(I am waiting for my train so time to write…)
The trial, for some reason, brought back memories of a small, seemingly innocuous loss I incurred while the serving subpostmaster at Foyers on the banks of Loch Ness. Income was very low and we were on restricted hours although generally we kept the Post Office counter open the same hours as the shop. When we took over in 2004 it was a very tight squeeze into the single fortress position and it meant on most mornings we needed two people serving; one in the shop and one in the fortress.
The local area manager, Kenny Lamont, came to visit and suggested I go and have a look at Croy PO, a small shop to the east of Inverness as it was one of the first POs to have installed a combi counter. I liked the idea and progressed the project through the various channels only to discover that the rural grant fund I needed to fund 50% of the project had been depleted. But you know me by now I suppose. An email on another subject one Monday morning to none other than Alan Leighton, Chairman of Royal Mail, attracted an immediate response from him and we exchanged a few replies, and in one I mentioned the trouble I was having justifying investing more of my own money into a combi counter. Next thing I know, one of his assistants called me to say they had ‘found’ a small amount left over in the fund and if I applied straight away I could grab it for my project. The combi counter was duly installed, the fortress removed and the shop refurbished. All this just as background I suppose but not really relevant other than I supported the underlying concept of productivity gains that a combi counter brought and in 2006 it was ahead of its time. Oh dear … I have just thought, perhaps I helped convince them that NT was a good idea. Sorry.
Anyway back to the error. In those days banking customers would have an arrangement with POL that they could fill and seal money bags with the correct amount of notes (say £1,000 in £10) they wrote on the bag who they were and when deposited at their local branch all the branch would have to do was accept and stamp the bag and rem it out when required without checking the contents. These customer filled bags would wing their way to the cash centre AND THEN be sent out to another branch unopened and unchecked. It was for the receiving branch to open the bags and check the contents. If there was a difference then you would report this as a REM difference and modify your accounts accordingly. POL would clearly (maybe not) retrieve or refund the different from/to the customer account. The element of trust involved in this process is staggering. The allocation of risk to the SPMR even more so.
One day I received two bags of £10 notes, both customer counted and from two different customers. I really hadn’t thought about it before and opened both bags and counted the contents. £100 short. So I phoned the help line. They told me what to do and what would happen and then they asked which bag the shortage was in. That was when the trouble started. I had opened both bags at once. I couldn’t tell which bag the shortage was in. The long and the short of it was that POL insisted that it was now my responsibility to make good the £100. There is some sort of logic around why they might say that but logic can be described in many terms and in my terms that logic was perverse. Being who I am I didn’t stop at the help desk and ended up talking to the most remarkably horrible person I have ever came across in POL (move over AvdB I just remembered someone better than you – difficult I know). You can imagine the conversation but it came to an abrupt halt when, as I was getting slightly more frustrated and angrier, he uttered the immortal words, “Do you know who you are talking to?”. Now that to me is similar to a partially sighted person standing directly in front of what appears to be a large animal and waving a red flag to find out if it is a bull. “For a brief moment sir”, I responded, “I thought I was talking to a human being. I am clearly wrong” and put the phone down.
The anger, the frustration, all the problems I was having with the business all came flooding over me and tears flowed. I called Kenny Lamont, the very helpful Area Manager, and still in tears explained the situation in terms I know he understood – poor Kenny it wasn’t his fault but I did take it out on him. “Tomorrow morning come here and take your fucking post office shit out of this office before 10am or you will find it on the decking outside”. Understanding that I was probably quite sincere, he asked if he could just go and check to see what the situation was. “10am Kenny – no later”.
An hour or two later Kenny calls back, I am slightly less angry and more reticent while he explains that POL will wave this loss, this time. That is all I wanted. I knew I wouldn’t make the same mistake again but with the whole system of customer cash deposits remaining in place I am sure others made the same mistake until the system was withdrawn some years later.
There are lessons to be learned from this story. Maybe just repeats of what goes on elsewhere in the network but testament to the idiots who managed to come up with such a system that was clearly open to abuse from all three sides. Yes all three sides. The crooked customer that manages to pass on their theft to the SPMR while POL sits happily in between. Yes – truly madly deeply logical….