I've been thinking a lot about service lately with the Postal Service issuing its new service standards and its proposal on service performance measurement systems for all market-dominant products. The USPS' planned measurement systems and the move to greater accountability got me thinking about service in a broader sense. What companies or products do I keep going back to because of the service? All else being fairly equal, such as price, convenience and quality, what products or companies do I pick because of service? I sat down and made a short list of the things we spend money on each week, and I'm sure they aren't much different from the average American, with perhaps a bit more skew toward sporting goods than average.


It surprised me that the list of "service first" is fairly short: our local wine shop, a certain dry cleaners, our regular contractor/handyman. I used to have our neighborhood Safeway grocery store on this list, but its service has slipped so dramatically in the past six months that I shop there less often. I don't really have much choice in the provision of utilities, such as gas, electric and cable. But, I still can take a measure of their service. How quickly do they respond when there is a power outage? How long do I wait on a phone before a live attendant picks up? How much does it cost to have a repair made?


The trend has been for companies to turn over more and more of their customer service to the customer. Customers are directed to go online and research a solution to their problem. They punch their way through a dozen options on a phone to find the solution. The last resort, usually after you've spent a good portion of your lunch hour waiting, is to talk to an actual person.


Tell me again why I pay a "convenience charge" for ordering my concert tickets online? Oh yeah, I've eliminated the need for a person to actually answer a phone and fill an order. I've agreed to pick up the tickets at Will Call, so no one even needs to pop them in the mail. For that I need to pay $5 per ticket even if I'm ordering six tickets at once? It's a great system for Ticketron, or whoever makes the gravy off that sale, but it stinks for the customer.


I realize the bottom line is driving these movements away from service. Wall Street's obsession with meeting quarterly earnings targets has driven companies to be so bottom-line focused that they sacrifice service or quality. I am reminded of a scene in the movie School of Rock where the Jack Black character is bemoaning how rock bands care only about the money and the celebrity, but they forget about one little bitty thing. "It's called the music." Companies today focus on efficiencies, productivity and earnings, but they sometimes forget about one little thing, and it's called the customer.


The key ingredients to customer satisfaction are quality products, service and price. If one slips too far off course on any one of those ingredients, the overall product suffers, and the customer will look elsewhere. The Postal Service has "service" in its name. It has a "brand" that many companies can only dream about. Its new flexibility in the pricing arena makes it a more versatile player in the crowded communications market. In short, it has all the ingredients to be successful.


But service is paramount. Service is essentially the Postal Service's product. So the "quality" of its products will be revealed in its service performance. This is one reason that the mailing industry has been so active in the Postal Service's efforts to update its service standards and establish its systems to measure performance.


Here's the simplest way to look at it. Standards tell me what I get for my money. Measurement lets me know if I got what I paid for. Of course, this means the Postal Service has to report its performance results, which it will do. Industry remains so engaged on these issues because it understands that the Postal Service's standards have to be realistic and measurement systems have to be credible. The reports the USPS provides on its results have to be meaningful. Otherwise, service will suffer and the whole package begins to unravel. When service suffers, the quality of the Postal Service's products deteriorate and customers leave the mail. That likely means the USPS would have to raise its prices to pay for its increased costs, which then drives out more customers. Eventually, the brand name gets sullied and we are on an ever-steeper slippery slope.


Yes, it all starts with service, and it ends with service as well. That's why modern service standards and measurement systems are so important to customers. Ultimately, performance will be the determinant.


Kate Muth is Vice President of the Association for Postal Commerce, a trade association in Arlington, Virginia, that represents the interests of mail-related businesses before Congress, the Postal Service and the Postal Rate Commission. You can reach her via email at kmuth@postcom.org or by phone at 703-524-0096. For more information on the
association, visit www.postcom.org.