Monday 10th August 2015
Dear Post Office, Royal Mail, and Parcel Force
Re: Systemic failure to communicate (and deliver)
This is a story about a parcel. The story contains missed connections, tense silences, low-speed chases, eccentric characters, and unearthed truths. It is a story about a parcel, but also about the people that chase them, search for them, handle them, and guard them. It is a human story. But more than that, it is a story of chronic incompetence.
Last month I ordered a parcel from America, and it was duly reported as despatched. I allowed a decent time for it to arrive, liking to give the benefit of the doubt where possible. Days became weeks, and still no parcel. Always assume the best of intentions, I have been told, and actually this is very good advice. Perhaps the parcel is being handled well, rather than hurriedly and carelessly. See? Honestly, it is a good outlook to have: search for the best of intentions, and you will find them.
And yet. No parcel. I check in on eBay, where I ordered the item, and find a tracking number. Wonderful! Technology will save us! I went to the USPS website, which informed me with a hearty green tick that the parcel had been ‘Delivered’ on 20th July. Now. This didn’t match up. I called USPS, and argued – in front of my whole office, who took delight from it I’m sure – with a man that I suspected had a beard even though I never saw him. He told me, in no uncertain terms and certainly more times than was necessary (since I understood him the first time), that once the parcel was in the UK, it was untrackable. What to make of the big green ‘delivered’? It turns out, I was to understand later, that this means ‘delivered to the destination country’, which is not so much ‘delivered’ as ‘not my problem any more!’. How American. Though I did glean from (bearded) Bob that ParcelForce would have taken custody of the parcel from USPS, and as such they would be responsible for the ultimate delivery.
I was making advances. I was excited. From previously thinking the parcel had falsely been recorded as delivered, now it was back in the system, it was still where it might ought to be. I went to the ParcelForce website and entered the tracking number. This is what I found:
It’s on its way
Your item, posted on 18/07/15 with reference [xxxxxxxx] has been received at our international mail centre and is being made ready for despatch overseas.
Calamity! Intrigue! This was surely not correct. Despatch overseas? Quite the opposite, I hoped. I called ParcelForce. I spoke to a lady there, who was able to find the same message, but who assured me that the message was wrong, and that the parcel was in the system at the mail centre and would be sent out, but that it often took two to three weeks. It happened that way with her own parcels, she said. We were at the two-week mark already, so I asked whether I should perhaps attempt to reconnect in a week’s time if it hadn’t arrived. The lady agreed, and assured me I shouldn’t worry. In retrospect, this was a warning sign.
A week passes. Life continues. And we are inexorably brought to Monday, today, and into Act 3 if not the dénouement.
On a fancy, owing to a temporary and refreshing pause in my work schedule, I call ParcelForce. It is approaching eleven o’clock. Options are chosen on the automated phone system that nobody understands the purpose of, and finally the parcel tracking number is given to Tracy, who must love her job on some days but perhaps not today. But Callooh, Callay! New information! The parcel has an outstanding Customs charge, and is thus being imprisoned against its will. The ransom must be paid! But where is the demand? You should have received a card, says Tracy, as I now wonder if I detect a kidnapper’s threatening undertone. There has been no card! I cry. She continues. Parcels are kept for a limited time, and today is the last day it can be collected before it is returned whence it came! I am willing and able, I declare. Where is the parcel?
Tracy leaves no room for error. The parcel is at the [xxxx] Post Office, on [xxxx] Road. It closes at 1pm, and after that, the parcel may be returned to America. I must hurry! It is eleven; there is no time to lose. I leave the office dramatically, and drive my car (the check engine light is on, will it break down at this, the worst of times?) to the Post Office. I have obeyed the speed limit at all times, I’m not a monster. I arrive, I queue, I am called to cashier number 4.
I present the parcel tracking number, and provide my name and address. Everything is going to work out just fine! I am elated. Except that nagging doubt in the back of my mind won’t go away: they didn’t send a card, the website tracking said the wrong thing, the first parcel force lady didn’t know about the customs charge and just said wait. There had been too many mistakes. But I try to ignore the voice; why ignore an imaginary voice telling me things will go wrong when I have a real one in front of me?
The parcel is not here. Thus is the fate of those who dare to dream.
I begin a conversation along lines that quickly become circles:
“I spoke to ParcelForce this morning, they told me it was here, in this Post Office.”
“We don’t have the parcel, you need to call ParcelForce.”
“I spoke to ParcelForce, they told me to come here.”
“You should call ParcelForce.”
“Why? What would they tell me other than to come here, which is what they have already told me?”
“We don’t have it.”
“Can you tell me where it is?”
“You don’t know where it is?”
“No. You’ll have to call ParcelForce.”
“I have called ParcelForce. They told me to come here.”
“You’ve called ParcelForce?”
Imagine how much more frustrating this conversation would be if you were actually in it, rather than just reading it. Fortunately, help is on hand! I am passed to a supervisor:
“You’re trying to find this parcel?”
“Yes. Has it been explained to you that I’ve already called ParcelForce and they sent me here?”
“You’ll have to call ParcelForce.”
There is a Post Office branch that, this morning, did not have a person spontaneously combust all over it. You’re welcome.
Obviously I am paraphrasing the conversations above, but it is exactly true that the Post Office did not have the parcel, and that they stated they did not know where it was. Technology will not save us. It was suggested (aside from calling ParcelForce) that I might go to the delivery office round the corner, which is actually a sensible suggestion since they also deal with parcels, but also sad in that this suggestion was born of no more information or authority than had I asked the local Wizard what I might do. (Aside: My town has a wizard. Locally, he is quite famous, and known as ‘the wizard’.)
I arrive at the delivery office, and observe with a firm jaw the notice placed outside the building directing people with a ParcelForce slip to the Post Office I have just ventured from. There is a queue, and I join. A number of minutes pass, and with jealousy for their perfect lives I watch the customers ahead of me leaving with boxes tucked under their arms. Oh life. Oh parcels. At the counter I present the tracking number and my credentials. Do you have this parcel, I ask. It is approaching twelve.
If I’ve got it, you can have it, says the gentleman at the counter. Such ebullience! He disappears. He reappears shortly, carrying something that might conceivably my parcel! It is an encouraging size and shape, and my heart lightens! At last! I have seen it, it is real, someone knew where it was all along. That that someone was not at ParcelForce or the Post Office, of course, is rather disappointing. I have been reduced to turning up places on the off-chance, but I have been lucky. You didn’t get a card then, he asks. If only.
There is a customs charge to be paid, says he. I will pay it, I assert. Twenty-seven pounds and nine pence, and we only take cash. My heart sinks. I don’t carry that much cash, and cannot fetch some and return to be served before the office closes. There is a queue behind me. Can you hold on to it for me, I ask. Well, this is the last day of holding, he says. But I am here! And I do want the parcel! I will return. He will put it ‘on this shelf’, he declares magnanimously. I am defeated, and leave with as much grace as I can muster.
The story is nearly over. If I return tomorrow, with the correct fee, surely it will be over. I will barely sleep tonight, brimming with hope. And yet there is that voice in the back of my mind. But I should rest. I have done all I can for now. Except relate this tale to you, and ask:
Why was there no card delivered to inform me of the parcel’s fate (and customs fee)?
Why did (it still does today) the ParcelForce tracking state the parcel was ready to be shipped overseas?
Why did my first discussion with ParcelForce not inform me of the parcel’s whereabouts and the outstanding customs fee?
Why did the second conversation with ParcelForce confidently direct me to a Post Office that had never had my parcel?
Why was the Post Office unable to tell me where the parcel was?
The level of service I have experienced has been terrible, and has cost me a considerable amount of effort (I do not include writing this letter in that) and may yet cost me my parcel. We will see. This whole thing could have been avoided if I had received the original customs fee card, of course, but even if we allow for that being a genuine (though one would argue still unacceptable) mistake, the situation was not resolved despite multiple opportunities. I would like, and feel that I am entitled to, an apology, and explanation (see questions above), and perhaps some gesture of goodwill. I can’t think why, but £27.09 springs to mind.