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Business Journal

Pushing the Envelope

The U.S. Postal Service digs deep to deliver what customers really want

by Francia Smith, Lizbeth Dobbins, and Janet Tonner

A company that handles 200 billion pieces of mail a year faces an awesome customer service challenge. For the U.S. Postal Service, that challenge has never been so critical -- or daunting. Now a self-supporting, independent federal agency, it must compete with companies such as FedEx, Airborne Express and United Parcel Service. Meanwhile, experts expect that electronic mail and online services will take their toll on First-Class deliveries -- the most profitable service. Simply put, it has never been more important for the Postal Service to be efficient, innovative and, above all, customer friendly if it hopes to stay competitive.

Transforming an organization as vast as the Postal Service from an operations-oriented company to a customer-oriented one doesn't happen overnight. The Postal Service remains the largest mail service in the world, with more than 38,000 post offices, stations and branches and close to 800,000 employees. What's more, it continues to unveil offerings, such as its online bill-payment system and a service that prints and mails electronic documents. And it has been investing resources in hardware and software -- including a recent agreement with NCR Corp. to develop an inventory tracking system -- designed to boost customer service. But it is the sheer size of the Postal Service, combined with its huge variety of offerings, that has long made it difficult to link customer-satisfaction data to specific operations, postal centers and people so that something can be done to fix problems and increase customer satisfaction.

Michael F. Furey
Michael F. Furey made customers happy in Baltimore.

Now, technology has provided a solution. A new Web-based reporting system, developed in concert with The Gallup Organization, provides that linkage. Because of the system, Postal Service managers have access to as many as 180,000 business-satisfaction surveys and 200,000 residential surveys every three months. And while customer satisfaction surveys have been around for a long time, what makes these different -- and a great model for any service company -- is that results are linked by ZIP Code to precise locations and operations at the Postal Service. Rather than generating vast amounts of data that are difficult to apply to problem areas, Postal Service managers can now pinpoint such problems as a neighborhood experiencing late deliveries and actually do something to fix them. Even better, managers can learn from each other by using the system to research "best practices" in customer service.

So that field managers can drill down to a specific postal district or office, the reports are broken down into what the Postal Service calls attributes -- such things as delivery times or the condition of a postal lobby. Residential customers will, for instance, be asked whether post office employees greeted them pleasantly, asked the right questions to find out what the customer needed, and even whether they said "thank you." The results are then mapped electronically by ZIP Code to reveal areas where customer satisfaction needs improvement.

That's not all. Results are then linked to Postal Service internal process indicators such as mail transit time. So, for example, if a survey reveals inconsistent delivery times in a particular district, the system shows whether carriers are late leaving the post office in the morning. The combined results -- including overall scores for Postal Service performance -- are then posted onto the Postal Service Intranet, helping managers search for the causes of late deliveries and other problems.

Margaret Romero
Margaret Romero pinpointed a late-delivery problem.

That's exactly how Margaret Romero, former manager of consumer affairs in Albuquerque, N.M., solved a late-delivery problem affecting senior citizens in a retirement home. The residents had expressed their concerns to their local post office about a magazine that was arriving a day later than usual. Romero used the system to search mail routing information and found nothing out of place. So she knew the problem had to be with the publisher. Sure enough, the magazine's production schedule had changed, and Romero relayed that information to the home's residents. Though that problem may seem minor, late deliveries rate very high on Postal Service customer satisfaction surveys, so it is important that they be corrected quickly.

Another example: Michael F. Furey, former postmaster of Baltimore, Md., used the reporting system to raise customer satisfaction in that city. Surveys revealed that customers were concerned about long waits and existing retail hours at postal windows. Furey used the system to select certain post offices -- specifically, those in areas reporting the lowest customer satisfaction -- where window hours could be extended in the morning and evening. Now the district manager for customer service and sales in northern Virginia, Furey plans to use Web-based reporting there as well. In fact, the Postal Service expects the system to play a major role in raising customer satisfaction to 94% nationwide, up from as low as 85% in the early 1990s.

Granted, before the system was put in place, the Postal Service was able to collect customer satisfaction data and use it to pinpoint regions that needed improvement. But interpretations of that data were subjective. Because data could not be linked directly to specific facets of postal operations, such as the time of day postal carriers actually deliver the mail, postal managers had no way of identifying a problem's source.

What makes the Web-based reporting system so valuable is that it has eliminated that guesswork and provides a clearer picture of service problems. More importantly, though, the system has proven to field managers that they do have control over customer satisfaction. "It helps us identify more specifically what the issues are, and enables us to fix the root cause of the problem," says Furey. "Having that data is empowering." It has also, the Postal Service believes, put smiles on the faces of its employees, boosted its image among postal customers and enabled it to deliver truly first-class service.


Lizbeth Dobbins is manager of customer satisfaction measurement for the United States Postal Service.
Francia Smith is Vice President and Consumer Advocate for the United States Postal Service. She is also an executive board member of the Positive Psychology Summit, cosponsored by Gallup.
Janet Tonner is a consumer research analyst with the United States Postal Service.

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