Customer Service at the Post Office; An Oxymoron in Action

I had an experience yesterday at my local small-town post office. I’ll preface this by saying that a few months ago I had an experience with a clerk that made me exclaim at the ceiling “Where’s the camera??!!” The conversation I was having with the clerk was so disconnected, so insanely like something out of a sitcom, I truly believed I was being punked. The clerk spoke in a sing-song fashion, repeating a “party-line” response, so much like a 60’s television program robot, that I could hardly believe what was happening. I did get the problem resolved, but not without a great deal of frustration.

Well, I’ve had the same PO box for over twenty years, seeing, in spite of a few friendly clerks, the small-town feel degrade into a pretty cold institutional office.  I expected a small package which would not fit into my box, so I dashed into the office to pick it up.  As I walked in, a women, about 30, with two grade-school age girls in tow, was embroiled in an argument with a non-uniformed clerk (apparently management). The clerk was about 40-something and red-headed, without a hair out of place. She stood erect and looked somewhat prim. Her expression was becoming more and more dogged, as the other woman escalated her argument to the point of being out of control.

Soon, the young woman began screaming. She kept repeating, “You’re not listening. I have to scream because I feel no one will listen to me!” My clerk handed me my package & I would have to pass the woman to exit the office, so I took a few steps and began to listen to the two.  The clerk began saying, “You need to stop screaming. You’re not listening. You need to calm down.” 

Wow. I knew there was nowhere to go but down from here. I’m a woman and if I’m upset, the last thing you need to say to me is, “Calm down.” That’s my cue to go ballistic.

Well, the poor younger woman was now crying and bouncing and shaking and still screaming. In short, she was hysterical. I listened long enough to get the gist of the story. There was a package that wasn’t delivered. There was a dog. There was her chasing the mail truck and the mail delivery woman who would not deliver the package.  She was leaving in a few days for several months and another package was coming that she had to receive before she left.  So I literally stepped forward and intervened.

Well-l-l-l. Are you familiar with the phrase six feet under? Well the postal clerk gave me a look that said, “I’ll not only put you six feet under, I’ll lower you in the grave to ten feet under and bury someone on top of you!” But, I’m getting older. The great thing about that is, people give you some slack about being pushy, bossy and grumpy. I’m beginning to like expressing myself without the restraint of caring what people think! So, I thought at that moment – something like Kathy Bates in Fried Green Tomatoes – I’m older and got more “insurance.”

I also have a skill set that others seem to have lost in these recent years. That of customer service. You see, when I first went to work, I was a cashier. Back in the day, as an employee, you were expected to tolerate anything, and I mean anything, that the customer said or did. It didn’t matter if they were right or wrong – the customer was always right. Courtesy was a required job skill. You would get fired if you didn’t exercise it appropriately. Doesn’t mean the obnoxious, stupid customer didn’t get cussed out in the back room after they left. (After all, everyone is human.) But, the customer got nothing but service, service, service.

This postal clerk, although ingratiatingly “courteous”, had clearly not delivered any satisfaction to this poor overwrought woman.  So, in spite of the postal clerk’s protests, and above the poor woman’s crying, I simply began asking, “How can she get her package? What does she have to do to fix this?” The conversation was jumbled and the clerk, resolved that I wasn’t going anywhere, turned to me and said, “You didn’t hear the first part of the conversation.”

What I said is the lesson to be learned here. I said, waving my hand, “I don’t give a damn about the conversation. How can she fix this?” I had to repeat myself a few times. “How can she fix this?” At this point, the younger woman began to calm and miraculously, the postal clerk began to explain what could be done. The younger woman explained she had taken all the requested actions in the past, only to be told conflicting stories, with no success. At one point, the complaint included the fact that the mail deliverer wasn’t even delivering packages into their oversized mailbox, but returning them to the office where they aren’t available for another day. Again, I turned to the postal clerk and asked what else could be done. At no point did I involve myself in the argument, only turning the conversation back to the issue of resolution for the woman.

The solution? The woman could call directly to the post office to arrange a pickup, and instructions would be given to deliver packages directly to the woman’s mailbox. I asked questions about the phone number and got the direct line number for her to call.  Now, why couldn’t that clerk have explained all that upfront?

The answer is somewhat obvious and explains why the term “going postal” is a sad reflection of what bureaucracy means to Americans. The fact that this scene was being played out in my small town is a sad reflection of the chasm that is ever-growing between the everyday American and government employees. It’s pretty obvious to everyone that government employees (as reflected in how we view the postal employee) have always been out of touch with the average citizen. Coupled with the self-entitled attitudes, over-protection of unions, bloated wages and retirement funds, the government employee has been short-changed in the one thing that makes life meaningful. Service.

Business owners know this lesson. A business will not survive (at least not long-term) if it doesn’t demonstrate excellent customer service. Business operations consultants are paid a lot of money to educate business owners on this basic lesson.

It’s also a basic tenet of life. When we serve others, in whatever the course of life brings, whether it’s in our jobs, in our families, in our communities, that’s when we really achieve great things.

I waited outside the office near the door for the young woman to finish her conversation with the clerk.  When she came out, I gave her a hug. She apologized with tears in her eyes saying she was under a lot of stress in her life and not able to cope very well these days. I told she was in the right and the clerk should have helped her more and got her to giggle just a little before I wished her a good trip and left. I may never see her again. And, I may or may not speak to the clerk again (we get a lot of temporaries in our town).  But, I feel good that there was some resolution and I didn’t just walk out, telling myself that it wasn’t any of my business. 

It is our business – to serve one another.


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