Post Office Locals are meant to deliver a better service for customers, as well as savings for taxpayers. But something is going wrong, finds Brian Wilson.
A few years ago, Citizens Advice took on the mantle of consumer watchdog charged with monitoring and commenting on postal services, including the Post Office network. It has published a critical report, called Fixing the Foundations, which presents its latest consumer research on Post Office Locals.
Readers will recall that the post office network is part-way through a process that will see it re-shaped by 2018. Indeed, 'Network Transformation' is its largest ever branch restructuring programme. It is attempting to make Post Offices more sustainable – and less dependent on public subsidy – by investing in and modernising branches, and by introducing changes such as extended opening hours.
None of which is intended to affect directly the overall scale and accessibility of the Post Office network, though it does involve various branches being relocated.
Post Offices will in future fall into one of four categories. A limited number in city centres will be Crown Post Office owned by Post Office Limited. A second tier of busier branches will be Post Office Mains, with dedicated counters and offering the full range of services.
Some 5,500 – half the network – will become Post Office Locals, delivered from other service outlets. The remainder are classed as Community Post Offices, typically where no other outlet remains, open for limited hours and in some cases delivered by a visiting postmaster or post office van.
Many Post Office Locals are in smaller settlements, so their success is important to the future of the rural network. Whereas traditional sub-post offices had a dedicated counter in a village shop and their own sub-postmaster or sub-postmistress, Post Office Locals are delivered over a regular shop counter and by shop staff.
As the Rural Services Network said in its RSN Manifesto prior to the 2015 General Election, this approach has pros and cons. It may well reduce costs and bring about longer opening hours. But without a dedicated counter and staff there must be a risk is lower service levels.
Citizens Advice sent out mystery shoppers to some 450 of the 1,800 branches already converted to a Post Office Local. These visits unearthed a worrying lack of staff knowledge about products and prices, as well as issues concerning branch reliability.
The conclusion at a quarter of the mystery shopping visits was that Post Office Locals staff had insufficient knowledge to serve the customer accurately. This included mistakes with basic products such as advising on the correct postage stamp.
In many cases counter staff were adjudged not to have asked the right questions of the customer, in order to offer them the most appropriate product for their needs.
At almost one in ten visits no sale of the requested product proved possible. The reasons for this included post office services being 'closed' during shop opening hours, staff incorrectly stating a product was unavailable at that branch, counter staff saying they didn't have enough knowledge to make the transaction and operational or technical problems.
This included problems with cash withdrawal. Some staff didn't know it was a service offered and some said it was only possible when particular staff members were present.
Much of which points towards poorly trained staff in Post Office Locals. It seems fair to acknowledge that post office services are wide-ranging and quite complex. But even if the shop owner or manager has been properly trained and is sufficiently competent, is that true of other staff members? Has that knowledge been passed on? Has it reached part-time or newer staff members? This seems critical if the shared service model is to work well.
Citizens Advice is calling on Post Office Limited to instigate an urgent action plan to bring about improvements that can address reliability concerns and tackle inconsistent standards.
Otherwise they fear that the problems cited will get replicated across the fast-expanding Post Office Locals network. Indeed, that training given initially to Locals may become diluted over time, as a result of shop staff turnover. Training must also maintain staff knowledge.
Customer satisfaction surveys conducted by Post Office Limited continue to show that post offices are liked and other research indicates it remains a trusted brand. Nonetheless, as Citizens Advice point out, it must offer a high quality service.
The network forms a key part of our rural infrastructure, providing postal, financial and government services locally to residents and businesses alike. Let us therefore hope the nettle is grasped by both Post Office Limited and the individual outlets who are taking on Post Office Locals.