Friendly but unhelpful

The APA that I'm in (sort of a cross between a very slow print-based newsgroup and a group letter) comes out once a month. It's mailed (first-class) from the Philadelphia area, and generally takes about two days (sometimes three, once in a while as long as four) to cross the country and arrive in my California mailbox. Another triumph of the US Postal Service.

Only this month it didn't arrive after four days, or even after a week. And another member in the Bay Area also didn't receive it. Over two weeks after it was sent, this past Monday, I called the USPS to ask if there was some sort of Bay Area mail delay that might account for this. Didn't think they could do anything or tell me anything, but figured it was worth a try.

The friendly USPS employee I spoke with said they'd get right on it. He took down all my info. (In fact, some of my info, such as the date it was mailed, he took down about six times. I'm not exaggerating.) He even gave me a case number. He said if the envelope hadn't arrived in the next couple days I should call and inquire about that case number.

Later that day I checked my mail and the envelope was there. In fact, it had been there when I'd called. Embarrassing.

But I didn't get around to calling the USPS to cancel the case yesterday, and when I got home I found a message on my answering machine from someone at the local post office. He said (slightly paraphrased), "We're trying to work on this case, but we don't know what to look for. Some kind of envelope? Give me a call."

So just now I called the number he left. I spoke to two people (the guy who'd called me won't be in 'til later); neither of them seemed familiar with the concept of a case number. The second one was some kind of supervisor; I told her twice that the envelope had arrived and the case could be closed, and then she told me that the guy wasn't in yet, and I said I just wanted to close the case, and she said, "Oh, did your mail arrive?"

Dunno. One might conclude, based on the number of bad customer-service experiences I have, and the fact that the common factor in all of them is me, that I'm not very good at communicating. That may be true. But I like to think it's not just me.

(I should note that on the 0-10 scale of bad customer-service experiences, with 10 being worst, this one rates about a 0.1. It wasn't even all that annoying. Mostly it seemed commentworthy because it revealed yet again that friendly customer-service people aren't necessarily helpful; more specifically, that the USPS is happy to assign a case number to an issue to soothe a customer, but that they may do so with no particular expectation that anything can actually be done. In that respect they're much like many other institutions—far easier to mollify customers temporarily than to actually resolve their problems.)

(I should also note that I still have a lot of respect for the USPS, and that this one very minor slip doesn't come close to outweighing the dozens of time that they've gone way beyond the call of duty to help me out.)

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