Is the concept of a mail room still alive?

It certainly was when I came across Jeannie.

She was the mail room supervisor for the HQ of a large unitary council, an office building with about 1,000 staff on site.  The mail room and the printing unit were both in the basement, and apart from any functional merit the location was nicely symbolic of their status in the organisation.

The mail room dealt with all the incoming and outgoing mail for the council and a couple of tenants they had in the building.  Apart from the routine flows it handled major postings produced by the printing unit like the 250,000+ annual council tax demands.

Jeannie approached me for some help in a pretty desperate mood.  She and her team’s self-esteem was about as low as it could get.  They saw their users as the enemy rather than their customers.  And Jeannie summarised the “enemy’s” perceptions of herself succinctly – “They call me the bitch in the basement”.

It wasn’t difficult to see how they’d reached this state.  For an hour in the morning and then again in the afternoon their workspace was heaving with irritated clerical staff from all over the building looking for mail expected but not arrived, hunting down their own incoming mail, complaining  that stuff had been placed in the wrong pigeon hole, demanding outgoing mail went first class, delivering un-notified trolley loads of outgoing mail minutes before the Royal Mail deadline.  It was chaotic.

Not surprisingly Jeannie was at her wits’ end.  She could only see the problems in terms of what “they” did and that was all about their inadequacies.

The first small battle won was to persuade her that the “enemy” were in fact customers, that without prejudging it what was probably wrong was how the work was done rather than the people, and – biggest challenge of all – that she had to work with those customers to improve things and provide a better service, which at the end of day was all she wanted.

After some discussion about who should be on the improvement team Jeannie and one of her people worked with three customer representatives over a period of some weeks to define and measure the problems, identify the root causes, brainstorm possible solutions and work out what should be done.

Jeannie was all for implementing the changes over one weekend, issuing an instruction to customer departments and then just using the new procedures.

I persuaded her that this wouldn’t work and proposed an open meeting with all the customers to discuss her team’s findings and get their buy in to the changes.  She was apprehensive about the response but said she’d be willing provided I presented what they’d found.

It took all my skills to convince her of the importance of her and her team presenting their conclusions.  I was a facilitator not an expert in her work.  With a lot of handholding she and her team agreed they’d each speak.

Come the day the customers were there in force including the middle age woman who, in our meticulous preparation, Jeannie had identified as “the one who’s going to cause trouble if anyone is”.  She sat in the middle of the front row, arms folded.  No visible response to anything that was said.

At last the presentation was complete.

“Any questions or comments?” asked Jeannie as agreed.

The trouble maker stirred.  “I’ve worked here seven years,” she said “and this is the first time anyone’s asked me what I think.  This is great.  I think we need to do it.”

The rest of the story hardly needs telling.  With the (ex-)trouble maker on side everyone else was equally positive.  Even better, they came up with another good idea (customers do) – a mail users group.

When the last customer left the room Jeannie and her mail room staff were as near to walking on air as I’ve seen people be.

The last I heard they were keeping up the basic measurements of performance they’d agreed with their customers.  And the user group had taken on a life of its own, most recently getting a police officer in to talk about security at a time when a number of animal rights groups were threatening public bodies with mail bombs.

And the mail room staff? – happy with their work, and delivering a great service.