March 8th, 2008

The US Postal Service: Dedicated to Pushing the Envelope

The subject of this post is a little misleading because I'm feeling nothing remotely charitable for the Postal Service right now. They have demonstrated a long history of incompetence with handling changes of address, but what happened today really takes the cake.

See, this goes way back. I've moved more times than I care to count, and each time, I've run into the same problem: I submit a change-of-address form to the post office, and some of my mail gets forwarded, while some does not. And yes, I know there are some categories of mail that are not covered under forwarding policies. I'm talking about mail that should, by all means, get forwarded.

Additionally, I go out of my way to update my address preemptively with as many senders as possible, but this is always somewhat of an iterative process, and it's hard to get the timing just right with all of them. Like, I never know exactly when Citibank is about to send me yet another batch of shredder fodder (i.e. balance transfer checks). There are many factors and variables, and with all the other headaches of moving, you really need a safety net here and there. Which is why mail forwarding makes a lot of sense, in principle.

I've sometimes been able to "catch" this when I've had a lease overlap and retained access to my previous mailbox for a few weeks after moving. Predictably, some of my mail starts showing up at the new address with the yellow "Notify sender..." sticker slapped on the front, and some of it continues to go to the old address. I usually call the relevant post offices to point out their error, for all the good it does. It's just a bit alarming to know you're days away from surrendering your old mailbox key, yet some potentially important mail is still showing up the old location on a regular basis.

But as I said, today was the epitome of the Postal Service's ineptness. While I was living in Redwood Shores, I frequently received mail addressed to a former resident by the name of Gregory M. I always just wrote "not at this address" on the envelope, and tossed it back into the outgoing mail slot. Not a big deal.

Well, today ... are you ready? ... wait for it ... wait for it ... okay, now GO! ... a piece of Gregory's mail, addressed to Redwood Shores, showed up at my Oakland address with the yellow forwarding sticker slapped on!

The letter was clearly addressed to:

Gregory M.
blah blah blah Apt blah
Redwood City, CA 94065


And the yellow forwarding sticker said:

Michael R. Webb
blah blah blah Apt blah
Oakland, CA 94607


It takes a fortuitous stroke of idiocy to produce such a screwup. And if the wrong information falls into the wrong person's hands, in general, that's just not good. So there are serious implications here. It ain't all fun 'n' games.

I realize I'm not being gentle about this, and one has to take human error into account. Unfortunately, the Postal Service messes up mail forwarding just a bit too much to chalk it up to such errors. This is carelessness and incompetence at its best.

In my opinion, it is far worse to offer a service that doesn't work than not to offer that service at all. It's like the time a Verizon store transferred my contacts from an old phone to a new one. Or so I thought. Most of the data got transferred, but some pieces of contact data were randomly and mysteriously missing. That's really, really bad, causing major headaches for customers foolish enough to trust that a simple process actually works, and I'd honestly rather they not offer that service at all if it's so error-prone.

I don't want to hear about how it's a "courtesy" and I shouldn't complain, whether it's free (a la USPS) or costs an extra $10 or so (a la Verizon); either way it's just not okay. If I'm going to have to maintain constant vigilance over a process, I'd rather just know that ahead of time and take care of it myself.

Are laziness and carelessness becoming more institutionalized? Is it okay to mess up all the time as long as everybody else is messing up along with you? Have some of our collective standards sunk lower over time? Because I'd say the USPS and Verizon examples are so bad, they're like a software company releasing a new application with lots of major bugs, and we know that would never be tolerated or forgiven in the marketplace. Oh, wait.

I'll hold off on turning this into the full-length thesis it could easily become, but it's worth thinking about.

It's just ridiculous and inexcusable to submit a change-of-address form and have to wonder whether your mail will actually get forwarded. It's enough to induce superstition or introduce some God of Mail Forwarding into the collective consciousness. He's a jealous, angry god, and as with other such ritualistic religious customs, no matter how much you hope, pray, and make sacrifices, bad crap still seems to happen anyway.

To boil it all down, I have a simple message for the USPS, Verizon, or any other entity offering services upon which truly important customer concerns may pivot: either do it right, or don't do it at all.