The Garret Tree
Tuesday, March 21, 2006
  Why I despise courier companies
Among all the companies in this age of lousy service and contempt for the customer, among the worst have to be courier companies.

Why are courier companies so awful?

Because while they are in the shipping business but they are not in the delivery business. One has to wonder if they companies like UPS or Purolator actually care, once they have the money, if the package actually reaches the destination.

The courier companies have forgotten who actually pays for the shipment. Without having done any research, I would estimate that probably it is the person who bought the product that pays for the shipping about 80 per cent of the time. But it is the product producer or seller who pays the courier company. So in this system the courier, once they have the cash from the shipper, actually has very little incentive to care about the person who is actually receiving the parcel.

So what brought this on? Today was a last straw day.
A week ago a colleague told me about a great deal from Dell for a 20 inch LCD monitor. I hesitated a couple of days before ordering. The hesitation had nothing to do with Dell's product, I have a very nice Dell monitor on my desk at work. But I knew instinctively that shipping would turn out to be hassle and so against my better judgment, and because the deal was too good to pass up, I ordered the monitor from Dell. The sales rep told me that it would be delivered in 7 to 10 days, but most likely on today, March 21.

So I began monitoring Dell's product tracking system on their website. At first it said estimated delivery on March 24. But the monitor was shipped on Friday March 17, and the website said estimated delivery March 21. So today, I worked from home while waiting. (I am lucky that I can work from home.)

The mail came in the afternoon. The paper invoice from Dell which told me the shipper was Purolator. (at which point having dealt with Purolator before, I knew there could be problems). It was only in the afternoon that I went back to Dell's badly designed webpage and found a reference to Purolator on the bottom of the page (almost below the fold as we say in web design, borrowing the old newspaper term) and what appeared to be a tracking number. There was just the name Purolator and the number. Nothing from Dell saying, "Hey customer, this is your tracking number."

I called Purolator. They had no record of the shipment. No record of the tracking number. Call Dell they said. I called Dell. Dell also had no record of the shipment or the tracking number. But their customer rep said, from his script, that it often takes three to four days for the tracking number to show up, so be patient. (The three to four days is also on their website)

Here's where the mind boggles. The latest news release on the Dell US site says the company "achieved record revenue of $15.2 billion and earnings of 43 cents per share driven by growth in enterprise products and services and sales outside the United States in the fiscal fourth-quarter 2006."

Dell, a company that brought in $15.2 billion US in three months, has never heard of bar codes? How are they sending the shipping information to Purolator so it takes three to four days? UPS maybe? Or perhaps carrier pigeon? Why is it that I can buy something on E-Bay that is shipped by the postal system from a small town in Japan and I can track it all the way? Why is it I could get e-mail right away from colleagues in tsunami-ravaged Aceh in Indonesia and Dell takes four days to download its shipping information to a courier?

The Dell customer rep assured me if I wasn't in, that Purolator would leave a card at my door.

And what good would that do? The last time Purolator made their half-hearted bean counting attempt to deliver something, (also an E-Bay package from Japan) I wasn't in. And their card told me they no longer made second deliveries. Luckily their office is not too far from house and I could get there by bus. That was in the summer. So if I am not at home when they finally decide to deliver my monitor, are they going to make a second attempt? Or am I going to have go to their office and pay for a cab to take it home? (Full disclosure part of the Dell offer was free shipping. But I did have to pay to have the other package shipped from Japan).

Of course, UPS is worse than Purolator when it comes to contempt for the person who actually receives the package. They charge a $30 brokerage fee on packages that cross the US-Canadian border. No matter what's in the package. Unless I absolutely have to, I refuse to deal with any company in the US that insists on using UPS.

The last straw moment with UPS came a couple of years ago when I was about to receive a box of archival documents from the United States government. These were photocopies of historic documents with absolutely no commercial value. UPS opened the invoice on the box and saw that I had paid Uncle Sam $40 for the photocopying. So they charged me that $30 brokerage fee and it took five extra days to get the package because their delivery person was too stupid to see the cheque taped to my front door. (Not to mention my total outrage at the near extortion of being charged a brokerage fee on a noncommercial shipment of photocopied government documents) I then was told by rude UPS customer service rep (if that is the word) that I could pick the parcel up in Markham,Ontario, some 25 miles from my house. Except I don't have a car and why should I have to even if I had a car, go miles out of my way and spend a couple of hours of my time because the company can't do the job it is says it is doing and spend more money to get a package I have already paid to have shipped? I eventually had to have it redirected to my work where a human being could hand them the cheque. (I complained to the US agency and after that the shipments came via the post office, a much more efficient and reliable system).

I am active on a number of model railroading forums and it is not just me warning people in Canada to never order anything that is shipped by UPS, the warnings appear at least once a month.

Back to Purolator. Last summer, during the CBC lockout, I ran into a friend of mine in a bar. My friend was with a Purolator executive, who had had little too much wine, and took my friend's sympathetic comments on the lockout as a tipping point to begin a long complaint about how Purolator loses money when it has to deliver a package to small towns across Canada. In his view, a courier company should only deliver to addresses where it can make a profit and leave the rest to the post office. (So much for all those claims that the private sector is more efficient and better at this kind of thing).

And finally to end this rant, I was able to stay home today because in my job I can work from home occasionally. But does Dell and Purolator expect to me to work from home all week until they decide they get their act together and deliver the goods?

And what of people who can't work from home, whether they manage a bakery or are a police officer or a surgeon? Are the courier companies stuck in the 19th century and expect that some dutiful spouse, or perhaps a maid, will be in the house all day? Or as that drunken executive implied, that delivering to peoples' homes is an inconvenience and the courier companies that market to the shipper, never the receiver, would prefer just to deal with companies with both shipping and receiving departments. After all it is so much easier, and these days saves gas that would have been used up on the second visit.

One last suggestion, and it isn't to the courier companies, where I do not expect any improvement in their customer service. But if there is a Phd student in economics out there looking for a dissertation, why not investigate how much productivity is lost when people have to wait at home for a delivery and how much it costs the economy? Just a guess but it would probably equal the profits of those courier companies.

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  Sonkrai publication postponed
A brief update on The Sonkrai Tribunal. The publisher has told me that they have decided to postpone publication to sometime early in 2007.

As the publisher said in an e-mail,

we have a very heavy military publishing program already committed for the rest of the year. The market for military books can only support a limited number of titles in any set period and we feel we are at the limit for the rest of this year.

We do not, as a matter of policy, publish military titles between October and January.

Now that's what I have heard from other authors, military history doesn't do well at Christmas. Apparently as one author told me, Aunt Martha doesn't want to give a depressing war book as a Christmas present.

I have mixed feelings about this. As I have said on this blog before, writing the book was a struggle, since the small advance wasn't enough to take time off and concentrate on the writing. And so the project took a lot longer than I thought it would,and the manuscript ended up being a year late.

On the other hand, from my point of view as a journalist, publishing in September 2006, the 60th anniversary of the trial was the ideal news peg to interest reporters, editors and producers.

The question is who is right? The marketers with their spreadsheets or the the journalist who is also looking for a peg for a story? We'll never know, but as all authors do know the bookstore chains rule and the book buyers go by the computer formula because it always safer for thier jobs.
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I write in a renovated garret in my house in a part of Toronto, Canada, called "The Pocket." The blog is named for a tree can be seen outside the window of my garret.

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Name: Robin Rowland
Location: Toronto, Canada

I'm a Toronto-based writer, photographer, web producer, television producer, journalist and teacher. I'm author of five books, the latest A River Kwai Story: The Sonkrai Tribunal. The Garret tree is my blog on the writing life including my progress on my next book (which will be announced here some time in the coming months) My second blog, the Wampo, Nieke and Sonkrai follows the slow progress of my freelanced model railway based on my research on the Burma Thailand Railway (which is why it isn't updated that often) The Creative Guide to Research, based on my book published in 2000 is basically an archive of news, information and hints for both the online and the shoe-leather" researcher. (Google has taken over everything but there are still good hints there)

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