Virtual post office: not so far away
How likely is the idea of a completely virtual postal service? With big national post offices, like Swiss Post, increasingly embracing new technology and web-based services, Post-Expo in Geneva, the world's biggest fair for the postal industry, was the place to find out.
Post-Expo brings together all the big national postal operators, consultants and major suppliers like Siemens and IBM. One can still find stands showing the latest in sorting machines and postal vehicles, but the majority of displays reflect how deeply information technology has penetrated the sector.
"Every post office is having to examine the way it operates to adapt to the new economy and the new electronic reality," says Bill Robertson, senior vice-president at NetDelivery, and one of the pioneers of the electronic post.
"There isn't a post that isn't implementing or considering implementing new electronic processes," he told swissinfo, adding that for those that had not already made the leap, the "window of opportunity is closing".
Swiss Post is a good example of the new diversification. It has created an Internet portal, yellowworld, and has developed a much-admired intelligent franking system, known as IFS2.
"Swiss Post is setting the standard for the rest of the world. It is enabling the post office and the customer to do things they haven't been able to do before," says Erik Monsen, director of strategic technology marketing and sales at Pitney Bowes.
Pitney Bowes is using Post-Expo to promote its IntelliLink system, which it describes as a revolutionary information architecture linking the post to the customer.
"The services available to the mailer are typically the kind of services that he could not previously avail himself of without standing in a post office queue - things like registered mail and insured mail," Monsen told swissinfo.
The benefit for the postal company is that it has a better idea of who its individual customers are, allowing it to target specific offers.
"Nobody is trying to lead the customers in a direction they don't want to go," says Bill Robertson, whose company, NetDelivery, has devised an Internet portal for Canada Post. "We're just responding to a growing demand from people who want to conduct their transactions electronically, because of the way they live their lives."
Handling rapid change is difficult for a company like Swiss Post, which occupies a special place in the minds of Swiss people. Every change - from the closure of local post offices to the creation of new e-services - is closely scrutinised and often criticised.
Currently the number of customers requesting electronic services in Switzerland is relatively small, and Ulrich Gygi believes it will still take some time before the Internet has a substantial enough penetration in households and small businesses for e-services to be profitable.
Like all national postal companies, Swiss Post commits itself to a universal service, that is, ensuring that everyone has access to an efficient and affordable postal service. For now, the development of e-products has nothing to do with this mandate.
"It is conceivable that there will come a time when the definition might change and Internet access will be a public service obligation," Gygi says. In other words, for many isolated communities that have lost their local post offices or fear they might lose them in future, the Internet may one day be the best way of accessing the postal service.
However, there is no prospect of the Swiss Post becoming a completely virtual post office: "We will continue to offer all the traditional products," Gygi says.
"For a very long time to come, we will have a dual post, albeit with younger people increasingly using the virtual post office," he adds.
Despite Pitney Bowes investment in the development of electronic postal services, Erik Monsen agrees. He says that while new technology will offer greater flexibility and convenience; a human element will still be required.
"Businesses are judged on the way they provide customer services. Sometimes you just want to ask another person a question and not spend half and hour searching a website for the answer," he says.
by Roy Probert
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