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Business@Large – In Defense Of The Postal Service…

The Postal Service – A stamp of approval (Yes, THAT Postal Service…)

Please – Enough of the negative pile-ons. Last week, the U.S. Postal Service announced that – gasp – it is deeply in the red this last quarter and could be facing more than a $200 billion shortfall 10 years from now.  And one of the options on the table is to eliminate Saturday home delivery.  That’s all the nattering nabobs of negativism (thank you Mr. Agnew) needed to hear to call for more blood.  The Postal Service over the years – and especially recently – has become an organizational piñata, attracting every late night comedian and political cartoonist who want to be at the head of the line to take a mighty swing with the stick of ridicule and disdain.  It’s become the easiest of targets, more helpless and hapless than Octo-mom.  Or even Washington politicians. 

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But as they would say on Monty Python, now for something completely different – one person’s defense of the Postal Service.  Our Postal Service.  Perhaps we can dial down the demonizing histrionics for a moment.  I offer some facts for your consideration, but first I offer an experience.  Earlier this week I went to my local post office to send an envelope overnight to my New York Daughter.  Full disclosure – I live in Indiana.   The price was right – much less than UPS, WAY less than FedEx.  The place was clean.  The line went quickly.  The shipping envelopes and materials were conveniently displayed.   The employee who took care of me was polite and efficient.  She did a nice job trying to expand the sale, asking if I needed shipping materials, stamps, a post office box.  Some customers in line were on a first name basis with the folks behind the counter and exchanged pleasantries.  I was in and out in less than 10 minutes which included the time it took me to find and address the overnight envelope.  As a customer who rarely steps inside a post office, my expectations were exceeded, maybe because I had heard the jokes and had seen the cartoons. 

And oh yes, the envelope arrived at the right destination at the right time.

Of course, not everyone has excellent experiences with the people who bring us the mail.  I read lots of horror stories in the blogsphere.  But c’mon – people have lousy experiences with E-Bay and with 5-star hotels.  It’s become very fashionable in the information-as-electrons cyber age to dump on the Postal Service.  And by the way, let’s acknowledge that there is an implicit sneer in the expression “snail mail.”  The organization is too often cast as a moribund institutional relic, which, like the old Sears catalogue, has outlived its usefulness and should be somehow radically eviscerated or done away with altogether. 

Here are some of those facts for your consideration:                                                              – The USPS has cut 25% of its workforce since 1999 and has invested billions in new technology in order to stay competitive (and relevant);
– The Service in 2001 formed an alliance with its competitor FedEx, which was recently renewed.  That’s innovative, no?
– By law the USPS must pre-fund healthcare benefits for future retirees to the tune of billions of dollars.  There is probably no other organization required to do that and that creates a sea of red ink;
– The price of a first class letter is higher in Canada, Great Britain, most European countries, Japan and Norway, where it costs $1.25 equivalent;  
-In 2009, the USPS delivered to over 150 million addresses every day, the most ever, despite a significant reduction in mail volume.

Let’s face it – the Postal Service has a mandate that makes it difficult to make ends meet.  Want to send a letter to Clyde Park, Montana (population 347)?  That’s 44 cents.  How about Port Clyde, Maine (population 1,367)?  Yup – the same 44 cents.  And that letter will get to either destination within a few days.  Would Starbucks or Apple service customers there?  Only if those customers care to spend some serious windshield time.   Unlike the airlines or every other business, the USPS can’t pick and choose where it wants to do business – it has to serve all communities in the U.S. and can’t drop unprofitable routes.            

Some interesting things learned in doing a little research for this piece…  It turns out the Postal Service has historically had a problem matching the revenue numbers with the cost numbers.  The Postal Service ran a debt almost every year between 1866 and 1910.  In 1947, Saturday mail was suspended for a while in some cities because of budget shortfalls.  In 1957, the Post Office was so deeply in the red a decision was made to eliminate Saturday delivery altogether (sound familiar?).  That lasted one Saturday, April 13, 1957.  Because of public outcry, then President Eisenhower signed a funding bill to restore Saturday delivery three days later.       

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The USPS is over 200 years old and like most institutions with a long history, there is surely bloat in the organization, inefficient work rules, legacy costs and practices, uninspiring managers and uninspired employees.  And the internet and electronic commerce have altered the way we exchange information and in the future the volume of mail will undoubtedly continue to fall.  My wife and I pay most of our bills electronically.   But we are far from progressing to the ballyhooed “paperless society” and there will be a need for a long, long time to transport dead tree-based information from point A to point B at a reasonable cost, the digital dilettantes notwithstanding.  Drop Saturday service?  If that’s what it takes to help right the ship let’s do it.  I can get by with 5 days/week mail service. 

So maybe – just maybe – we can tone down the bashing and the trashing of the Postal Service?
              
Mike Hoban is a senior consultant for a global talent management consulting firm
and can be contacted at
business-at-large@sbcglobal.net