Monday, June 24, 2013

Customer Service Week

This is a decade-old story, part of family lore now. Finally getting written down.

Let me say first that I prefer the civilized society where we can have individual mailboxes, at the curb, or attached to the house. Without worry that someone will come along and steal the mail. Those were the good old days. They still exist here and there. But not here.
Here we walk down to the end of the street and around the corner to the collective set of boxes where our mail is delivered, when there is no error, in our own locked box. (Our neighborhood has parallel streets; there are seven houses on different streets with our house number, which makes it a bit challenging for the mail carrier.) It is out in the Houston rain and sun, including the occasional tropical storm. It gets weathered.
lovely neighborhood mailbox station
This was in the early 2000s; I can’t remember the year or date exactly. We were having trouble getting our mailbox open. The key would go in with difficulty, but it took a lot of muscle to turn it. I mostly gave up trying to get the mail and let the giant men in the family do it. It needed fixing. So one day when I was at the post office for another purpose, I asked if we could get repair done on the box. They said, “This isn’t your post office; you’ll have to go to the post office assigned to your zip code.” I thought that was the one I was at, a few minutes from my house through the neighborhoods. The postal worker didn’t know where the right place would be.
A few days later I set out on the mission of getting the mailbox repaired. I started by looking in the phone book—back in the day when that’s how we looked things up. The list of zip codes was there, but the instruction was to call a number to ask what post office was assigned to your zip code.
The phonecall started with a recorded message, using about two minutes of my time, telling me that it was customer service week, and they were glad they could be of service to me. Eventually I got to ask a person where the post office was for my zip code. It was about 11 miles from home. We are apparently at the edge of a zip code boundary, and the post office is shared by several zip codes.
I got the name of the street, which is one I recognized. But I couldn’t tell by the address where along that street the post office was. This was in the days before GPSes in the car. We had maps. And in Houston, the road map is a 280-page book. You get used to it. But sometimes it takes several turns of the page to see all the portions of the road you need. I knew I could start out on the road at the place where we had occasionally been to a branch of the city library. The map looked like the road was continuous through to where I would find the post office. The problem was, it dead-ended and re-continued further on. The dead end occurred at the edge of a page, so there was no way to tell that by looking at the map.
So I hit the dead end and then wandered in and out of neighborhoods, trying to find a route. It wasn’t easy. It took me nearly an hour that day to get to the post office. Then there was a line—a single line. No way to skip the line and get to someone who would just handle a question. So I waited in line 45 minutes.
When I got to the counter, a pleasant and sympathetic postal worker said, “Oh, no, this isn’t your post office. You got changed to the newer one, probably five years ago.” That would have been before we arrived in Houston. And yet the postal service themselves, after taking two minutes of recorded message time to tell me they were celebrating customer service week, had not known where my post office was. This pleasant worker gave me the address and drew a sort of map for me, to be helpful.
Have I mentioned Houston weather? Every time I get in the car, after leaving to stand in line for 45 minutes, the car heats up to well over 120 degrees, and it takes a while for the air conditioner to recover from that. It causes wilting.
I got back on the road. The post office I was now sent to was a bit closer to my house, but oddly placed. The entrance to the little street it’s on is approximately under the intersection of the Northwest Freeway and the Tollway. You have to be on the freeway feeder road to get to the street. (A feeder road is like a side road, parallel to the freeway, several lanes wide, so you can maneuver onto the freeway onramp or over to the sides after an exit. It’s a fast road, like a freeway with occasional traffic lights.) If you miss your street, you probably have to follow the feeder road to the next exit, do a U-turn under the freeway, come back and go beyond what you need, so you can do another U-turn and try again. It took me more than one try—because address numbers aren’t real common right under a freeway, so it’s hard to guess where you are. The first try I didn’t even notice it was a street and not a driveway.
Eventually I got to my actual post office—which I had never been aware of before. Again, there was a line. Multiple lines, but nothing just for answering questions. I just had to pick a line and wait and wait and wait. Forty-five minutes later I got to the counter and reported that I needed a repair on my mailbox.
“Give us your key, and we’ll get to it in a few days.”
“You want me to give you my key so I can’t get my mail for several days?”
“You said you couldn’t open it anyway.”
I can’t. But my very strong son and husband can muscle it open. I didn’t bring the key with me.”
At this point, my face was getting red. I had been away from home for close to three hours. In my defense, let me say that I am not as calm as I ought to be when my blood sugar has dropped. I also have a difficult time standing in lines. I can walk relatively long distances, but standing makes me woozy. So I was good and woozy by this point. And I was more than a little put out—especially knowing that IT WAS CUSTOMER SERVICE WEEK.
I do not swear. I don’t even yell in situations like this. But I can and have raised my voice just enough, with enough intensity, that someone might worry that I am going to “go postal.” I’m sure I did not make their day more pleasant, and I hope no one I know witnessed it. (My kids missed this episode, fortunately, but heard enough about it that they go to lengths to help me avoid putting myself in similar circumstances.)
This exchange I had with the postal worker went on for some time. He offered no solution other than “Go home, get your key, drive back here, stand in line for another 45 minutes, and wait several days for us to get around to fixing your mailbox, during which time you will not have access to your mail.”
Vogon bureaucrat (from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy)
That was not acceptable to me after what I’d already been through. I asked to speak to a manager. They refused. I insisted.
Eventually the postal worker went to get a manager. Another postal worker stepped toward me and whispered, “Listen, just put some lubricant in the lock. That’s all they’re going to do anyway. It’ll probably fix it.”
At this point I was actually stunned to find someone offer a helpful solution. I thanked her and left—no manager was about to arrive anyway.
It worked, by the way. I wish I’d thought of it myself. (Or I wish the fix-it men in the family had thought of it.)
This is Houston where weather must cause this sort of problem with mailbox locks frequently. A worker at the first post office, near my house, could have said so—or at least could have said, “You’ll need to turn in the key to get the box fixed.” The person on the phone after the two-minute recorded message about how happy they were to serve me, especially during customer service week, could have told me about the lubricant—or at least have mentioned about the key. The sympathetic person at the post office I was wrongly directed to could have told me those details. The person I waited in line for at my actual post office could have offered the helpful advice about the lubricant—especially when told I didn’t have the key with me.
But only one person knew how to help—and only from experience, not from postal service training. And she only felt safe in offering me that help when the person failing to serve me walked away, so she could whisper it, because apparently giving actual help to customers—did I mention this was CUSTOMER SERVICE WEEK?—is against protocol.
What is to be learned from this? Avoid lines. Avoid low blood sugar. And especially avoid functionaries.
Functionaries—bureaucratic workers—do not think about solutions; they do not think of ways to help, or offer service. They think of procedures and protocols to cover themselves from blame, get required tasks done, and just get through their hours of work. Only occasionally among them do you find a human being willing to see you as another human being, and think about being of service.
That is why the important things—health care, educating our children, making personal financial decisions, and other things related to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—should be kept as far away from bureaucratic hands as possible.

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