Why, oh why, can't couriers just deliver?

Ian Gotts

How many ways can a delivery go wrong? In his latest column, Ian Gotts, describes his harrowing experience with international courier company "Fedup and Exasperated."

I used to think that couriers, especially the large players, were pretty reliable but recent experiences backed up by wider research is that they are dropping the ball.

This is at a time when the increase in online purchases should be enabling them to grow very profitably.

I find it staggering, because couriers have a pretty simple business model. They pick stuff up and need to deliver it to somewhere else, safely and securely.

Is it really that complicated?

But, as my first hand research is proving, they are failing. Either through a lack of a transparent end to end process, thought through from a customer perspective, or from a staff engagement / attitude perspective.

I haven’t delved into the detailed financial business models, but it is pretty clear that if they take more than a couple of attempts to deliver a package then all profit on that package has evaporated. So courier companies need to be good at 3 things (from their perspective):

  • acquiring customers
  • the logistics of shipping packages
  • minimizing costs when unable to deliver

From a customer perspective they have to do 3 things:

  • pick up the package when they say they going to
  • deliver the package when they say they going to - or if they can’t deliver it...
  • make it easy to get the package redelivered or collected

In most cases courier companies fail in the last 10 yards; getting the package to the recipient. And I have been amazed by how many ways they can get it wrong. There are plenty of isolated examples, but one recent example covers a wide range of the issues. The company we will nickname "Fedup and Exasperated".

  • An important US package - my US tax return for signature - was due to be delivered to my home. I was notified by email the expected delivery date so I worked from home that day. I was able to track the package as it made its way from San Francisco to the UK. That gave me a great deal of confidence.
  • At 12:15pm I received an automated email saying that the courier was unable to deliver because I wasn’t there, and a card had been left. Not true. My office looks out over the front drive which is 100 yards of gravel. Not even a small car can sneak up the drive without making a noise.
  • I checked on their online tracking system to see where the package had got to. It was on the way back to the depot. Eventually I found a number of a UK call centre. After negotiating their automated call routing system I spoke to an operator who said that I had an 11 digit not a 12 digit tracking number and I needed to talk to another call centre so I needed to redial.
  • I redialed and negotiated another, but different, automated call routing system. The operator failed to find my package on the system and tried to get rid of me, but after I persisted she located it some 5 minutes later.
  • We agreed that I would collect it in person from the local depot - an hour’s drive away - as it was critical that I got it quickly.
  • The next day I appeared at the depot to be told that the package was being redelivered and there were no notes about personal collection. On checking the tracking system local depot operator told me that the delivery of the package had already been attempted but could not be delivered as there was no-one there and a note had been left (remember that line?). So I called my wife who was at home all morning. No attempted delivery and no note.
  • I left with a promise from the depot operator that he would personally ensure it would be delivered the following day.
  • When I got home later that evening a neighbour knocked on the door with my package. Incredible. But not as incredible as her story of why she had the package.
  • She was walking her dog in the rain and as she was about to go inside she noticed the white courier van was outside for some time. She walked out and asked if the driver was lost. He said he was looking for No. 67. She pointed down our drive to the house. He said "It is raining pretty hard, can you take the package", gave it to her and left. No signature. And remember the system said "No delivery, left note, returned to depot"

So there are clearly breakdowns in process along the way compounded by inconsistent data, multiple call centres and finally van drivers who are sugar mice and dissolve in the rain.

The area of huge customer confusion and cost for courier companies is often the note that is left if the package cannot be delivered. Clearly in my recent example I cannot comment on because a note was never left. But the research shows it is probably the least well thought through process, especially as it involves several different groups of people (call centre, local depot, delivery driver) and systems (package tracking and call centre call routing). Each potential path through the process needs to be modeled from a customer perspective, anticipating the different scenarios.

This is not very difficult to do. A previous article called "Can silicon-based life forms excel at customer service? " looks at what exceptional customer service looks like when this approach to process analysis is taken seriously.


And the great news is that it probably doesn’t need expensive and complex changes to back end systems to be able to move from poor to exceptional. If may be operational process changes or small updates to the card that is left.

We are a few weeks away from probably the busiest times of the year. Last year broke all records for on-line purchases. This year will be even bigger. Now is the time as a process professional to suggest some serious process analysis which will directly to high profits.

And if you a parent and you have small children expecting Santa to be delivering presents then it is probably best to make sure that his "elves" at the courier companies have plenty of time to deliver, mis-deliver and redeliver Santa’s on-line purchases.