Yesterday the Citizen’s Advice Bureau (CAB) published a scathing report on Branch Standards in the new PO Local Models.
The Post Office section in CAB is a successor to the same section that existed in Consumer Futures. It obviously focuses on the delivery of service standards to consumers and in doing so protects their (the consumers) interests.
From a purely consumer point of view, NT has many advantages. Longer opening hours,brighter and more attractive branches as well as more convenience with the PO Counter integrated into the retail counter. So CAB are entirely supportive of this concept as they should be and will work constructively with POL to achieve this.
But there are three important groups here to consider. Customers, POL and the Operators/Owners of the PO Locals.
The report highlights the failings of the PO Local model and encourages POL to do something about it by delivering a consistent service across the network according to the branch standards POL have determined to be acceptable. What is missing is research into how NT has affected the Operators of PO Locals and reasons why they have failed to deliver expected standards. Without that information, gathered on a regular basis, we can neither establish what has gone wrong nor monitor trends in Operator behaviour.
The report does not and cannot suggest how POL can fix the problems that CAB have highlighted and nor does it establish why. As I have just said, we need a report on that and I think CAB are in the process of preparing one, but in the meantime, I can certainly have a stab at it by stating the bleeding obvious!
Put aside the consumer advantages of NT for a moment – why not – they certainly will experience only a disadvantage when their PO Local closes for good.
First – break down the new Locals into groups.
a) Existing Post Office Branches that chose to convert to the new Model.
Other than for the one off financial inducement of Investment into their branch and a lump sum compensation package for loss of earnings, it is totally beyond me why anyone would have chosen this route when they so easily could have gone ahead and ‘converted’ themselves while retaining their core tier payment.
These then are existing subpostmasters with experience. They probably deliver good service and standards without intervention from POL and they have embraced the concept of PO Local and longer opening hours for less pay.
Should be a success story BUT what they do do is skew the results of the CAB survey in POL’s favour.
As the CAB report points out the next, larger wave of conversions will be to new premises and new operators, so it is likely that this ‘skew’ factor will be diminished in future reports.
b) Post Office Branches that converted to PO Local on sale of business
These are then new operators in existing PO Branches where on buying the business they had to convert to a PO Local format. The most important point here is that when they bought the business they could only rely on the likely PO Income provided by POL and not on the historical PO Income received by the outgoing SPMR. They mostly would have had no prior experience of running a PO nor have any idea of how the remodelled branch would affect the retail sales. The PO income in most cases would be at the most 50% of the previous owners income – a significant drop.
What has transpired since they bought their shop is that PO Income has fallen significantly while the workload has increased. They have become aware of the numerous PO transactions they have to undertake for no reward and they now realise that there is significant financial risk inherent in operating a Post Office for a number of reasons. They have gone through several employees and become aware of the need to train new employees in Post Office work but also the cost involved in doing so. They now realise that in order to get staff suitable to handle Post Office work they need to pay realistic wages or they will leave.
They now know that on a weekly basis POL will send them a list of new procedures and processes they must follow as well as a list of mistakes that POL made in the previous week’s list. Working with POL is a nightmare and they don’t get paid very much for it.
Then there is the much vaunted Combi Counter. I am a great believer in this concept and how it could work – I have used it in my two post offices before NT came along. Neither of these though were big retail offices – standard cards and stationery in the last one and we managed fine to incorporate PO services and retail at the same counter. It doesn’t work so well in the larger retail outlets like busy Convenience Stores. The owner watches with despair as the queue at his retail counter grows while an ebay customer waits for proof of posting on 20 items he has prepaid on Ebay.
Then one of his assistants makes a mistake. Gives the customer too much in a POCA payout. He rings the help desk. Tough is the answer. Your mistake you pay for it.
Then he gets a call from Branch Standards – the Ebay customer that didn’t buy anything in his shop including postage, has phoned in a complaint about the way he was treated – a casual mention by you to him that you don’t get paid for these transactions and could he support his local post office by actually buying something- sparked him off.
Now tell me – what will a survey – a proper survey up close and personal – reveal about his thoughts on POL and whether or not he is thinking about chucking the keys in and getting rid of the Post Office?
c) Traditional branches relocated into nearby business
Almost the same as b) but with much more financial information at hand to back up subsequent decisions on the future of the branch. Promises were made on performance – retail sales would be up – increased remuneration from PO sales – footfall through the roof …… and of course this guy needed to make a substantial investment of his own in the new branch not just in the cost of refurbishment but also loss of existing retail space.
He can monitor if what was promised was delivered and for the very reasons in b) it didn’t. He started losing existing customers due to queues caused by PO work – footfall was up but his retail sales were static because of the loss of retail space and aforementioned customers.
And the along came POL in the shape of Branch Standards and told him to improve. In one ear and out the other – if you don’t like how I am operating this branch then take it away he says.
The owners won’t reveal to POL how they feel and even if they did POL wouldn’t reveal that to anybody. What CAB need to do – because this is the reason why branch standards in Locals are so low – is to provide a regular survey on PO Local operators opinions and monitor trends with particular emphasis on the groups of branches I describe above.
It has become far too easy and financially justifiable for a PO Local operator to walk away from running a Post Office and then what happens to the consumers?
I’ll answer that final question with a current example. Glenluce Post Office, a traditional branch, closed suddenly several years ago. It had a salary of about £25k. It was offered to the ONLY shop in the village at that time for a paltry £7,500 per annum projected (not only that but the shop owner would have lost out on Lottery Sales as well to POL) so the offer was politely declined. There was much hoo hah in the local press about it – community council meetings etc but nothing happened and Glenluce ended up with an Outreach service a few hours a week. Earlier this year that outreach service suddenly stopped as the SPMR resigned. Glenluce has no post office service and hasn’t had one for many months. The most interesting thing though is that this time there was no hoo hah – no local press reports – no interest whatsoever. The Post Office had gone and the local community had got used to the idea. That is how fragile the network is at the moment – use it or lose suddenly takes on a new connotation when folk lose it and suddenly realise they can do without it after all.