Post Office: Counter productive

The Post Office is attempting one of the biggest changes in working practices in its 150-year history. It wants to transform its front-line staff so they actively promote its products and services.

Head of sales Jonathan Hewett says: “We pay allowances and benefits and process things like vehicle licensing and passport applications. But the Government’s decision to pay pensions and allowances directly into recipients’ bank accounts means we will lose 40 per cent of our customers.”

New income streams are therefore being sought through products such as savings stamps. But it is with existing products that some of the biggest increases in turnover can be achieved. If, for example, customers ask for a health insurance form to cover them when travelling, Hewett says it is logical for staff to ask if they need traveller’ cheques or currency.

Training and coaching needed to be sensitive to the respect for trustworthiness that the Post Office brand inspires. “We have to ensure we don’t destroy that trust by the sales tactics we employ,” Hewett says.

More than 100 trainers were initially involved and about 35 of them are 18 months into the three-year programme. Hewett says it is the biggest project of its kind in the UK because of the depth of skills that are being acquired and the numbers involved.

The programme has been complicated because of the diversity of staff affected, with different approaches necessary at offices managed by the organisation and franchises.

Counter staff initially attend a one-day workshop where they are introduced to a four-part selling model covering: communication; finding out customers’ needs; matching products to their needs; and completing a sale. It is designed to be the complete opposite of hard-sell and emphasises the need to adopt a conversational approach.

After trying out the techniques with colleagues, staff are encouraged to adopt them in the workplace. The coaching aspect of the programme is regarded as the key to its success. It involves line managers observing staff in action, documenting their behavioural change and encouraging them to identify areas of weakness before discussing ways of making improvements. To qualify for this work, managers attend a two-day workshop, plus at least two follow-up sessions of about two hours.

By April next year, 14,000 people will have received training and that figure is due to more than double in the following 12 months.
Significant improvements have been achieved in some of the directly managed sites, particularly with well-established travel products, says Hewett. “People are coming out from behind the counter to talk to customers about products and services.”

A comparison of 100 branches that have taken part in the programme with 100 that have not suggests the scheme achieves a 5 per cent improvement in sales within three months.

The response at some of the franchised sites, particularly in rural areas, has not been so encouraging, but Hewett says the opportunities for selling there are more limited.

About one in four staff are thought to resist the idea of selling, so an extensive public relations exercise was undertaken explaining why the new approach is necessary.

Ian Anderson, head of HR, says there will be no witch-hunt. “We want to bring our people with us. In any change situation, there will always be some people who don’t want to go there; we are actively trying to encourage them to do so and are taking a little bit more time than most other organisations would.”

Sorting out staff

The programme has been designed in conjunction with consultancy Prosell Learning, which is training Post Office employees in the necessary coaching skills and how to give accreditation for coaching.

Chief executive Simon Morden says: “We watch the managers coach the Post Office staff and give feedback about what they did well and what they need to build on.”

To receive accreditation as a coach, managers have to provide written evidence that they are coaching on a regular basis in the correct way. They are re-accredited as coaches every nine months after being observed in the role on two separate occasions.


 

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