An Interview with Susan K. Warren

Susan K. Warren, Peoria postmaster, entered in the Postal Service in 1969 at the Peoria Post Office. During her postal career, she has held to following positions: letter carrier, distribution/window clerk, training technician, Postal Employee Development Center manager, manager of retail sales and services, manager of training in New Orleans, and manager of the Midwest Management Academy in Oak Brook, Ill.

Warren holds a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Chicago. Her undergraduate degree is in education from Illinois State University. She is president of the Clean Cities Executive Board and received the 1997-1996 Benjamin Award, the highest customer services award given in the U.S. Postal Service. Warren was a 1997 member of the USPS Headquarters Corporate Outreach Board and the 1997 winner of the Department of Energy Pioneering Award. In 1997 she also won the Diversity Award, was Clean Cities coordinator, received honorable mention for the White House “Closing the Circle Award,” and received the J.T. Weeker Ebony and Crystal Environmental awards, and won the Governor’s Excellence Award.

From 1993 to 1995 she was a speaker for the national Postal Forums throughout the country. From 1993 to 1997 Warren was a facilitator and district coordinator for Dr. Stephen R. Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People program. She was named Business Associate of the Year in 1983 by the American Business Women’s Association. Since 1994 she’s been a member of the Peoria Area Executive Board for Clean Cities and she received the 1995 Community Involvement Award. Warren is a life-long Peorian. She and her husband Ed have four children—Charlotte, Patty, Debbie, and Eddie—and two granddaughters, Emily and Candace.

Tell us about your background. Are you a native Peorian?

I probably smell of mail bags, since I’ve been with the Postal Service almost 30 years. It’s been rewarding and fruitful experience.

I’ve been productive outside the Postal Service as well. My husband Ed and I have been married for 25 years and we have four beautiful children. They’ve helped me become know as the lady with the ZIP + 4.

My daughter Charlotte and her husband Joe presented us with two darling granddaughters and she’s expecting her third child on Thanksgiving Day. I thought that was very appropriate as children certainly are the greatest blessing on earth. All three generations are “homegrown.” We were all born in Peoria at Saint Francis Hospital.

Did you plan to have a career with the post office? What path has your postal career taken?

No, I began with the U.S. Postal Service while working my way through college. I was a certified school teacher with the State of Illinois, but didn’t get to teach in the school system because we were expecting our first child and needed the benefits that the Post Office could provide.

I worked as a carrier and clerk, and progressed through many levels of management, which took me to New Orleans, La., Oak Brook, Ill., Washington, D.C., and detours to many states across the country. I’m just grateful the Peoria postmaster’s position became vacant, which allowed me to come home.

Being a woman, are you a minority among your peers in the industry?

Yes, as a postmaster in a city the size of Peoria. There are many women postmasters, but not at my management level in the organization.

What changes have you seen in the industry during your career?

I’ve seen the change from the U.S. Post Office Department, which was a cabinet position in Congress, to the U.S. Postal Service, an independent government agency.

I’ve seen distribution go from manual, to mechanized, to automation. The mail is currently scanned through optical character readers, which can read more than one thousand different handwriting fonts. When I started we were still manually sorting mail from a facing table. I don’t want you to think I’m as old as Ben Franklin, but he did it much the same way.

In our “instant society” how has the volume of mail increased or decreased over the years?
The volume has gone up but the mail mix has changed. All volumes are increasing; however, the percentage of First Class mail volume is rising at a slower rate (1 percent to 2 percent) as opposed to our Priority mail, which has risen 18 percent.

What is a routine day like for you? How much of your time is spent in customer service?

I begin my day with an 8 a.m. telecom concerning our External First Class Mail Measurement system for the day prior. While listening to the telecom, I log onto my computer and pull my e-mail messages.

From then on a routine day for me is to expect the unexpected. Most of my time is spent balancing the needs of the organization, including customer service activities, employee relations and operations management. I guess you can tell by my answer, I don’t have a typical or routine day. I have many speaking engagements, travel, and appointments outside of the office.

What misconceptions does the general public have in regard to our postal service?

Since we are public servants, it’s assumed our salaries are paid by the general public’s tax dollars; however, the Postal Service is not supported by tax dollars and neither are our salaries.

The other misconception is that we are a true monopoly. Many of our competitors lead the public to believe that the Postal Service still operates as it did 20 years ago, which is not the case. With automation, robotics, and window computerization we are making the transition into the 21st century.

The saying “You can’t fight city hall” can also be said, “You can’t fight with the post office.” Since you are an independent government agency, the consumer appears to have little leverage in regard to voicing complaints. How do you respond to complaints.

We don’t want to fight our customers, we want to serve them. Since the Postal Service is not a monopoly, we have competition and the consumer has choices. We investigate each complaint as quickly as possible, and with great concern. Customers expect and deserve quality service from the U.S. Postal Service.

We’d like to be known as the U.S. Perfect Service, and we are trying. We are the best Postal Service in the world, in terms of productivity, cost and service.

Many businesses have “horror” stories regarding U.S. Postal Service compliance for bulk mailings. There often seems to be a lack of communications between postal employees and the person handling the mailing for a business. How can the relationship improve?

It can be frustrating any time there’s a lack of communication between postal employees and the person presenting mail to the Postal Service. We like to turn so-called “horror” stories into “hooray” stories.

We can’t fix a problem unless we know about it. Don’t suffer in silence. We’re improving customer perception with our “Ease of Use” campaign and our Customer Business Center. Many customers must be satisfied with our bulk mailing services, because our business is up 8 to 20 percent nationwide and 15 percent in Peoria.

What about the proposed rate increase? How is the cost justified.

For a First Class stamp there’s an increase of one penny, which is just enough. This is the smallest increase we’ve ever requested. It would be the second straight rate adjustment below inflation, effectively cutting the real price of a First Class stamp by 7 percent since 1992.

The case includes a number of new worksharing discounts for businesses and a first-ever price cut—to 30 cents—for consumers who use prepaid reply envelopes from participating companies to pay bills and conduct other business.

With this price cut, the average household would pay less than 20 cents more per month under the new rates.

What unique stories do you have to tell regarding unusual requests or packages, etc.? Garages filled with undelivered mail?

Just recently one of my Bartonville carriers saved a family form a burning home, one of my North University maintenance employees, assisted by a clerk, saved a man’s life by administering first aid, and several of my carriers have driven 1 million miles accident free.

Some unusual package requests are self-addresses coconuts. Other items include puppies, birds, trees, remains of loved ones, decorated birthday cakes, auto parts including fenders and bumpers, boat motors, and more.

But please check with the post office as to which items are acceptable for mailing, because there are restrictions.

How has automation improved postal delivery?

Automation has reduced processing costs from approximately $45 per 1,000 pieces of mail sorted to under $5 per 1,000. Automation can now sort much of the carriers’ letter mail in delivery sequence. This high-tech process allowed the Postal Service to efficiently and accurately handle the delivery of more than 189 billion pieces of mail last year.

If you could change an aspect of mail handling, what would it be?

It’s not what I would change, but what I would improve.

I’d like to see more cooperation and a better working relationship among our postal employees. I’d like for us to be united instead of departmentalized: carriers working with clerks, clerks working with mail handlers, and all cooperating with management.

The Postal Service reminds me of my own family—when I lived at home with my parents, three brothers and a sister. We would argue in-house, but once outside don’t even think about saying anything derogatory about our family.

It seems as though there is always a collector’s stamp being used. How important a revenue stream is this for the post office?

It’s a win win situation for both the U.S. Postal Service and the collector.

Yes, it’s an important revenue stream. However, what’s more important is these stamps provide history and education. There are thousands of requests from customers for different stamps each year. Unfortunately, we cannot honor each request, but are allowing customers to vote for their favorite stamp with our “Celebrate the Century” campaign.

Is it a good idea to place a hold on mail when a family leaves for vacation? Are there specific instances of mail being taken or vandalized when left in mail boxes?

If you don’t have a family member or trusted friend who can take care of your mail while you are on vacation, it is a good idea to request your mail be held at the post office while you are gone.

Specifically, we are not allowed to give customers’ names, nor are we allowed to tell how the perpetrator was prosecuted. If a customer’s mail has been vandalized or stolen, the customer should file a police report and then the Postal Inspection Service will become involved.

What future plans are in store for the U.S. Postal Service that you can share with us?

The Postal Service is using robotics in certain areas to move the mail within the postal system. We’ve tested and will institute our delivery confirmation system of parcels and packages. All letter carriers will have hand held scanners to verify the delivery of Express and Priority Mail—which will be expanded to other classes. We’re using radio frequency micro chips to identify “pinch points” to analyze and improve our quality service.

Please expand on these improvements. Where and how are robotics used? How does the delivery confirmation system work? Tell us more about the hand held scanners. And what are pinchpoints—how does the radio frequency system operate?

All mail processing centers will have robotics to complete the repetitive sorting of containers by use of a bar code. Harrisburg, Penn., was the test center, which began about four years ago.

Hand held scanners are being deployed to virtually all letter carriers throughout the nation. These scanners will have the ability to provide delivery confirmation to our customers for selected premium services such as Express Mail, Priority Mail, Registered and Certified. The Postal Service recognizes that delivery confirmation is nothing short of a survival issue, and we are making every effort to provide this critical information to our customers.

Pinchpoints are areas of concern which we can identify.

Radio frequency operates by enclosing a computer chip that emits radio frequency. Selected facilities will receive the movements so that the letter can be tracked throughout the entire system. Indianapolis, In., is a test site and installation will begin this month.

Also, Quality Test Letter is a letter that has a microchip inside and a battery that records information—such as every time the letter moves and the duration of the move. If it flew, take off and landing times are recorded; if the piece went by truck, it records how long it was on the truck, etc.

What’s the biggest headache for the letter carrier? The sorter? The consumer?

Since we have a diverse work force, a headache for one employee may be another opportunity for another. Therefore, our headaches and opportunities are as individual as our people.

As a result of our many surveys, consumers have told us they want consistent, timely delivery. To that end we’ve instituted our Delivery Point Sequencing for consistency on the route and our External First Class measurement for timely delivery.

Of course, we deliver for our customers 365 days a year, which is something the consumer sometimes doesn’t recognize.

It took a while to implement broad usage of the four digit ZIP. When will mandatory use of the nine digit ZIP go into effect?

The Postal Service won’t make it mandatory for customers to use their nine digit ZIP. But, we recommend that if you know it, use it.

How and why did you get involved in Steven R. Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People program? What was your role as a facilitator and coordinator?

James R. Olden Jr., central Illinois district manager, wanted our leaders, managers, supervisors and union officials to adopt a management style with power, conviction and feeling.

Both the content and methodology of these principles form a solid foundation for effective communication. Dr. Covey has synthesized the habits of our highest achievers and presented them in a powerful, easy-to-use program. This program has become the blueprint for the central Illinois district leadership, which spans from Bedford Park, Ill., west to the Iowa border and east to the Indiana border and south down to the Springfield-Champaign areas.

I was chosen as the central Illinois district coordinator for Seven Habits because of my management style and extensive training background. I was trained at the Homestead in Utah with Dr. Covey.

Upon my return, I facilitated a class for the district manager and his direct reports. A cadre of facilitators were trained, and within a two-year period all of our leaders had completed “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.”

What advice do you have for women wanting to enter a government job? When a civil service test is administered, what’s the average registration for number of job openings?

Civil service testing is separate from Postal Service testing. Since the Postal Service is a quasi governmental organization, it has its own testing system. The Postal Service, in some areas, is a 24-hour operation. You need to be willing to work flexible and extended hours.

There are many opportunities for upward mobility, which requires a positive attitude, compassion, perseverance, education, dedication, sense of humor, and the willingness to take on additional responsibilities.

When a U.S. Postal Service test is administered we have 7,000 to 7,500 applicants. From that figure approximately 80 percent take the test. Applicants must achieve a grade of 70 percent or better, which enables the U.S. Postal Service to establish eligibility on its hiring register. Positions become available through our attrition rate, which varies from year to year.

What do you do in your leisure time?

Play with my grandchildren, spend quality time with my family, and support my children in their social and extra curricular activities.

My hobbies are collecting stamps, postal memorabilia, plates, figurines, and music boxes. In fact, the only thing I can’t collect is money.

What message would you like to send to the Peoria community?

As a native Peoria and Peoria’s postmaster, I have a sincere commitment to serve the community, which has given so much to me and my entire family. I’m working hard to earn respect of the people in the Peoria area. My mother, aunt and uncles reside in Peoria. I want the Donnigans and McBrides to be proud of their child and niece. I don’t want to disappoint my brother’s and sister, two of whom work at the post office.

So you can see the desire to succeed and serve means so much to me because of my family, lifelong friends and business associates. I’ve developed many partnerships in the city through the Peoria Customer Council, Peoria Area Clean cities and Customer Advisory Council.

I hope you can see that the post office in Peoria is not a cold bureaucracy, but a company that cares, with a postmaster who cares.

Yes, I make mistakes, but I rebound faster than Dennis Rodman. Since my appointment in 1993, I hope you will agree that when the ball is in my court, I occasionally get a slam dunk. TPW