Australia Post – our dead letter office

Many moons ago, Australia had a single communication giant: the Postmaster General’s Department, or PMG. Then in 1975, we woke up to discover Telecom and Australia Post. While the first has given investors and governments several sleepless nights since, Australia Post has trotted along in its own sweet way, happy to be out of the limelight. Yet for all the opportunities missed and value lost, our postal friends may well have matched Telecom-Telstra-ThenextGwhizz. My fear, having belatedly looked at Post’s "future ready business renewal program”, is that they’ll keep burning our public asset at the same profligate rate.

Former NAB Australia CEO Ahmed Fahour seems to be just the type of person to turn Australia Post around. One gets the impression that performance and strategy at Post doesn’t get the same type of scrutiny as, say, the NAB. Yet the public investment in Post, let alone its daily impact on us all, suggests we should pay more attention. The picture is not as rosy as it should be.

I first started to take note that Australia Post was on the path to implosion in 2009. Post is a public entity. Its owners, us, may then have been a little alarmed that it started using its outlets to sign up new Tabcorp customer accounts. It’s a virtuous circle: those in the queue to buy Smith Family Xmas cards wait while Post helps out the gambling business that drives the Smith Family’s business.

Tabcorp was pleased to announce: "The arrangement with Australia Post supports Tabcorp's strategy of offering our customers the best products, service and convenience in what is now a national wagering market." Yes, but how would it support Post’s strategy? It’s a sustainability-related question, though few see it that way.

Meanwhile, what was happening to its brand? Australia Post had long been on the shortlist for our favourite corporate brand, and as recently as 2002 was tops. But according to Interbrand’s 2009 Best Brand Report, our direct mail giant tumbled from that 2002 birthright – ie, Australia’s most valuable brand – to 14th. Its reduced brand value of $900 million sunk below Billabong (8th, $2,200 million) and Commonwealth Bank (2nd, $7100 million), for example. Telstra got the medal at $9.7 billion. Did that mean that Post had destroyed $6-9 billion in value? Surely not – that’s about what Allco lost, and we heard all about that.

Australia Post’s fall from the top was not simply a necessary result of the internet, although that is a chapter in the story. It is due to its failure to understand what it had that nobody else has or had.

Australia Post owes its residual brand value to the fact that for nigh on 200 years it delivered good news from lovers, kids and gran, rain, hail or shine, ready-to-read, to the kitchen table. It doesn’t seem to understand that for almost two centuries it was known for moving mountains to bring you the news you wanted or needed. No company or bank holds a candle to that feeling (faint though it now may be). Australia Post’s business was that feeling. It has worked very hard to lose it, and it should start to retrieve it before it is gone forever.

Post has all but lost that brand connection because it has ignored the 20 million consumer customers that give it its brand value. It certainly has copied lots of laudable innovations from overseas to help large-quantity business customers streamline their processes. But it has forgotten that its core business was to help us communicate with each other on the things that matter, and to get things to each other.

Its vital mission is not, as it seems to think, to sweep us into the maw of its retail network.

Nor is to see us as 20 million lambs for Australia Post’s decade-long obsession with direct mail. The more the better, from anyone, to everyone.

It’s not so long ago that we went to the mailbox with some anticipation of a pleasant surprise. Now picking up the mail ranks with taking out the garbage. In fact, at many households both are done in the same efficient nightly trip, without the "mail” getting near the kitchen table. "Direct mail” means direct to the bin. And every time Australia Post wastes our time, it loses its reputation and its name.

Australia Post has, for example, knowingly rejected the following opportunities to make it easier for us to use its services to send and communicate:

-- Any web-based means of communication. Instead, Post’s big online effort was Post BillPay. That’s right, it’s only online offer is and was bill payment. Such a brand buzz, paying bills.

-- A secure household email address, with personal sub-accounts. Post owned the delivery of personal mail. If letters are being emailed rather than posted, why didn’t it do anything to keep that space?

-- Household mail accounts for postal services, just as we have accounts for all our other utilities.

-- Picking up mail from our letter boxes, just as they do in the US.

-- Pads of pre-stamped cards that could be bought at any convenience store, scribbled on and posted for the same cost, little more effort and a whole lot more impact than an SMS. Make it easy and personal, and you retain the next-day mailbox feeling.

-- Selling stamps wherever they can be sold. Finally you can buy them outside a post office, but gee it took a long time. Because that option has never been promoted as part of a "Post – we’re where you are” campaign, nobody knows about it.

-- Selling stamps, express post bags and packaging in supermarkets. We buy all our other day-to-day items at WooliColes, why not these? Why queue in a post office behind the Tabcorp and passport customers to do something as basic as pop something into a little box and post it?

-- Making it just a little easier to ‘post’ at a post office. Over recent years they’ve rejected having ‘post only’ lanes in post offices, in many locations having a single queue to take you to the next counter, or having non-sales service counters to help people put together all the bits they need to send a parcel overseas, before they get to the sales counter and have to go back and start again.

-- Opening when we can get to the post office. Australia Post remains a strictly Monday to Friday, 9-to-5 outfit. Working people spend their lunchtimes doing something trivial because it’s the only time they can get there. The firm impression is that the people who sit on Australia Post’s board have never had to do this.

I’m sure that’s a list we could all add to.

With that record, it fills me with dread that a cornerstone of Post’s new strategy is to get "more and more businesses and government agencies to use our vast retail network as a shopfront, so that Australia Post becomes the place for millions of customers to access a veritable supermarket of services”.

This will be a big step. For the moment, we queue and wait for customers who have spent the better part of their sixties at the Australia Post counter, engaging in random trials of paperwork – a customs form here, a bank deposit there – at the hands of seemingly indifferent "service agents”. The strategy seems to be to have queuing customers stare long enough at Officeworks reject clutter that they feel compelled to buy them. It may well be a "veritable supermarket of services”, but it may also be a true house of pain.

Another leg of the strategy? "We are looking to expand into other trust-based services that we can offer online to complement our physical network.” It’s too little, too late. Now, anyone can offer those online services, and will do so quicker and more efficiently than Post has proven itself capable. More importantly, Australia Post no longer has the trust to leverage.

In the last few months, Post has been in the news for just two things. The first was its delivery of "adult-only” direct mail spruiking a discredited longer-lasting nose-blower. (Adult-only? You mean the rest was for my kids?) Any social radar would question whether this is appropriate material for our public mail system. Any business radar would question the wisdom of new clients that are in voluntary administration and under investigation by the ACCC.

The other news story has been Australia Post’s potential re-launch as a bank. In financial services, 80 per cent or more of market value represents the intangibles of brand, people, innovation capacity and networks. Australia Post’s physical networks might be in strong shape, but its treatment of intangibles suggests it’s not going to fly as a bank.

Australia Post has amazing assets, terrific people and remnant goodwill. Let’s hope they use them wisely.

Josh Dowse is an independent consultant on sustainable business.