Will e-Business Bring the UK's Post Up to Speed?

A version of this article first appeared in eB-21, published 10 times a year in Europe by TBC Research.Based in London and San Francisco, TBC Research helps senior business professionals make more informed technology decisions through its magazine, research, and events portfolio.

The UK's Post Office is taking its first tentative steps towards e-business with an implementation of software from eCRM (customer relationship management) vendor Siebel. But one observer believes it will face an uphill battle pulling the different strands together, and reckons the project could even become derailed as it battles against problems that will appear familiar to many large organisations.

The £7.5 billion ($11 billion) turnover organisation plans to begin logging all customer contacts, both consumer and business, in a bid to assess profitability, improve service and target cross-selling opportunities. It has chosen to use Siebel software to integrate sales, marketing and service, but faces an immense integration task to pool all the data into a single system from the 100 disparate customer and product systems it currently employs. Further serious question marks hang over its ability to capture customer data at the counter.

Competitive pressures are forcing the Post Office to tackle such issues head on. A directive currently working its way through the European Union, which is expected to be implemented in early spring, will bring into force a reduction in the weight monopoly which guarantees the Post Office delivery of all letters under 350 grammes. It currently has 4,000 competitors in parcel delivery, but opening up small letters to competition poses a serious revenue threat. Mirroring moves in the utilities industries, it will also be the subject of close monitoring from a government-appointed watchdog starting early this year to ensure that required standards of customer service are met.

Although on the surface the Siebel project appears a logical response, such a large project always risks being undermined by internal disputes as departments compete to push their own agendas rather than work to the greater good. With internal restructuring designed to aid the implementation process affecting 197,000 staff serving 28 million customers a day, a few problems would hardly be surprising. However, a source claimed such problems were often a symptom of muddled thinking and a lack of clear business objectives within organisations. The source also pointed to a frequent lack of detailed understanding of the concomitant changes in business processes that are required to ensure the success of such an implementation.

Plans for data capture at counters also appear unworkable. Currently, more than 130 products are available at a counter and the Post Office intends to segment counter customers according to their purchases. Jean Irvine, the Post Office's programme director for SPICE (Securing the Post Office's Integrated Commercial Environment), pointed to a recent roll-out of its Horizon information network to retail outlets as a means of capturing and retaining data.

How this data is used to distinguish between counter customers is an issue that has not yet been addressed, and is a dilemma familiar to many businesses. One working suggestion is to divide the counter customers into ten segments, train staff in recognising each segment according to the data appearing on the Horizon Network, and then treat the customers accordingly.

But expecting staff to do their normal tasks while reading information from a screen, and learning the behaviour patterns of ten different types of customers, could prove unworkable, according to the source. A similar problem is happening at call centres around the world, where the failure of call centre agents to respond differently to each query means customer service often fails in practice.

Robert Shaw, visiting professor of marketing at Cranfield School of Management, said organisations should set up the business processes so that they respond to customers by allowing them to service themselves over the Web. This would "pressure test" the process and, in conjunction with modelling techniques to monitor queue traffic flow, a solution could be found.

He stressed that defining the processes is a business issue and not a programmer's. Programmers were often lumbered with it because it involved adapting software to steer a user through the process, he argued.

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