smith+co on
customer experience
Shaun Smith
  • By Shaun Smith
  • Oct 11 2009

Royal Mail strikes hope for customer experience

I like my postman. He’s always polite, cheerful, smart and delivers my DVD rentals without nicking them. I also empathise with him. He has to get up at 5 o’clock every morning and deliver not only my mail, but also the Royal Mail brand values of “expert, proud, together, trustworthy and hungry”. Not so easy. (As an aside: hungry? Since brand values are ideally designed to be lived by staff every day, as they deliver those values through the customer experience, what exactly does that mean? That as well as getting up at 5am, my postie isn’t allowed breakfast before he delivers?)

For me, and I guess many others, the Royal Mail customer experience is not defined by my friendly postman so much as the sheer ineptness of the organisation he represents. Ask the average person in the street what they think of Royal Mail - and typically they all have a story to tell of undelivered or late mail, endless automated help lines, unhelpful customer service staff and time-consuming bureaucratic processes. And the current ongoing postal strikes are doing nothing to improve matters.

Fortunately, for many of us, the internet now means we can conduct most of our important communication and transactions without having to endure the Royal Mail experience. A positive consequence of strikes such as these is that it forces us to innovate, to look at more efficient alternatives, and to find new ways of creating a better experience and gain control over the things that matter most to us.

Failing to deliver

Take online shopping. We love it ....until it fails to deliver. A real dilemma for the growing number of online shopping sites whose customer experience is still dependent on Royal Mail’s ability to deliver goods on time. It doesn’t take too many bad experiences before we start to blame the supplier rather than the deliverer. No surprise then that Amazon’s response to the Royal Mail union’s strike decision has been to announce that it will pull its business from the national UK postal supplier, costing Royal Mail £25 million a year in business.

Now I know when my much-anticipated purchases don’t arrive on time, it’s not the seller who’s to blame. I know it’s not their fault, so I grudgingly accept their online apology that it’s out of their control. I’m almost convinced by their assurance that because their customers are so important, they will do everything they can to get their purchases to them as soon as possible, even though, in reality, they do nothing.

But when this happens a second time, and then a third, and again and again, I start thinking - why does this company still rely on Royal Mail? If I, as a customer, am so important, why haven’t they found a better way? I’m no longer angry with Royal Mail, I’m angry with my supplier; they’ve failed to deliver the experience they promised.

So here lies the problem for many brands who outsource important customer touchpoints to third party suppliers. If a key part of your customer experience becomes dependent on the performance of a third party, over whom you have little control, then you actually lose control of your own customer experience, which makes you very vulnerable. So, if you’re reliant on Royal Mail’s first class service, what do you do? Well here’s what Amazon did (even before pulling its business).

It launched a new service called Amazon Prime - membership of which gives free unlimited guaranteed next day delivery for a whole year. Yes, customers who decide to join, have to pay a relatively small annual membership fee, but the initial pain is off-set by the delight and reassurance of getting your precious book, DVD or gift the next day, when you want it.

The need to be reliable

Amazon was determined to stay true to its brand promise of reliability, so it chose to offer a more reliable delivery process. As Jeff Bezos (CEO) says “The reason that people associate reliability with our brand - is that we’ve worked incredibly hard to meet customer promises. If you want to have a brand that stands for reliability, then you’d better be reliable”.

So as the ongoing postal strikes continue to cause havoc to business in the UK, it could be good news for customer experience in the long run. It will mean that those organisations like Amazon who take their brand promises seriously will find better and more reliable ways of delivering.

Of course the tragedy is that ultimately this strike will simply serve to undermine and weaken what was once one the most mosted trusted brands in the UK. No matter how friendly my local postman, he will follow in the steps of his union colleagues at British Leyland and the like when businesses and consumers find better alternatives to having their customer experience a hostage to fortune.