Advanced technology implemented poorly: A USPS case study

How many times have you been convinced to purchase a newer version of a device you already own or (perhaps less fiscally damaging) to update to the latest firmware release for that device, in both cases motivated by the manufacturer’s rosy promises of how much richer your usage experience will as a result? And how many times have you ended up rueing the upgrade decision you’ve made, and yearning for the supposedly “inferior” product you had before? Me too.

Why does this happen? Some of the blame lies with the manufacturers’ marketing departments, who convince the company decision makers that never-ending paid upgrades, tempting existing and new customers alike, are the key to ongoing revenue and profit success. And some of the blame, my fellow engineers, I must place on us—not for doing what those decision makers tell us to do, necessarily; after all, we want to keep our jobs—but for being enthusiastic participants in the process. Who wants to keep working on the same old thing, after all? New challenges…new accomplishments…new things to learn about and implement…that’s what keeps us personally motivated. There’s a reason why the term “creeping elegance” finds frequent use in our industry, after all.

I’ve been thinking about “creeping elegance” a lot of late, but not as it relates to any of the tech widgets I regularly write about…smartphones, tablets, computers, headphones, cameras (well…indirectly…hold that thought), etc. Instead, it keeps popping up in my head in the context of a longstanding and still unresolved “battle” I’ve been waging with the United States Postal Service (USPS). As more detailed background info on what I’m about to summarize, also check out USPS’ quick-reference and FAQ pages. And after you peruse the following tale of woe, I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments.

Christmas was drawing near last year, and I was at a loss as to what to get my nearly-15-year-old out-of-state nephew. Remember that gaming-tailored AMD-based computer I built and wrote about last summer? Don’t tell him I told you so, but he was the original intended recipient for it. However, after reading too many horror stories about folks who assembled and shipped PCs to others, only for them to arrive DOA, I figured I’d either hold onto it until I could somehow personally hand-deliver it to him, or instead donate it to a local charity.

Then I remembered the even-older-than-him but barely used and in like-new condition (I even still had the box and packing materials, user manual set and bundled accessories) Samsung GX-10 DSLR sitting on the shelf collecting dust. I figured that he was now old enough to appreciate and enjoy the skill and results of photography, and that a dedicated camera would be a more meaningful path to a new hobby than the snap-shooter facilities built into a smartphone. I charged up the batteries and made sure they still held capacity decently, then grabbed some of my Pentax “glass” and a memory card and shot a few photos to make sure the shutter and other mechanics-and-electronics were still fully operational. Then, since I was intending on keeping my entire existing lens suite for myself, I also acquired:

  • A used Pentax 18-55mm zoom lens, also in like-new condition
  • A new 32 GByte SD card, and
  • A new USB2-based memory card “reader”

I packed up and wrapped everything, then put the presents in a well-padded outer box. Then, I online-paid for and printed a Priority Mail label for the shipment, also paying for $500 in insurance and arranging for next-day front-door pickup in the process. This was early December; ordinarily I wouldn’t ship it so early, but I’d been hearing of backups and delays in the postal system due to staffing shortages, and my nephew promised me he wouldn’t open anything until Christmas Day even if it arrived early. So, I figured, better safe than sorry.

My postal carrier showed up the next day, picked up the package (for which I thankfully did receive an after-the-fact confirmation email as proof) from the front porch, and…it disappeared, never making it into the USPS tracking system and seemingly never to be seen again (at least as of early April, as I write these words). Do I think my postal carrier snagged the package for himself? No, actually. He’s been our carrier for a long time and, although he sometimes puts folks’ mail in the wrong boxes (more on this later), that’s about the only negative thing I can say about him (and in contrast, he’s perpetually friendly and hard-working). He’d electronically confirmed pickup of a package from my front porch; I just think that he was in a hurry and forgot to also scan the package itself.

So, what do I think did happen? Herein lies advanced technology failing #1. Being able to pay for and generate a shipping label (complete with optional insurance and other free-and-not add-ons) is mighty convenient, not to mention fiscally prudent (not only do you not need to burn time and gas making a round trip to the closest postal facility, there’s an online shipping rate discount). Equally efficient is the ability to queue up a gratis next-day pickup. But that label you print out? For unknown reasons, it’s clearly marked not only with the total postage paid but also explicitly notated if additional insurance (beyond the $50 that come standard with Priority Mail) has been purchased.

Imagine you’re working in a USPS package processing facility. You see something come through that’s modest in size and weight, but with a disproportionately large total postage paid notation, along with indication that extra insurance has been purchased. It doesn’t take a math savant to figure out that what’s inside is valuable and walk off with it. That’s what I think happened to my package.

Back to the story. I first had to online-file a help request with my local postal facility; I couldn’t file a missing mail search request until seven business days after that. And I had to wait 15 (but no more than 60) days after the mailing date before I could begin the insurance claim process. Advanced technology failing #2: the online claim form accepted text entries of only a few hundred characters in maximum length (it’s been a few months, so my memory isn’t exact), and I could only upload a few accompanying file attachments, each only 5 Mbytes max (-ish) in size. PDF-formatted receipts were clearly out of the question; I had to rely on cryptic ASCII text conversions instead. And speaking of receipts, I no longer had any paperwork on the GX-10; all I could rely on was its original $999 MSRP, along with my estimate of how its value had depreciated since then (therefore the only-$500 value I’d assigned to the entire package in the first place, translating to an estimated current value for the DSLR of just over $400).

I submitted the claim on December 22. On January 4 I got a letter (sent on December 29) indicating:

Based on our investigation, your claim has been approved. However, it has been paid at a lesser amount than requested…payment for this claim will be sent to you in a separate mailing within 10 days…

The proposed reimbursement amount was well under $100. So, I jumped on the phone with accounting services customer support (not the first time I’d talked with USPS, and the first of well over a dozen calls I’ve had with them in the ensuing months) and questioned how it had been calculated. The response was baffling; I was told that I should have never gotten that letter in the first place, as per USPS records the investigation of my claim was still ongoing.

On January 10, the claim status changed online to an even more discouraging “denied” indication. So, I got on the phone again, but nobody was able to give more clarity than what I’d already read myself. I was told that I had 30 days from the ruling to file an appeal, that a letter documenting the findings in more detail would be forthcoming in the mail (anyone else see the irony in that?), and that I shouldn’t file the appeal until I got the letter. So, I waited. And waited. And called a few times. And finally convinced them to email me the letter contents. Which was a good thing, because the letter didn’t arrive until February 14, well beyond the 30-day window. Not that its contents were remotely clarifying:

Based on our investigation, your claim has been denied. The proof of value submitted with the claim is not acceptable. The amount claimed must be supported by acceptable proof of value…

Reading between the lines, since I’d already provided receipts for the lens, SD card and card reader I’d recently purchased, I could only assume that they were referring to the camera itself. To assess its current value, I had the bright idea, later validated by customer support in yet another phone call, to send printouts of several in-process and recently concluded eBay transactions for both the GX-10 and its near-twin, the Pentax K10D. But due to the aforementioned character-count and file size-and-count limitations of the online filing system, that same customer support rep also seconded my idea to mail in my appeal packet instead. So that’s what I did, paying for more Priority Mail shipping in the process.

The packet arrived at Accounting Services in St. Louis, MO on January 21 (since I sent it Priority, I had proof-of-delivery tracking information). At that point, USPS supposedly had 30 days to respond one way or the other; if their response was another denial, I could then file a second appeal (again within 30 days) with a different entity called the “Consumer Advocate, Domestic Claims Appeals” in Washington, D.C. So, I again waited. And waited. After 30 days, the status hadn’t changed, so I called USPS Accounting Services up and was told that “due to the high amount of claims and appeals” (hmmm…) they were giving themselves another 30 days’ grace period (to 60 days total). So, I waited some more.

On day 61, still with no change in status, I called USPS up yet again. After escalating my issue to “level 2 customer support,” the rep I was speaking with gave me the following flabbergasting response:

  • Mailed-in appeals are scanned, then discarded, but
  • My appeal never made it into the system (Lost? Mis-scanned? Who knows?), so
  • My only available option was to resubmit my first appeal with yet another cover letter, along with proof that my previous attempt had been delivered-and-disregarded.

So, that’s what I did (yep, even more postage paid by yours truly). My repeat-appeal package arrived in St. Louis, MO on March 28. Shortly thereafter the claim reverted to its prior-to-January 10 “under review” status. But as of today, right before I wrote this in fact, it switched to “Denied – First Appeal.” I got on the phone with customer support again and confirmed my suspicion…the reviewer seemingly didn’t bother even reading my cover letter explaining the reason for re-submission. It was denied because “Domestic claims appeals must be filed within 30 days of the original denial date (1/10/2022).” In other words: “We lost your first attempt to submit your appeal. Too bad for you.”

I’ve escalated the issue and have been promised a response via phone or email from a senior staffer within 72 hours. I’m really trying to keep perspective via the Hanlon’s Razor quote “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” But it ain’t easy. I’ll keep you updated as the situation progresses.

So, let’s summarize:

  • USPS prints seemingly unnecessary value-of-contents information shipping labels, thereby tempting employee theft (if my loss-root-cause theory is correct).
  • USPS’ online claim and appeal systems are too limiting in measures such as allowable character count and associated file size/number, thereby compelling users to submit via the U.S. Mail instead (at their added expense, and with extended resolution latency).
  • USPS is undependable in delivery time, not to mention fundamental delivery-or-not reliability.
  • USPS is understaffed, resulting in both excessive processing delays and slapdash processing thoroughness.

In closing, let’s circle back to my earlier comment about my postal carrier, that he “sometimes puts folks’ mail in the wrong boxes.” It’s happened a couple of times, and unfortunately the owner of the box next to mine is frequently out of state for lengthy periods of time. When I file a lost-mail report, the inevitable response from USPS is to close the claim because they show the mail was delivered…which it was, just to the wrong address.

During one of my numerous visits to the local postal office these past few months, striving fruitlessly for some face-to-face assistance with my lost-Christmas-presents situation, I overheard a conversation between a USPS employee and the person in front of me in line. Apparently, when a package is scanned on pickup or delivery, the carrier’s GPS location at the time is also logged for subsequent review in lost-mail investigations and the like. Which is conceptually pretty slick…unless you’ve got a bunch of boxes all in a row at the same cluster location, as is the case in my neighborhood. Sigh.

Yes, I suppose this is something of a “first world problem” (I still recall my past times spent in Nepal, where folks felt lucky if their mail ever arrived at all!), but it sure is frustrating. As I said earlier, I’d love for you to share your thoughts about this situation in the comments!

Brian Dipert is Editor-in-Chief of the Edge AI and Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company’s online newsletter.

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