When I read Paul Krugman's note about critiques of government services in America being a bit detached from reality I thought "sure, great point in theory, pity you illustrated it with the Post Office." Now, Krugman says "Maybe I'm living a sheltered life here in central New Jersey," and perhaps it's an metropolitan versus small-town thing, but the Post Office is not a good advertisement for the Federal Government providing customer service.
It has struck me that all of the Americans who have visited us in New Zealand this year have commented on how nice the staff are at the post office. One of the great things about Australasia is that small retail post offices are contracted out to book stores and newsagents, a class of the retailing industry where I think you tend to get decent service anyway (at least in my travels in the English-speaking world).
A few years back I recall the USPS proposed contracting out post offices to retailers, but stopped because it would give those firms an unfair advantage. Huh? If firms perceive there's an advantage in also providing postal services they could bid for the local rights to do it. Though it's quite possible that the rights might be worth less than the costs, and USPS would be paying them for it. Contracting out parts of the retail postal service might have improved the terrible location of many central city American post offices (not in central retail districts, not in malls; you have to drive them often). Probably rightly the USPS doesn't want to pay central city retail rents for space they are using for sorting and other operational needs. But there's no need that the selling stamps etc couldn't be done at more retail outlets.
It could hardly be worse than the experience at USPS. Many Americans probably aren't aware of this, but sending an international parcel is something you need to put on your calendar it takes so long. The absurdly duplicative customs declaration forms, the total confusion of the stupid staff about where some foreign countries are (you work in a post office, you should know these things!), it literally drives me to Fed Ex some of the time.
At Fed Ex, as Nate Silver points out, the experience isn't much better. The staff are not so much surly like at USPS as disinterested, young, and not very well-trained. The USPS staff more often give the impression of knowing the rules and processes, but not caring to use them in your service.
So I've had lots of banal, lousy customer service at the USPS. But my single best story comes from a 1am trip to FedEx Kinkos to get copies done for a work presentation. In the hour I spent trying to get the printer to print properly (the totally disinterested 1am clerk had no ability to fix anything, but thankfully didn't charge me for all the paper wasted in trying to get the right printing done), I shared the computer space with a morbidly obese man who was talking to himself and masturbating through his shorts while surfing cherryblossoms.com (warning: obviously NSFW unless you're in academia and this would be research into multimedia).
It would have completed the picture of the ugly side of American life if he had been eating McDonalds and there had been an armed robbery (1am - 2am, remember), but sadly that was the whole of the story.
The Post Office isn't open at 1am for people like this, so I suppose that makes FedEx just slightly better ...Posted by eroberts at August 5, 2009 8:57 PM