Post Office Gets Lousy Customer Service Ratings (But Who Still Sends Mail?)

The future for the USPS involves competing to deliver packages, or dying.



Updated Feb. 4 to note that the Postal Service does not receive direct allocations from the federal budget, but benefits in other ways.

When my father worked a Post Office job during college, there was a four-person crew in the local black hole of correspondence to which he was assigned in the Bronx. Well, two of them were actually in the office at any given time—the other two were down the street at a bar. They took turns, which is only right. Given that context, reports of increasing customer dissastisfaction and lousy management from the U.S. Postal Service's Office of the Inspector General don't seem that bad after all.

Then again, maybe we should move beyond a bunch of drunks losing mail during the Eisenhower administration as our reference point for expectations about mail delivery. Because if we don't we'll be eternally resigned to responding, "damn, I didn't realize they were doing that well" when we discover that 20 percent of Postal Service customers say they were treated worse than at other retail operations.

The Inspector General's audit report, released last week, concludes:

Between FYs 2012 and 2013, an increasing number of customers expressed dissatisfaction with the service they receive at retail facilities. While the Postal Service's goal is 90 percent customer satisfaction, in FY 2013 more than 20 percent of customers who responded to surveys stated they had been treated "worse than other retailers" at Postal Service retail counters.

Dissatisfied customers exist, in part, because procedures for improving customer service are not functioning as intended. Although management communicates with sales associates periodically via service briefings known as "stand-up" talks and provides video instructions, there is a lack of continual, formal customer service training. Further, sales associates are selected based on seniority rules, rather than suitability for the position, as suggested by best practices. In addition, the Postal Service does not have a mandatory process to ensure managers regularly observe sales associates and provide feedback. Regular observation would help sales associates recognize where they need to improve their performance.

Why the slow progress toward improvement? Surely, it can't be the government monopoly on first class mail, which relieves the horrible bureaucracy of the pressure of competing for customers, or even of achieving some sort of basic efficiency. Of course it is. The monopoly loses billions of dollars, year after year, subsidized by American taxpayers*.

Surprisingly, though, the Postal Service is the public's least unfavorite government operation, especially among the young. Eighty-one percent of those under 29 say it's doing at least a "good" job according to Gallup, compared to 65 percent among those over 50.

Gallup attributes the difference to the fact that younger Americans don't actually use the Post Office for mail. Correspondence, for them, means email and text messages. Their experiences with the postal behemoth are largely confined to "last mile" delivery in which workers drop off a package actually transported across country by UPS or FedEx. "Receiving packages purchased online may be a more positive customer experience than performing interactions in person at postal locations— thus providing a reason why younger Americans have a more positive view of the Postal Service."

In fact, first class mail volume is declining, and expected to continue doing so into the future—taking the Postal Service's income along with it.

This, at long last, may be the key to improving those lousy retail customer service ratings for the Postal Service. As the folks who actually walk into offices and deal with postal employees die off, the first class mail and retail side will wither and cease to be relevant. That will leave the Postal Service delivering packages in a competitive market, or ceasing to exist.

And who wouldn't be rendered happier by not experiencing my old man's beery breath at a Post Office counter?

*The Postal Service hasn't received direct allocations from the federal budget in several decades. It does, however, receive federal loans at below-market interest rates. It also enjoys exemption from taxes, tickets, fees, etc.