A Tale of Two Post Offices
The United States Postal Service has taken some significant hits over the years. Rising expenses and dropping income, the delicate balance between not-really-a-government-agency and definitely-a-government-agency, the rise of email and the death of first class mail, the shuttering of many locations and curtailed hours at others…all of it has added up to the place we love to complain about but can’t possibly live without.
The post office closest to our office is – and I don’t think I’m being hyperbolic when I say this – the literal worst location on the face of the earth, ever, in any time era, without exception. (See? I told you. No hyperbole.) Just last week I stood in line for 25 minutes along with 17 other people, while one clerk tried to work one station since the other three stations were closed. It was early afternoon, but not a lunch rush. I wasn’t there on tax day or two weeks before Christmas. It was a normal Monday with a normal, I’ve-come-to-expect-this outcome.
The clerks at this location seem physically pained if you try to engage in conversation. I’ve never seen a smile or heard a kind word. There is one employee whose job (it seems) is to walk as slowly as he can through the lobby, approach one of the dozen people in line, and mumble, “What do you need?” If the answer is anything other than “a book of stamps,” he moves on. Apparently he’s the book of stamps guy. He can get you the book of stamps. He’ll be slow about it, and rates will go up by the time he brings them back to you, but if you need a book of stamps, he’s your man.
Here’s the thing: I know what I’m getting when I go into that post office location. I know it’s going to be terrible. I know that I’m going to have to wait in an inexplicably long line. I know that the people there hate me, hate their jobs, hate life, and probably hate puppies. But I go because it’s relatively convenient to my office and it’s on the way to lunch.
Contrast that with a post office on the other side of town. I actually thought this one shut down a few years ago. Nope, they just moved across the street, tucked away in a shopping center, and I recently rediscovered them. They are the anti-close-to-work post office in multiple ways. They’re not nearby. They’re not convenient when it comes to my schedule or my lunch choices. They’re not the size of my closer post office.
They’re also not anything like the personalities of the folks on this side of town. The first time I walked in to mail a package from the Summit, the clerk (who had already cheerfully greeted me when I walked in) noticed the return address and struck up a conversation: “You go to Summit? Man, I love your church! I have a lot of friends who go there.” He walked me through my options to mail the package, giving me the cheapest, fastest service. He smiled. He made eye contact. He made me feel like I was the only customer he was going to see all day. He acted like he cared about my experience.
Fast forward a few weeks. It was a Saturday morning, the day I was supposed to mail out our Christmas cards, plus one package that needed postage. I went back to the newly-discovered location. The lobby was open for self-service, but the windows weren’t staffed yet. However, I walked in the door at the same time as my clerk friend. He held the door. I asked him about their hours. He told me it would be another thirty minutes before the window opened (crud). I asked if they had a self-serve postage scale so I could weigh the larger envelope. And here’s where it gets good:
“Man, we don’t. I’m so sorry about that. Is that what you’re mailing?” (points to the envelope, reaches out to take it, holds it in his hand to get a feel for the weight) “Hey buddy, just put three stamps on that and it’ll cover it. Once you drop it in the bin I’ll double check it, and if I’m wrong I’ll add the postage with no problem.”
The guy had just walked in the door. He wasn’t officially on the clock. Yet he was committed to getting me what I needed, and fixing the situation if he told me something that was incorrect. As I said, he was the anti-close-to-work post office. He carried the opposite attitude as his across town counterparts. The opposite posture. The opposite everything.
Here’s the point: the USPS has it’s problems. But they can’t be fully blamed for the non-helpful employees at my close-to-work location, nor can they be fully praised for the over-the-top guy at the across town location. I have a feeling those non-helpful employees were non-helpful at their last job, and will probably be non-helpful at their next job. In the same way, the friendly clerk seems like the kind of guy who is going to be friendly no matter what he does.
But it’s the skill and kindness and helpfulness of the USPS’s employees that add to or take away from my viewpoint of the organization. If they’re friendly, then the entire postal system is great. If they’re sullen / rude / unengaged, then I tend to project that on everyone all the way up to the postmaster general.
The application: pity the church that doesn’t realize our guests will perceive us as friendly or not, engaged or not, helpful or not, caring or not, based on their interaction with a volunteer or staff member.
So how are you empowering kindness and discouraging disengagement?