retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

In case you haven’t seen it, the US Postal Service (USPS) has a new series of advertisements designed to drive us all back to letter writing. Here’s an early prediction: the effort has no chance of working.

The essence of the campaign is this. The USPS reminds us of all the terrible things that happen when you use electronic communications. For instance, refrigerators (where I guess letters should be hung with magnets, assuming that one does not have a stainless steel refrigerator) never get hacked. And bills and other important documents never get deleted with just a click of a button.

This is like reminding people that automobile accidents result in fatalities and therefore we should all go back to riding horses. Good grief.

Luckily the Postal Service’s incompetence can easily remind us all how to react to a changing world. And it can be done without resorting to mindless nostalgia or fear mongering on an issue that strikes very little fear. Let’s consider strategies that might be better for the Postal Service that might also strike a chord with consumers.

First, don’t waste money on a dumb advertising campaign. The Postal Service actually has some good messages to send on the power of a hand-written letter or card. Why not focus on that instead of strange references to the safety of refrigerator magnets?
Then start trying to rebuild your organization by looking inside yourself as critically as possible. There are loads of things I like about the Postal Service - especially their inexpensive method of mailing books, something that Kevin Coupe and I found out extensively in the past few years. The service is well priced and pretty quick. Tell people.

The gaps, however, are huge. Start addressing them.

To begin with, I have never once left the Post Office raving about service and I bet I’m not alone. Clearly some massive training in customer service is necessary. Post Office lines are invariably long and service levels that we find there (like those at the Department of Motor Vehicles) are completely substandard. Sure, these are tough jobs, but people can smile, hustle and treat us like customers, not annoyances. First impressions matter and yours aren’t good.

And here’s the simplest idea: go see Moneyball, the fabulous new movie adaptation of the great book by Michael Lewis. Kevin wrote about the movie last week and I second his suggestion that everyone needs to see it.

The movie concerns baseball and how the Oakland A’s managed to win with a payroll that was just a fraction of other teams. However, the key lesson in the movie comes in the form of a question asked by Billy Beane, the A’s general manager played by Brad Pitt. As his staff contemplates the impossible job in front of them, Beane essentially asks how the team is going to compete in a world where all the rules and practices are stacked against them. In short, the A’s needed to find a new way of competing to succeed. The new world demands it.

That’s a situation that many businesses, not just the Postal Service, face these days. All the rules of competition, economics, technology and more are changing. Competing through endless nostalgia or silly ads will never work. You need to find a new way to appeal to shoppers, meet their new values and do so with a level of efficiency never previously imaginable. It also means you have to stop doing things they way you used to, especially when those practices are unprofitable.

For the Postal Service, it means facing the world a new way and that may mean some difficult but necessary decisions. Daily delivery is fabulous, but as Kevin has pointed out before (some would say ad nauseum), its demise - or at least a dramatic cutback in service, would go unnoticed by many. And while rural communities might suffer lower levels of service, but that’s better than no service at all.

The bottom line is that I understand nothing about the Postal Service. But this much I do know: you can’t succeed by asking yourself only the questions you want to answer. You have to ask the uncomfortable ones, the impossible ones and even the ones you can’t answer.

Winning is never easy. Neither are tough questions.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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