Last month, I had some parcels I needed to send. It was Saturday afternoon and, while the High Street was abuzz with keen shoppers thronging to the doors of countless retailers, the Post Office was closed. I was off on holiday on Sunday evening, and a neighbour kindly offered to drop them off at the Post Office, but I felt it was too much to ask him to get them franked etc.
“No worries” I thought. The Post Office has recently launched an online postage buying facility, called “Smart Stamp” – I heard about it on Radio 4. So I head home, make a coffee and get the laptop up and running. I browse the Royal Mail site, and find two links to their online service. Clicking one, I’m led to a registration space. Essentially, I have to register (for a fee), then pay a deposit, then give my credit card details and commit to buying stamps this way for six months. Desperate, I go through the process and 10 minutes later I am taken to a link that allows me to download the necessary software. I begin to do this, only to have the internet connection fail several times on me. An hour later, the software is downloaded and I begin to install it. After a couple more minutes a pop-up appears to tell me that this software has been ‘upgraded’ and I have to wait for the necessary CD to arrive by post before I can use the service.
Now, I don’t personally consider that an acceptable approach: it took ages, didn’t work, and involved a ridiculous commitment.
As I backed out of the webspace, I noticed that the second link on the website led to a differently named product – “Online Postage”. Even more desperate by now, I followed this route. It too required credit card details, but this time there was no fee to use the service, no software to download, and no deposit required. A half hour later my parcels were all labelled and ready to drop off with my neighbour who had kindly said he’d hand them over at the Post Office on Monday. The only downside of the service was that it didn’t make it clear that you could hold on to a stamp until you were clear it had printed properly – and unfortunately, I had to pay twice for one of the parcels.
Now, I got back home after my holiday and decided to ask for my money back on the first fiasco. It took two calls to find the right office, but the staff there were sympathetic and provided that I wrote in and grovelled they would do what they could. (Hmm?! So much for the Lands End “Guaranteed Period” approach or even your statutory rights.) When I queried this seemingly un-customer friendly approach, I was told it was to counter fraud. I appreciate that the Post Office does suffer from a lot of fraud. But is my paltry £5 deposit really that big a risk? Ah well. Eventually, two weeks later a credit has appeared in my bank account for the £25 fee. Not, mark you, for the £5 deposit on postage. That is lost and gone forever!
Back in the 1980s, Tom Peters and many others reported how organisations who REALLY took customer service seriously thrived, while those that didn’t floundered. Well perhaps now I see why the Post Office gets such bad press and why Adam Crozier is always on the radio defending the institution! Sadly, I suspect that Peters and co were a little optimistic if they thought that consumer-choice would determine organisational success or longevity.