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Fixing the foundations: Branch and service standards in Post Office Locals

22 September 2015

Cover image for Citizens Advice report Fixing the foundations

The post office network is currently undergoing its largest ever branch restructuring programme. By 2017/18, nearly three-quarters of the UK’s post office network will convert to a new operating model - Post Office Local (PO Local). For millions of consumers, this means their post office will undergo major changes.

Unlike the traditional sub post office model, in which a subpostmaster provides services from a dedicated counter, post office services will instead be offered from the main retail counter in convenience stores, corner shops and petrol stations.

Fixing the Foundations: Branch and service standards in Post Office Locals [ 450 kb] shows that there are major challenges in the PO Local model. This is the fourth wave of research that tracks service standards and the branch environment in PO Locals, and aims to drive any necessary improvements. We’ve found that there has been limited, if any, overall improvement in some key areas, including staff knowledge, product and pricing advice, since we started tracking the model’s performance at the start of the restructuring programme in 2012.

Head of Post Offices Andy Burrows' Blog

Picture of Head of Post Offices Andy Burrows

Changes needed to ‘new style’ post offices

Our research finds:

  • There are pronounced ongoing challenges with the accuracy of staff knowledge, and the product and pricing advice offered. Counter staff have problems with even basic postage requirements, with only two in five (39 per cent) mystery shoppers correctly advised on a Second Class postage scenario. In 1 in 4 cases, mystery shoppers considered that counter staff had insufficient knowledge to meet their needs;
  • Branch reliability is a concern: it appears that some PO Locals do not keep to their opening hours, with branches unexpectedly closed in 1 in 25 visits. In other cases, staff told us they couldn’t assist us because they didn’t have the requisite knowledge, wrongly told us that products and services weren’t offered, or said there were other operational problems;
  • There are renewed problems with some PO Locals restricting the amount of cash that customers can withdraw from their bank accounts. In 9 per cent of cases, mystery shoppers were unable to withdraw any cash or the full requested amount;
  • Counter staff ask insufficient questions to determine the most appropriate product for a consumer’s needs. For example, we were recommended Special Delivery without staff asking any questions to determine our needs in more than half (56 per cent) of visits.

Citizens Advice became the statutory watchdog for post office consumers in April 2014. We support the aims of the restructure programme, which has promised to deliver a more sustainable branch network and branches that open during evenings and weekends. Around 1,800 PO Locals are already open across the UK.

However, if the benefits of the new models are to be unlocked, we are calling on Post Office Ltd (POL) to commit to significant improvements to the model. There needs to be particular emphasis on driving up service standards, improved staff training, and making sure that branches offer more consistent and reliable provision. In particular, POL needs to commit to ‘getting the basics right’, and to engage in an open and transparent way about how improvements should be made.

The success of PO Locals matters for the thousands of communities across the country that will come to rely on them to access essential postal, banking, bill payment and Government services.

For that reason, we’ll be looking closely at all aspects of the branch restructuring programme over the coming months – this includes the effectiveness of the consultation process, the long-term prospects for the model, and further work to understand consumers’ needs and experiences when using these ‘new style’ post office branches.