MYSTERY shopping carried out by Consumer Focus in high street post offices has revealed a mixed picture for consumers.

There has been good news on accessibility, significantly shorter queues and investment in flagship Crown branches. The research, however, also revealed concerns about the quality and accuracy of counter staff knowledge, with researchers sometimes sold a more expensive product than they needed.

The research, carried out in late 2011 as part of a new report - Are You Being Served? - was designed to test the quality of a customers’ experience when visiting high street branches. They included Crown branches, franchised branches and a further 70 branches managed by WH Smith.

Key findings from the research included:

  • Crown post offices queue times fell significantly, from just over six minutes in 2009 to under four minutes. That was partly due to Post Office Limited investing heavily in measures including Post and Go machines in selected branches.
  • High street post offices became more accessible and offered more facilities for consumers with disabilities.
  • An increase in the number of branches with long queues. The number of customers across high street branches waiting more than five minutes was up slightly from 26 per cent in 2009 to 31 per cent - 40 per cent in WH Smith branches (up from 37 per cent in 2009).

Sales of products:

  • Staff in Crown and franchised branches often failed to ask the questions necessary to sell consumers the most appropriate product. In nearly half (46 per cent) of cases counter staff did not ask all the questions that would determine the most appropriate product for the consumers’ needs and in a quarter of cases (24 per cent) they asked no questions at all. In one scenario, 93 per cent of the advisers who asked no questions recommended Special Delivery, without knowing whether that product was suitable.
  • When sending a letter which should have been sent by Second Class Recorded Signed For (starting at £1.45), 69 per cent of mystery shoppers were offered the more expensive Special Delivery (starting at £5.90) or First Class Recorded (starting at £1.55). Second Class Recorded Signed For was only correctly offered in one in five visits.

Andy Burrows, head of post offices at Consumer Focus, said: “There have been welcome improvements in post offices as the result of investment and modernisation - such as shorter queuing times in Crown branches and more accessibility, especially for customers with disabilities.

“However, our research also showed some concerns over the quality and accuracy of counter staff knowledge and sales practices.

“It is important that customers can be confident they receive the very best advice and service. For their part consumers need to be clear about what services they need when they visit their post office.”

Consumer Focus is making the following recommendations to tackle some of the issues raised in its report. Post Office Limited (POL) should: Share best practice from the branches with the lowest queue times so lessons learned can be applied to all branches. POL must also take tougher measures to tackle branches where customers regularly queue for 10 minutes or longer.

Ensure that branch and staff performance is measured against the accuracy of the product and pricing advice they provide, not just sales targets.

Ensure all staff ask the necessary questions to determine the customers’ needs (based on contents, value and time sensitivity) for every transaction.

Work with Royal Mail to produce consumer education material to inform customers on the different features of Royal Mail products and help them decide which one best suits their needs.