Communicating change. How post offices inform customers about branch changes
The post office network provides access to mail and other services in 11,600 branches across Great Britain. It is currently undergoing its biggest ever period of restructuring through the Network Transformation Programme (NTP). This is designed to place the network on a more sustainable financial footing by converting around three quarters of branches to new operating models by 2018.
The programme offers significant benefits to consumers, such as longer opening hours, but can also present risks of consumer detriment as branches are adapted or relocated. Effective communication and, where appropriate, consultation are important. The latter accommodates specific customer needs in each location, which is important both for consumers but also for post offices to ensure that transitions are effective and support their future sustainability.
When making changes to the network, POL follows a Code of Practice (‘the Code’) which sets out how it will communicate and consult with consumers. As a minimum, individual branches are required to communicate changes through the display of certain materials, such as posters and letters, which vary depending on the type of change.
This research looks specifically at how well proposals are being communicated in branch, using the Code and POL guidelines as a benchmark. It is the second consecutive wave of mystery shopping of NTP change communication, and does not feature any Crown Post Offices.
We found that a third (32%) of branches met all requirements, exactly the same as in our first wave of research. But a similar proportion (32%) failed on at least 1 major display requirement, including 1 in 5 branches which failed against all measures of a major failure. We define a major issue as posters not being suitably visible, no letters being available to take away or no materials being available at all. These are set out fully in annex B.
Our research compares branches going through different types of transformation. We found that branches going through the biggest changes (a ‘Consultation’ phase) have improved performance slightly, with almost half (47%) fully complying. This compares favourably to the overall average from our sample (32%) and against the ‘Consultation’ performance in our first wave (39%).
However, branches undergoing a ‘Customer Engagement’ period as part of a conversion to a PO Local in the same premises performed considerably worse. They were more likely to fail on all counts (24%) than to be fully compliant (18%). Branches in the notification phase - which is used to communicate final decisions - are just as likely (24%) to fail on all counts, but are more likely to be fully compliant (36%).
The better performance of branches undergoing the most significant changes whereby a branch is relocating, off site transitions, shows that POL can learn from good practice. But even amongst the consultation group, just under half (47%) are fully compliant. The general consistency of findings across our 2 research projects suggests that POL needs to reconsider how it supports compliance with the Code. This should be a priority. The NTP has entered its final 18 months and we anticipate that the remaining post office changes could represent the hardest transitions as the majority relocate to new retail premises.
We welcome POL’s use of other channels beyond in-branch notifications. These include POL directly contacting local stakeholders, issuing local press releases and the introduction of a portal on its website to support electronic feedback. We focus on in-branch communication as this is the most direct process for the consumers who will be most affected by changes, particularly those with limited internet use.
Without a more rigorous and proactive approach - beyond the current arrangements of calling branches and reactive ad hoc visits - we are concerned that many more consumers may be missing out on important information on changes affecting their access to essential services.
- POL needs to improve operator compliance with the Code and POL guidelines. For example its monitoring arrangements could be improved by conducting a rolling wave of unannounced spot checks at branchesconverting to new models during the NTP in between and on top of the current monitoring arrangements.
- POL should share and review the data from the spot checks and calls to branches not fully meeting the display requirements with Citizens Advice within the existing NTP liaison arrangements between both organisations.
- All display requirements should be captured in a single document, the Code of Practice. This will make it easier for individual post offices to comply and for POL and others to monitor performance.