Pushing The Envelope: How the Post Office is Adapting to Digital

by Jessica Ramesh

Pete Markey, CMO at the Post Office, explains how the service is evolving to take account of new technology and customer needs

The temptation when looking for examples of digital innovation is to focus on nimble EC1 start-ups and glossy retail brands: companies conceived in the bright light of the digital age that share with their audiences an instinctive understanding of the new media landscape.

But it can be equally instructive – if not more so – to examine how traditional brands with established practices are adapting to digital. And as established businesses go, there are few more venerable institutions on the UK high street than the Post Office.

With a history stretching back over 300 years, it’s an organisation deeply embedded in the national consciousness. It’s also a business subject to unique challenges and opportunities as our communication
infrastructure evolves and new companies seek to take advantage of the ecommerce boom. (Someone’s got to handle all those online purchases.)

The Post Office in 2014 is committed to pushing the envelope and, says CMO Pete Markey, at the heart of that is the creation of a seamless, digitally-driven customer experience built around the things consumers need.

Delivering the future

“There are 11,780 branches across the UK. They deal with telecoms, financial services, broadband and provide essential mail services,” Markey told delegates at the Figaro Digital Marketing Conference earlier this year.

“It’s also a brand with a huge amount of trust. According to a survey conducted earlier this year, the Post Office is the second most trusted brand in the UK.” (The AA tops the list). “We get 1.3 million unique visitors to postoffice.co.uk per week; 18 million customers visit a branch each week, including a third of the
UK’s small businesses.”

The Post Office is not, however, in a position to rest on its laurels. “The important question is how to stay relevant in a digital age,” says Markey, and a key point in the organisation’s digital manifesto involves establishing a more human presence.

“It’s a challenging mix of channels – for customers and employees,” he concedes. “How do we keep the brand’s tone relevant and consistent online and offline, so that it feels like a red thread running through all of the business? We’re connecting quite disparate products, from a mortgage to a 1st Class stamp. It’s that vast in its range and scope.”

What that’s meant in practice is integrating online and offline services so that tasks can be undertaken by customers without going into a branch, and making the in-branch experience much more digitally focused. Self-service and touch-kiosks help users manage what they want to do by letting them go straight to the relevant department in branch. There’s a price-finder that enables customers to calculate the cost of postage before coming into the branch and even print that postage themselves – a development which has proved successful in the States.

The Post Office is also the UK’s number one provider of travel money. “Now you can order your money online and have it couriered to your home the next day at a very low cost,” says Markey. “Or you can buy it online and pick it up in a branch the next day.”

Strategies like this are designed to streamline the process and emphasise convenience. A clue to future plans however, is to be found in some of the businesses from whom Markey draws inspiration. These include M&S, which is now making use of digital screens in its branches, and Argos, currently looking to replace catalogues with tablets.

Markey’s understandably reluctant to big up any of the Post Office’s direct competitors, but does point to parcel delivery service Local Letterbox as an example of how digital and physical technology are combining to reshape the way we shop.

“This is a very smart idea,” he says. “If you order from ASOS you can pick up your parcel from a Local Letterbox outlet. There’s a changing room where you can try your clothing on. If it doesn’t fit they wrap it up and can send it back for you. For me, that’s a really interesting model that fuses retail and post, and it’s something we’re grappling with – improving the customer experience by combining physical and digital. Critically, the customer remains at the heart. We’re learning from all these things and reshaping our own customer experience. For people used to using eBay and Amazon, this kind of ‘locker’ experience is great.”

Inclusivity, relevance, customer focus and accessibility are all points you’d expect to find in any large organisation’s vision for the future. But digital is also introducing the opportunity for interesting partnerships.

“It’s really important that we’re seen as a brand in places that are relevant and accessible and right for our customers,” he says. These currently include Zoopla – anyone looking for a property is able to get an instant mortgage calculation online.

“This has worked very powerfully for us and been a great form of lead generation,” says Markey. A partnership with lastminute.com also enables holidaymakers to buy travel money and have it delivered.

Social post

Traditionally, local Post Office branches have been focal points in the community. Social media therefore has a natural role to play in bringing the businesses and its customers together.

Underpinning its social activity, explains Markey, are three key strands of customer insight. These involve understanding what people think about the Post Office, how they feel about it, and what they can do there.

The businesses, he says, is positioned as down to earth and friendly yet unafraid to try new things, so content needs to be useful, sharable and human. And, of course, it needs to bring value. As an example of what that means on a daily basis, Markey points to a difficult period at the end of last year when a number of the Post Office’s directly managed Crown branches were hit by strikes.

“We used Twitter to demonstrate which branches were open and which weren’t. It created a really good dialogue with customers. On an engagement level, it gave customers what they wanted and needed, based around their locality and what mattered to them.”

More boldly, Markey talks about pushing the boundaries for the brand on social media. Though still tentative, the strategy has been to challenge public perception of the Post Office by introducing a bit of wit and humour to Tweets. As plenty of high profile businesses will testify, getting the tone right in this context is easier said than done.

“Challengingly,” says Markey, “we’ve also allowed our local branches to have their own Twitter feeds, which can have a powerful benefit at a local level. We’re grappling with how you maintain a really strong brand tone-of-voice and keep that consistent when it’s fragmented through potentially thousands of different Twitter feeds for different branches. It’s a tricky balance. At the moment it’s in an okay place, and we’re looking at governance versus how you unleash all these small businesses and enable them to connect with their communities so they can show the role of – and relevance of – the Post Office in their area.”

That balance between the local and the national combined with a close focus on customers’ daily needs is key in the digital development of an organisation like the Post Office. And, like many well-loved institutions adapting to the digital age, one of the biggest challenges will be to implement those changes without alienating loyal existing users.

Article by Jon Fortgang