the lectern banner

By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

A not-so-excellent adventure at the post office

Yesterday morning I headed to the Post Office near Harvard Square, just after 9 a.m., to mail two small packages. I was somewhat dismayed to come in and see a line of five or so people waiting. But I got more dismayed as I watched how the line was being managed.

When I arrived, two employees were working the counter, which has room for four or five counter staff. Then, after taking care of one customer, one of the two disappeared (not to appear again during my whole time there). After several minutes with only one person serving the growing line, another person appeared. Meanwhile, the other counter person took care of a customer mailing a lot of boxes, maybe six or seven, which obviously took time, so the line kept growing.

Then – and this was perhaps the most exasperating feature of the experience – after this employee had put the postage on these boxes, she spent perhaps five minutes loading the boxes on some sort of dolly to wheel away from the counter area. Bizarrely, she even took additional boxes from a shelf in back of her and put these on the dolly as well, before serving another customer. By the time she was done, the line had grown to 10 people. Some were making “ugh” sounds. One person left.

You don’t need to be much of a student of customer service management to realize that, first, if a line of people is building up, you should have a designated floater who can temporarily be taken away from the back of the house and moved up front while the crunch continued. But here they seemed to do the opposite, moving somebody from the counters to the back. And second, if there are a lot of people waiting, you can wait to load the dolly until a little later.

As I was watching this unfortunate scene (I ended up spending over 20 minutes before I got served) I asked myself why this could be happening. The simple explanation – government organizations enjoy a monopoly, so they have no incentives to serve customers well – hardly seems to apply here. The post office is clearly aware that it faces competition for package business from Fedex and UPS, not to mention the competition posed by email. What is going on? Is it a culture that remains stuck in a monopoly era, that hasn’t adapted to the new USPS reality? Is it a failure to train frontline personnel in customer service? Is it poor supervision? Is it rigid union rules?

I don’t know the answer, but I think it is worth it to find out (or to provide me with evidence that what I experienced was a rare anomaly), because it has implications for what we need to do to improve public-sector management.

The grumbling and groaning I heard on the line made clear that government made few friends at my local post office yesterday morning. To some extent, this is unfair – experiences like this doubtless occur sometimes in the private sector as well. People do tend to blame government in general whenever they experience such problems such as these, while a similar problem with a private company would make customers angry at that specific firm, not at business in general.

Nonetheless, this kind of poor customer service is, I think it’s fair to say, common enough to encourage ordinary citizens to see a pattern. It is definitely common enough that friends of good government should be ashamed.

Posted on Jun 08, 2010 at 12:08 PM


Who's Fed 100-worthy?

Nominations are now open for the 2015 Federal 100 awards. Get the details and submit your picks!

Featured

Reader comments

Thu, Oct 14, 2010 sam colton,ca

Believe me the clerk could have used better judgement like picking up the pace when she noticed that the line was getting bigger ,but I agree with another person here that bad management in the USPS is a big reason for many things.

Thu, Jun 17, 2010 jie xu umd

Yes,I have met those situation last year in college park.I went to post office to pick up a package. It was also a long line there,and costed me more than half an hour.I think competition is very important. several years ago ,Chinese post office is monopoly ,it is same hard to get service from there,but now because there emerged lots of private express delivery company ,competition increased the post office service quality. Lower price ,higher service quality for customer.

Fri, Jun 11, 2010

Harvard Square is not an "atypical" situation. For many over the years, USPS jobs have been cushy jobs and they would perform at their own pace, with little attention to customer service. Hence competition has taken away much of the business. To correct the situation invites unions to step in which only permeates the intransigence. Gone are the days when the mindset was "lucky to have a job and do the best to maintain it."

Fri, Jun 11, 2010

Sadly, Steve, your experience is much the same as my experiences here in S. FL at several post offices. Two clerks on at 9AM and then one disappears as the line builds - coffee break? Perhaps there is a need for that clerk in the back, or not, but I blame poor management, not the clerks. The one that I always see serving the waiting "customers" is fast, pleasent, knowledgable, thorough, terrific. Too bad that more of her colleagues aren't like her, and that the Postmaster or his manager don't keep a better eye on the LINE!

Wed, Jun 9, 2010

There may have been a dispatch time to be made also. Keep in mind that Management sets the window up with however many clerks they want up there. Clerks do not decide when they work the window. In the morning clerks are also used to get the mail to the carriers. Until the mail is finished in the back the extra window clerks, if any, are only used for distribution.Not to mention the fact that Management is given a set number of hours to use per day for the whole operation. Check out the whole operation before coming to a decision that the clerks are horrible. Again, clerks are told what operation to be on and what times to be there. No, I am not a clerk.

Show All Comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above