A Bill of Rights for the Post Office

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Some people just love to complain about the Postal Service, but the vast majority of Americans are pretty happy with the service they receive at their post office.  In fact, several new surveys show once again that people think the post office is just fine.

According to a new Gallup poll, Americans rank the customer service they receive at post offices among the best in the nation — third behind banks and pharmacies. The survey found that 30 percent of adults say they received “excellent” service at a post office they visited during the past month, and another 49 percent said the service was “good.”

Another new survey by Pew Charitable Trust found that 84% of Americans have a favorable view of the Postal Service – the highest rating among 17 agencies and departments tested.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Customer Experience Index (a product of Forrester Research) similarly found that the Postal Service was at the top of the list for federal agencies. 

As Jim Nemec, vice president of Consumer and Industry Affairs at the Postal Service, told Nextgov.com in an article this week, “With customers, with employees — especially our mail carriers — we’re obsessed with customers and gaining their trust.  Everyone has a vested interest in being customer-centric.”

While postal employees may be doing a great job gaining the trust of customers, the Postal Service is not doing all it could to improve things at the place where most people experience the Postal Service — their neighborhood post office.  Unfortunately, the Postal Service doesn’t always give post offices the attention they deserve. 

After all, the big mailers (who are responsible for the vast majority of mail volumes) drop their mail at processing facilities and don’t use post offices.  In fact, the Postal Service would prefer that regular retail customers found other ways to do postal business, like online at USPS.com or at a private shipping company or at a counter in a Staples store — all of which are cheaper ways to bring in retail revenues than post offices.  (There’s more on that in this previous post.)

As a result, the Postal Service puts a lot of money and effort into encouraging customers to “migrate” from post offices to the alternative channels.  But vast numbers continue to use the post office anyway.

 

Visits to the post office

While the news is filled with stories and opinion pieces about how the Postal Service is becoming "obsolete," the number of people who use the post office continues to be immense.

The USPS 2014 Household Diary Study states that “in spite of a declining frequency of visits over the past several years, the use of post offices for mailing services continues to dominate the mail service industry.”  The survey found that 53 percent of all U.S. households patronize a post office at least once a month, and over 24 percent visit the post office three or more times a month.  

That translates into a huge number of visits.  According to a 2015 OIG report entitled "Window Retail Customer Service," in fiscal year 2012, the retail network had 840 million customers who conducted 1.7 billion transactions.  

Along similar lines, the USPS 2014 Postal Facts reports that there were nearly one billion “retail customer visits” to the post office in 2013.  That number doesn’t include all the other types of visits that don't involve a retail transaction, like picking up mail at a PO box or receiving a package at the window.

By the way, it’s interesting to note that the 2015 Postal Facts no longer includes data on customer visits to the post office.  The new Postal Facts instead emphasizes how many people are using online services — yet another indication of how the Postal Service encourages customers to migrate from the post office to alternative channels.

While the Postal Service may one day succeed in making post offices obsolete, we're a long way from that dubious goal right now.  Millions of people still depend on the post office, and use of the post office “continues to dominate the mail service industry.”   The Postal Service should therefore be doing everything it can to ensure that every post office is functioning as effectively as possible.

 

The 1967 Postal Bill of Rights

Improving service at the post office has been on the agenda for a long time.  Back in 1967, as part of a mandate from President Johnson to improve service at all federal agencies, the Postmaster General, Larry O’Brien, implemented a Postal Customer’s Bill of Rights.  

O'Brien, by the way, was instrumental in transitioning the Department of the Post Office into the quasi-independent Postal Service.  After serving as PMG (1965-68), he returned to work for the Democratic Party, and in 1972 his offices in the Watergate complex were burglarized.  He'd go on to become commissioner of the NBA.  

According to news reports at the time, O'Brien's Postal Bill of Rights was to be displayed on posters in the post office lobby and at service counters.  Its ten points specified the kind of treatment customers had a right to expect at the post office: 

1. A neat, clean counter on which to transact business.

2. Service by a well-groomed, neat window employee.

3. A friendly greeting that expresses a desire to assist.

4. Knowledgeable, well-informed, interested window personnel to help with postal needs.

5. Prompt, alert and efficient service.

6. Competent and correct in formation on inquires.

7. An attitude that reflects helpfulness, patience and congeniality.

8. The courtesy and tact that would be expected from a friend.

9. Polite referral to another window or individual, when necessary, to give the appropriate service.

10. A feeling, upon leaving, that the post office is glad to serve and help you at all times.

As you can see, all but the first item on the list are about the attitude and behavior of clerks, which is certainly the most important aspect of customer service.  But there’s a lot more to the experience of going to the post office.  It’s also about the post office itself — the days and hours of operation, the appearance of the lobby areas, the information provided by signage, the availability of mailing materials, the range of products and services being offered, and so on.  It's in these areas that there's plenty of room for improvement.

 

Measuring the customer experience

The Postal Service has recognized that the quality of post offices can be enhanced, but it has focused its efforts primarily on the post offices that bring in the most revenue. 

In May 2011, the Postal Service announced a new initiative called the Premier Post Office program.  About 3,100 post offices of the country's 32,000 USPS-run offices (about 10 percent of the total) were designated as “premier."  These post offices been given all kinds of special treatment — more training for staff, extra funds for a face lift, better equipment, extended hours during peak times, a broader selection of stamps, earlier access to coveted new releases (like the Harry Potter stamps), and so on.

In the meantime, the vast majority of the nation’s post offices get second-class treatment.  The most obvious example is POStPlan, which has reduced hours of operation at 13,000 small rural post offices, in many cases to just two or four hours a day.  Many larger post offices don’t have enough staff, so the lines are much too long.  Some offices don’t even have enough stamps.  And things may be getting worse.

According to the 2015 OIG report on the customer experience at post offices, "Between FYs 2012 and 2013, an increasing number of customers expressed dissatisfaction with the service they receive at retail facilities."  This conclusion is based on data collected by the Postal Service using "mystery shoppers" and point-of-service surveys (in which customers go online after a visit to the post office and answer survey questions).  

That dissatisfaction is bad for business and leads to lost revenue.  According to the OIG report on customer services, "The Postal Service risks losing $288.5 million in FY 2015 due to less than satisfactory treatment of customers during retail transactions."  

It's worth noting that the management of the Postal Service disagreed with the OIG's estimate and argued that the OIG had grossly overstated the number of dissatisfied customers who would take their business to another provider.  In the view of management, the OIG had "failed to provide empirical data to validate that all of these customers would indeed defect."

While it may be true that every dissatisfied customer doesn't look for a new provider, the Postal Service could be doing more to ensure that customers don't even think about "defecting."  Every post office should be treated like a Premier Post Office.

 

Deplorable conditions

One of the main problems at many post offices is inadequate maintenance. Sometimes the conditions are bad enough to cause the post office to be closed for an emergency suspension (mold being a common explanation). But even when things don’t deteriorate to that extent, an unpleasant environment is obviously bad for business.

When a leased facility suffers from poor maintenance, the Postal Service often blames the landlord.  Sometimes the lease agreement says the landlord is responsible for maintenance, but ultimately it’s postal customers and the reputation of the Postal Service that suffer, so the blame game doesn’t really help matters.

For the approximately 9,000 facilities owned by the Postal Service, there’s no one else to blame since the maintenance is entirely the responsibility of the Postal Service.  Good maintenance has to be worth the cost.  It doesn't inspire trust and confidence in customers when the condition of the building says "Going Out of Business."

About a fourth of the USPS-owned facilities are historic buildings eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, and they deserve extra special attention.  The Postal Service has an obligation to keep these buildings in good condition, as directed by the National Historic Preservation Act.  Nonetheless, historic post offices are sometimes allowed to deteriorate to a very serious degree.  

The historic post office in Stamford, Conn., for example, was closed for an emergency suspension in 2013 due to the building's poor condition.   Similarly, the historic Saunders Station in Richmond, Virginia, looks like it was in pretty bad shape when it was recently sold to a private developer, as one can see in this video.

Maintenance conditions have been the subject of several reports by the OIG.  One recent report observed that working conditions at an "unnamed" post office were “deplorable” — heating and air were inadequate for six years, and there were “issues with lighting, electrical wiring, plumbing, and bathroom fixtures; cracked windows; water damage; and a cockroach infestation.”

It turns out that even the Premier Post Offices aren’t getting enough attention. According to another OIG report, visits to twenty-four of the Premier Post Offices found that “the physical appearance of customer service areas at certain offices was lacking,” and there were many “cosmetic deficiencies” like chipped countertops and broken glass, as well as empty retail displays and litter. 

Despite such problems, the Postal Service’s 2016 Financial Plan does not budget any additional funds to address maintenance.  As in years past, about $400 million will be spent on “facility infrastructure,” but much of it is earmarked for “building modifications that are necessary to accommodate the planned ongoing plant consolidations.”  In other words, the Postal Service will be spending money to close plants, which will contribute to the erosion of service, rather than using the money to improve services by fixing up post offices.


Lines, times, and services

One of the most common complaints about going to the post office is the long wait in a long line. The Postal Service aims for a “Five Minutes or Less” standard — as noted in the Postal Operations Manual (POM) — and according to studies done using mystery shoppers, the average wait time is about two and a half minutes. 

Still, according to the 2014 compliance determination report prepared by the Postal Regulatory Commission, over 16 percent of customers report waiting longer than five minutes, and over 4 percent wait more than 16 minutes. 

With something a billion retail visits every year, this means about 200 million visits exceeded the five-minute standard.  Such problems could easily be solved by opening more windows and staffing the office with more clerks.

Some of the wait problems might also be alleviated if the Postal Service did more to encourage self-service at the post office.  According to an OIG report on “What America Wants from the Postal Service,” most Americans are satisfied with the service and accessibility of their post office, but “a strong majority indicated they would be interested in more self-service options.”  That, by the way, needn’t involve only automated kiosks — even just access to a scale and good explanatory signage would help customers before they get to the counter, which would speed up the line.

Another problem has to do with the collection times for the blue boxes outside the post office.  As recently reported, the Postal Service has been bumping up the collection time in many locations in Kansas, presumably so that it can meet service standards for delivery speed.  There have also been stories about the mail getting picked up before the specified time, even though that’s counter to USPS policies.  For whatever reason, when the mail gets picked up too early in the day, it means an extra day of delivery time for mail that is deposited after the collection.

According to the latest edition of Postal Bulletin, the Postal Service has recently changed the policies in the POM regarding collection hours, presumably in order to make it easier to meet the service standards.  For example, according to the revised POM, in urban areas, the mail should be collected at or after 5 p.m., but the policy provides several exceptions, including when a plant consolidation affects transportation times.  In rural areas, states the POM, “pick up times should be as late as possible to enhance customer service, no earlier than 15 minutes before the retail counter closes.”  But if it’s a POStPlan office (as it likely the case in a rural area), that closing time could be well before 5 p.m., so mail deposited in the blue box will sit there until the next day.

Yet another issue involves the services that are available at the post office.  Several surveys have shown that customers would like to see more services.  For example, a recent study done by the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland found that “large majorities endorsed new services to be provided in post offices (provide photocopying, provide Internet access).” 

Financial services like savings accounts and small loans would also be welcomed by many customers who are currently underserved by the banking system, but the leadership of the Postal Service has shown no interest in postal banking.

 

A new Bill of Rights for the Post Office

Perhaps it’s time for a new Postal Bill of Rights similar to PMG O’Brien’s 1967 list.  But rather than addressing the kind of attitude and behavior customers should expect from postal employees, this one would be about what people should expect from the post office itself. 

Here’s a list of what this new Bill of Rights might contain:

1. Every community in the country has a right to a conveniently located post office.  Post offices should not be closed just because they don’t make enough money, and post offices should not be relocated to out-of-the-way areas of the community.

2. Post offices should have retail operating hours that "reflect time periods that most appropriately meet the needs of the majority of customers in the local area" (as stated in the POM).  In most cases, that should mean the post office is open a full business day (as was traditional before POStPlan), and in some cases, evenings as well.

3. The post office lobby and counter areas should (as stated in the POM) be "clean, orderly, and attractive" — in other words, freshly painted, well lit, safe, neatly organized, and so on.

4. The post office should be sufficiently staffed so that the wait time is rarely more than five minutes.  

5. The lobby of the post office should be equipped with a scale that can be used by customers, and the signage should provide clear, easy-to-understand information about classes, rates, and delivery standards so that customers are aware of less costly or faster classes of mail (and clerks should provide more information about this too).

6. The post office should have an adequate supply and variety of stamps, flat rate boxes and envelopes, and shipping and packing materials.

7. The post office should provide efficient retrieval of items such as packages, certified mail, and registered mail, and during hours that the window is closed, the post office should provide access to PO boxes and parcel lockers (especially offices that have limited window hours).

8. The post office should ensure that passport registration instructions are clear, and in communities with a large non-English speaking population, clerks and signage should be bilingual (which can also help minimize wait times in line).

9. Collection boxes outside the post office should have a final pickup at the end of the day, and the mail should not be picked up before the specified time.

10. Post offices should offer a wide range of products and services besides strictly “postal” products and services, such as copying machines and Wi-Fi access.

 

A right to expect, a duty to provide

When Postmaster General O’Brien implemented the Postal Bill of Rights in 1967, the basic assumption was that customers at the post office were entitled to good service.  It was something they had a right to expect.

This is not something one generally associates with private businesses.  You don’t have a right to good service at a McDonald’s or a Walmarts.  If the service is bad, you just take your business elsewhere.

But the post office is part of the government — it’s our postal system, and “we the people” own it.  Besides, most people can’t "defect" and take their business elsewhere.  That’s why the Postal Service has a duty to provide good service in a good facility. 

Maybe our new Postmaster General should take a page out of Larry O’Brien’s book and issue a new Postal Customer’s Bill of Rights.  It would be great to see a poster listing these rights placed prominently in every post office in the country.  Then patrons of the Postal Service would know exactly what they had a right to expect at their post office.

(Image credits: Customers in line at post office; USPS.com promo from Postal Facts; Larry O'Brien; OIG report; disrepair in Saunders Station post office from Mobelux video; cartoon of line in post office)

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