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Mystery Shopper Program Runs Amok:
Program exposes ethics flaws in transforming USPS from service-oriented to business-oriented agency
By T.L. Righter, 6/27/2002
Window Clerks are now being pressured to "upsell" First-Class $.55 flats at the $3.50 Priority postage rate, a proposition that is (usually) inherently dishonest and costly for postal customers. This practice not only illustrates how the Mystery Shopper program has run amok in a desperate bid to help postal finances, but it also illustrates fundamental problems that will confront the USPS as it moves closer to a pure business model.

Upselling is the term used to describe the sales technique where a clerk or salesperson attempts to "upgrade" a purchase by a customer. The technique is usually used at the point of sale and its purpose is to generate additional revenue for the business. Most Americans have experienced this technique at their local hamburger franchise when a counter clerk invariably asks if you want to "supersize" or "biggie size" your meal. At the USPS, however, upselling has become an overzealous, and some say unethical, means of conducting business.

Upselling at the U.S. Postal Service falls under the management of the Mystery Shopper Program, one of the most unpopular programs among window clerks in many years. The Mystery Shopper Program aims to generate additional postage revenue by insuring that window clerks ask each customer five questions in an attempt to sell more postage or services or upgrade the transaction.

Americans have grown accustomed to the customary one question asked at the point of sale that is now standard in the service and retail industry. Usually, the one question consists of something like "will that be all" or "would you like to supersize your meal?" Americans have come to expect and tolerate one question. But leave it to the USPS to take an idea and run with it to its most obscene and outlandish conclusion.

At your local post office there may be a line out the lobby door, but the window clerks inside are going to ask postal customers five questions, even if it kills them in the process. Why? Because the USPS hires "Mystery Shoppers" who pose as postal customers to check window clerks. The Mystery Shoppers report details of the transaction back to postal managers. Failure by a clerk to ask all five questions may result in discipline for "failure to follow instructions". Recently, Mystery Shoppers have been presenting window clerks with a flat (81/2 by 11 inch letter) for mailing. Clerks have been instructed to tell the customer/mystery shopper that the best value is the $3.50 Priority Mail rate, even though the most common method of mailing such an article is at the $.55 First Class mailing rate. In fact, clerks have received new instructions to recommend the Priority rate even if the customer asks to send it the cheapest way. That, of course, is an outright lie from the postal service to its customers.

There are at least two things wrong with this picture. First, the flat will probably get to its destination in the same time frame either way. In fact, the flat may get to its destination quicker via First Class mail at the $.55 rate. (Arenít First Class letters and flats supposed to be delivered in one to three days between major markets?) Second, it is basically unethical to charge someone 636% more than is necessary, especially when it is based on an outright falsehood. True, there are some instances where Priority Mail may be the preferred method of shipping for such a flat, however, to make a blanket statement and issue a blanket decree that all such flats be recommended sent at the Priority rate is plain wrong. Itís also wrong to instruct window clerks to engage in such deceptive business practices.

Most of us have been asked that one question at the fast-food franchise. However, most of us have also been told by a sales clerk at a fast-food franchise that it may be cheaper to order separate items in a combo meal and save money. Thatís the honest thing to do. Unfortunately, the USPS Ė finding itself in a financial fix Ė is resorting to desperate and seemingly unethical measures to close the revenue gap. Thatís not something that a "service" should do. Moreover, one or two questions are all most Americans (and clerks) will reasonably tolerate. Letís be reasonable, and also, letís not be deceptive. As a public service we should be honest with our customers. Clerks should be free to recommend (in a reasonable manner) the most honest and reasonable method of sending a particular item, without fear of disciplinary action.

Recently, the manager of an area-wide Mystery Shopper program decided to do a little mystery shopping of his own. He visited a number of post offices and presented a number of clerks with the $.55 flat. He was "appalled" at what he found Ė 83% of the window clerks accepted his flat with no questions asked and charged $.55. The manager decided to "do the numbers" like so many postal managers are good at doing. He calculated that if each Mystery Shopper office did this to ten customers a day that the "lost revenue" would amount to almost $890,000 a year on Priority flats alone.

Is that $890,000 in lost revenue, or did the clerks save our postal customers Ė the American public - $890,000? The answer depends on what the USPS is, or is becoming Ė a postal "service" as our name implies now, or a postal "business" as many in the reform camp are calling for? Thatís the $64,000 question for the USPS. Should the USPS remain primarily a (public) service (utilizing standard and honest business practices), or should it become a business (with service and honesty as desired but unnecessary attributes)?

I believe that the USPS should remain a service. The U.S. Postal Service can remain the indispensable service that it is to the American people by employing honest and effective business practices. And, it can and should remain profitable while doing so. The business model is a good one.

Capitalism is good, but it can also be cold-blooded. Do we want a postal "business" that, perhaps, raises rates at Christmastime, during peak mailing periods? Do we want a postal "business" that charges more for mailing and delivery to and from outlying rural areas? I donít believe that the American people want such a postal "business" just like they donít want to be unnecessarily charged $3.50 for something that should only cost them $.55.

- T.L. Righter

P.S. I canít imagine going into my local McDonalds and ordering a $.59 hamburger, only to be told by the clerk that their best value is a $3.59 hamburger that has special red and blue stickers on the packaging!


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