "insensitivity and lack of realization of the inconvenience they cause their customers." In response to the situation, Tony Blair's Labor government is exploring ways to increase competition to spur the 365-year old postal service into action.
Back in New York, meanwhile, the post office manager never materialized beyond his image hanging on the wall. An opportunity was missed to rectify the bad situation. Given an alternative or an option to avoid postal services altogether, it's not inconceivable that most people would choose it.
The problem is not just to USPS's bottom line. The cost is high for the entire community. About 50 people wasting one hour each would add up to 50 hours of lost productivity, or about US$ 1,000 per hour (based on the average salary nationwide). If the review of this USPS brand experience is somewhat representative of the 37,000 USPS retail locations, the problem reaches macro-economic proportions that no cosmetic changes can hide. Delivering a brand promise consistently starts at the heart of a business.