Joining Australia Post’s “National Conversation”

In a previous blog, I offered some thoughts on the possible digital future for AusPost. In response, I have been contacted by one of their social media consultants, drawing my attention to the “National Conversation“.

First, I acknowledge that AusPost is attempting to have an “open” conversation with customers, but I don’t see how this is really helping, other than generating a range of (conflicting) opinions, with little cohesion around the key issues. Participation rates in the Topics to date has been very erratic (in terms of numbers, and geographic distribution).

Second, I have read CEO Ahmed Fahour’s latest address, and frankly it did not inspire me. Basically, it was a whinge about the decline in letter volume, and the “challenges” of the Internet (which, as he says, has been with us for 25 years…. hardly a new event!) I also think there are some factual inaccuracies in Mr Fahour’s assumptions: I don’t believe that Australians are any less digital citizens than their OECD counterparts – they have always been reasonably early adopters of new technology (as evidenced by the number of smart phones and tablets). Where they have been slow is in moving to online services, but this is in large part due to poor Internet services (notoriously slow connection speeds and restricted bandwidth, and exorbitant access fees), coupled with a paucity of reliable online platforms – which is ironic given the push towards eGovernment, eCommerce and the digital economy around 1999-2001.

Third, and staying on the topic of eCommerce, the one recurring theme that does emerge from the National Conversation so far is the high cost of sending small parcels. I agree with some of the feedback that it is often cheaper (and quicker!) to order consumer items from overseas online retailers. Shouldn’t Australian consumers expect to benefit from the economies of scale to be achieved from a growing parcel business?

Finally, my previous blog suggested that digital transactions are the future for AusPost (while acknowledging the need to maintain its statutory obligations for letter delivery) – but apart from e-mail and bill payments, Mr Fahour’s address was rather silent on this point. That scares me, as it suggests a lack of vision for an integrated digital strategy. After almost 5 years in the job, you’d think a few more ideas would have emerged by now.

(Afterthought: maybe AusPost should check out what Shomi is doing – a local start-up with some smarts in linking the physical and digital worlds.)

Digital transactions hold the key for Australia Post

Last week’s news that Australia Post is shedding jobs made unwelcome reading for the 900 unfortunate employees who are affected, and the recent proposal to restructure (combined with the implicit risk to rural postal services) has generated some highly charged media commentary and prompted very passionate customer responses.

My personal view is that Australia Post will have to maintain a commitment to letter delivery as part of its protected monopoly obligations. But a “user pays” model that results in higher charges for a “premium” postal service may fail to offset losses from standard snail mail – because businesses will make greater use of existing document exchange and courier services, and retail customers will prefer to receive their utility bills and bank statements by e-mail or other digital solutions such as mobile apps.

Australia Post faces a dual challenge, quite apart from the decline in its letter business (which is rightly seen as a community service, albeit one that should be able to at least cover its costs). First, although it has diversified with a range of products and services, there is very little cohesion across its individual lines of business, and nearly all of them face strong competition, and/or rely on external service providers. Also, according to one software developer I spoke to several months ago, the sheer number of available services meant that some customer service staff did not have sufficient product knowledge and needed an in-house app to train them on how to up- and cross-sell these products.

Second, although it is trying to get into digital solutions, it seems late to the party (e.g., the MyPost Digital Mailbox, which has taken about 12 months from initial announcement to market launch). A few years ago, when I was working on a standard business identifier solution for the financial services industry, Australia Post was well placed to leverage its in-house knowledge of business customers (location, size, industry, spending patterns, logistics, etc.) and combine it with a unique entity ID to enhance and upgrade its business CRM database. However, it was unable to incorporate third-party data sources that would have resulted in even greater analytics on business customer behaviour, because the legacy data systems were unable to cooperate (and the teams that ran them unwilling to collaborate…).

Australia Post’s anticipated expansion into financial services hasn’t materialised (the current CEO is a former banker). If Australia Post became an Authorised Depository Institute, it could offer on-line banking services in its own right, giving it an alternative funding source (in addition to, or instead of, issuing corporate bonds that are implicitly guaranteed by the government). Or, in conjunction with relevant partners Australia Post could expand its Load&Go pre-paid VISA card to become a universal stored value card (such as Hong Kong’s Octopus system).

Instead, Australia Post is relying on the current boom in online shopping to drive revenue growth from its parcels and logistics operations. To me, this is a short-sighted strategy.

If digital is the key to future growth (especially for a data-rich business that operates in logistics, communications and payment transaction services), Australia Post should be looking to  provide and expand business and consumer solutions in the following areas:

  • Digital document verification, validation and transmission (to help offset the decline in snail mail)
  • Location-based payment solutions (to leverage its geographic and transactional knowledge of business customers, especially retailers)
  • Update the current post code system to provide more granular customer data to businesses and to streamline delivery and location services (e.g., like the UK’s system of house number and postcode – imagine how that would make life easier for taxi drivers!)
  • Develop off-the-shelf productivity tools for SMEs – such as on-line data forms, CRM, CMS, e-commerce (become the IKEA of small business data apps – rather like flat-pack, self-assembly furniture, many businesses might welcome such a service)

Finally, if Australia Post thinks that parcel services will carry them through, consider this: each time I want to send a parcel overseas, the counter staff have to undertake the following steps:

  • weigh the item
  • calculate the postage (using a cumbersome sequence of drop down menus on their terminal screen)
  • capture some ID information (such as my driver’s license)
  • attach the customs declaration form (which I have manually completed) to the parcel
  • print the postage label and attach it to the parcel
  • attach an “ID sighted” label to the parcel
  • attach an “Air Mail” sticker to the parcel

More steps are involved if I want use any sort of tracking, insurance or express delivery service. What if I could complete an address and customs form label, and print it before I leave home (or at a terminal at the post office)? And what if this label had scannable items, such as the destination address, for easier processing at the counter?