Friday, May 17, 2013

Going Postal: Adventures in Customer Service

While I understand that the credo “the customer is always right” isn’t applicable or appropriate for all occasions, the basic tenet behind it is that because someone chooses to give you their business, you ought to treat them with care and respect — even if this occasionally means you take one for the team in order to maintain good customer relations.

An essential component in that credo is that customers have a choice as to where they take their business; the free market promotes good behavior on the part of businesses in order to keep turning a profit. Monopolies eradicate choice and the need for good customer relations, because they are the only options. You can expect them to behave badly simply because they can.

The United States Postal Service used to be the only game in town when it came to sending mail. This is no longer the case. With email and package carriers competing for trade, the USPS has seen a marked decline in recent years. Raising the price of postage and cutting substations and deliveries is not doing enough to shore them up. Usually, when a couple of bigger boys join the gang, the former bigwig tones it down a little for the sake of self preservation.

The trouble is that the USPS is that it still thinks it can steal your lunch money and have you thank them for it. Here’s a list of diabolical events that have occurred most recently to yours truly:

      Package of rare books arrives torn to pieces, the box half missing, delivery person says nothing.

      Wrong mail delivered to wrong houses on a regular basis; when confronted, mail carrier just shrugs and walks away, continuing to throw mail in boxes randomly.

      Mail was put on hold by someone — not me — for three weeks. I could not stop the hold (I didn’t have the confirmation code because I wasn’t the one who ordered the hold), in response to my complaint, the USPS left a message on my machine advising me to find whomever did it. Gee, thanks. That was helpful.

      My request to purchase a book of stamps was refused by the counter person because I was told “you could be mailing a bomb.” When I explained that I needed to affix the stamp to an SASE to go inside the envelope before it was sealed, she said "yes, but if I sell you stamps for an unsealed envelope, you could put a bomb in it." We are talking a regular manilla envelope, just to be clear. 

      Stack of 50 regular sized envelopes all containing the same thing which should have been given regular rate stamps (whatever it is now) were determined to cost over $1 each because, well, just because. Counter person refused to sell me 50 regular stamps if I was going to use them to mail said letters. Thus ensued tragicomic dialogue about the USPS deciding for me what I could or could not put stamps on if they would or would not sell them to me in the first place. I pointed out that I could always buy stamps from the automated machine in the lobby, and was told "well, don't blame me if none of them arrive," which I interpreted as a specific threat to my mail in particular. (All 50 of the letters affixed with regular stamps did, in fact, arrive unmolested, but I did take the precaution of mailing them from a postbox instead.)

      Stood in a queue at local busy high street post office for 15 full minutes waiting for a USPS employee of any kind to appear behind the open counter. Literally a human being of any kind. There was apparently no-one in the building. I gave up after that. Who knows how long everyone else in line waited?

And this brings me to today’s happy scene. A single female USPS employee was working behind the counter. There was a long line. When a mother with a young child approached with a parcel to mail, the worker decided that some print on the recycled box — which was in Italian and included the word “pollo” (chicken) — was in fact an old box in which bottles of pinot grigio had at one time been packaged. She therefore refused to take it on the basis of a rule that says the USPS cannot ship anything with the name of an alcohol on it. (Actually, the USPS cannot ship alcohol as content, not simply wording.)

Despite the mother’s calm requests for some packaging tape with which to conceal the offending print, or some paper and tape — or a marker to blot it out — the worker steadfastly refused to touch it. The box, the mother explained, contained DVDs, not alcohol. She was told in no uncertain terms that she had to leave the post office and return at a later date with a different form of packaging. “But,” the mother protested, “I have already waited a long time, and you’re telling me to leave?” Then the worker offered her a barrage of insults and rebukes — in full voice in front of a large line of people — for her stupidity.

There were audible gasps from the queue. The word "postal Nazi" were uttered. The mother and her child left. 

First: clearly the USPS worker couldn’t read Italian. I know of no pino grigio with the word “chicken” in its name.

Second: how can the USPS expect the vast swath of its customers to know every arcane rule about packaging?

Third: it would have cost her nothing to conceal the print with a bit of tape, but she didn’t out of sheer meanness.

Fourth: Here’s what the USPS says in its official guide to packaging: “Choose a box with enough room for cushioning material around the contents. Sturdy paperboard or corrugated fiberboard boxes are best for weights up to 10 pounds. If you are reusing a box, totally remove or obliterate all previous labels and markings with heavy black marker.”

Fifth: have you ever tried waiting in a long line with a toddler and a heavy package? Show some Goddamn humanity.

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