First posted online 31st May 2004
The days of thinking of only the person who pays you for your service as your customer should be over. Following this theory, the supermarket's customer is the consumer, because he/she buys a product. The producer's customer is the supermarket, who buys the product from them. It is clear, however, that producers regard consumers as much as their customers as the supermarket. Whilst my local supermarket treats consumers like irritations (a supermarket chain heading for its biggest loss ever - maybe somebody should point out a potential link in this), the producers do their utmost to attract the consumer through advertising, packaging, shelf placement and so on. There are no chains of customers, there are networks of them.
In October 2003 I attended the European Mail Users' Forum in Brussels. Speakers came mainly either from large mailers or postal authorities. Of great interest to me was the way that both parties viewed their industry. There were some interesting examples of tunnel vision concerning particularly their customer chain. With a single honourable exception, postal authority speakers, for example, when speaking of their customers, were always referring to the mailers. In one way this is understandable - the mailers, after all, are the ones who pay for the delivery. This view, however, has no place in an industry where mail volumes are declining and the need for creative thinking is paramount. Only one speaker, that I heard, was forward thinking enough to consider that in postal matters there are two customers - for the postal authorities the customer is the one who sends the mail. For the mailer, the customer is the one who receives the mail. This being the case, the postal authorities need to take as much care in their attitude to the mailers' customer as to their own - without them, they have no business.
It is clear to me every day that the mail recipient is the poor man in the whole process. Though I was born and brought up in Britain, I live in Amsterdam. I still read a British newspaper, and follow the stories about the Royal Mail with interest. Though the British amongst you may not believe it, the service that the loss-making Royal Mail provides to the mail recipient is vastly superior to that provided by some postal companies which actually make a profit. When I lived in England I received mail before I left the house in the mornings. Here I cannot expect any mail before 11 am (2 pm on a Monday). If I want to get my mail before 9 am, I need to rent a postbox (kerching! $$$ Extra income for TPG). If collecting the mail from the postbox itself is a nuisance (and the number of post offices here is declining, just as it is in the UK), then I can pay TPG to deliver my mail from my postbox to my door. Kerching! $$$ TPG get money from the mailer and TWICE from the recipient to provide a service which those of us used to something better would regard as normal. Any wonder that they make a profit? The situation was not much different in Belgium when I lived there, except that you could not expect the mail before 2 pm any day.
As a mail receiver, I would much prefer the service offered by Royal Mail than the one I get from TPG.
When the post does arrive, it often arrives at the wrong place. In the Netherlands several different habitations often share the same house number. In the case of my house number it is five habitations - four flats and a houseboat. In each case, the delivery point is shown in the address by a suffix to the house number (or, in the case of the house boat opposite my front door, a prefix). Postmen and women often have a cavalier attitude to this information and throw the whole bundle in the nearest letterbox. If you stand at the end of the street and watch as the postman or women makes his/her rounds, you see behind them a sort of Benny Hill sketch developing - people coming out of their houses, milling around delivering the mail to the correct location. I may have to wait several days to get my mail, if my neighbour is not at home.
Apart from adopting a far more relevant attitude to the mail recipients, mail authorities would benefit immensely from improving their communication skills. This is almost universally applicable to postal authorities. I have spent a great deal of the last 14 years collecting information about postal systems and how they work - address formats, postal codes systems and so on. Many of my customers are very surprised that only a tiny amount of this information actually originated from postal authorities. There is a good reason for this. Postal authorities have been universally appalling at providing even basic information for their customers. Of all the letters, faxes and e-mails that I have sent in those 14 years requesting some basic information, I have received a reply to a single one (thumbs up Hong Kong Post, though I bruised myself when I fell off my chair in surprise).
I know that some of my colleagues are better at getting replies than I am, but it would be a shame if users had to learn a specific technique to get replies to their communications. Even the Internet sites of postal authorities show how communication needs to be given a much higher priority in their business plans. In order to use a postal system effectively, users need information. They need to know how to address a letter, whether a postal code is required, what the postal code is and so on; and this information needs to be provided in a language that they understand. If more users follow the rules laid down by the postal authorities for their addressing, logically it will cost the authorities less to process the mail piece and will lead to better use of their automation investment and greater profit (or less loss). However, dozens of postal authorities have no website. Many of those which do have sites fail to provide information which is essential, such as postal code information. Still others fail to understand that their postal system will be used by cross-border mailers as well as domestic mailers, and post information only in their local language. It is very interesting (and quite depressing) in many cases to compare the local language site of a postal authority with the English language version, and to see how much the postal authority don't think you need to know if you don't speak that local language. It's hardly surprising that companies are forced to come to me or one of my industry colleagues when they need this information.
Of course, there are exceptions, but any move towards a better understanding of the needs of the mail recipient and a greater communication towards all users, both mailers and recipients, would be both welcome and profitable.
(c) 2004 Graham Rhind. Reproduction only allowed with permission. Comment and dialogue welcome.