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Business Tips: Lessons from the Postal Service

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

In case you haven't heard the United States Postal Service is cutting back. Majorly. 

An agency that has long faced difficulties; financial woes and negative public opinion,  it will cut service and increase prices in January.  There is sticky legislation and bureaucracy involved but I think they are making terrible mistakes. 

The same ones many other businesses (like me!) often make. Let's learn from their (ginormous) errors and apply these lessons to our own brands.  

What the USPS (and other brands) should be doing: 

  • Tell Your Story: It's what makes us care about you. The USPS has a wonderfully dramatic and nostalgic place in history. It's part of the Constitution for pete's sake. I mean, have you heard it's creed? "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds"   Why, oh why are they not sharing this story with us? Images of The Pony Express, WWII era postcards, tiny posts along the Oregon Trail, all these things come to mind as story points to build upon. Other carriers lack this rich history....it's a point of differentiation. Just like other businesses, the USPS should be telling their story. 
  • Identify Your Market:  The post office seems unsure of who they're selling to...or that they're actually selling something at all. Identifying your market can be tricky, but consider what value you offer and who benefits. For example, the USPS repeats this line as a reason for their demise, "people just do things online now." Um, hello? This is their market. I mean, I'm pretty sure I order and ship enough stuff to keep my local post office afloat (kidding). But multiple that times a gazillion for all the other business that ship from home...and there's a sizeable market. So why hasn't anyone (not one single postal worker) ever talked to me about their business services? USPS should be honing in on the people who do need and want their services. One way to get to know your market? Start a conversation.
  • Embrace Who You Are: Instead of just fighting current trends, embrace who you are as a business. For USPS, this means traditional postal services. There is a steady appreciation for handwritten letters and people still love opening their mailboxes to find something inside (psst, here's another market niche). Remind people of this...make them fall in love with "snail mail" again. In fact, call it something else ('traditional correspondence') or something. Take back the discourse....and make it your own.
  • Cut Costs...Meaningfully: Running a successful business means keeping costs to a minimum. Got it. But it doesn't mean just cutting numbers. I see the USPS trimming jobs and processing centers which may very well be necessary. But I subscribe by the 'every little thing counts' rule- cut backs should include cleaning out all those cluttery, inefficient post offices (One look at the mess of post notes and memos strewn about my local office, is it any wonder packages go missing?) This type of trimming may only have a nominal effect on the bottom line, but it can make up for it tenfold in what it says to the customer. We're serious about efficiency. 
  • Collaborate: It adds dimension to your brand. Shores up your weaknesses and highlights your strengths. The USPS does a bit of this (e.g. Hallmark and Small Business Administration). But I think they can do more. And when you partner up, make it count....and share what you've created.  
  • Actively Define Your Brand (this is a biggie!): Workers should be looked at more than just what tasks they complete but how they define the brand. Hopefully the USPS considers this in all their number crunching. I see it as the biggest failure of the USPS (and many businesses) - people passively representing their brand. I have no idea what type of training the USPS provides it's workers but it sure seems to me that there is a lack of brand loyalty here. What I'd love to see: a) local post offices embracing their space to make it their own b) postal workers sharing their personal stories c) workers seeking out ways to provide & share services rather than the current model of "we're doing you a favor of delivering your packages."
  • Focus On What You've Got: Nobody wants to hear what you don't do. Talk of what you can't provide makes your brand insignificant. Instead, focus on what you've got going for you. USPS provides free priority boxes (free, people, free!), they will even walk to your door and pick them up, their website is pretty easy to navigate, and you can print your labels online. I want to hear more talk of this, value being added on. I don't want to hear about what can't be shipped or tracked or completed. Fix it and show me what you've got.
Alright, well that's just a bit on how things would change if I ran the world, er, the post office. But in any case, I really find it effective to analyze business mistakes and successes around us and apply it to our own brands. Hopefully, you found a few takeaways to build upon here. I do offer personal business coaching if you'd like more personalized feedback....that includes you, USPS, if you need some consult ;) 

{image courtesy zswilkinson}


Anonymous said...

Excellent post! As a small business, I rely heavily on USPS and will be very upset if I have to switch to another carrier when they cut back their services. After reading through your post, I was very sad that they haven't done more to improve their brand. I definitely think they could save the Postal Service and keep rates low if they were a little more creative.

Juliette said...

Great post! The USPS should certainly hire you!! And now how to translate your excellent points to my business ... Well done, Allisa!