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


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