But the Pony Express had more horsepower

March 05, 1995|By ROGER SIMON

If it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight, would you send it by mail?

Of course you would. If you were totally and completely nuts!

As everybody knows, Federal Express is the huge success it is today simply because the Postal Service is perceived as being so awful.

But is this fair? Is the Postal Service really that bad, just because in a few isolated incidents postal employees have taken home hundreds of pounds of letters and set them on fire!

Well, yes. It is that bad.

But is Federal Express -- which would now like to be known as Fed Ex -- really that good?

I used to think so. But now I am not so sure. Because a few weeks ago, I joined one of the most exclusive clubs in America:

I became a Fed Ex victim.

I sent a package to Los Angeles. It absolutely, positively had to get there overnight.

But it didn't. When 10:30 a.m., the time it was supposed to get to Los Angeles, came and went, I called Fed Ex.

I gave the woman who answered my call the "Package Tracking Number" off the little pink air bill copy that I had kept.

And due to its state-of-the-art electronic equipment, Fed Ex was instantly able to tell me that my package absolutely, positively would not be getting to Los Angeles any time that day.

"We had mechanical problems with the plane," the woman said very nonchalantly. "So none of those packages made it."

A mechanical problem with THE plane? Federal Express has one plane?

I figured the Fed Ex person would express terrific remorse, tell me my package would be put on the next flight, and would reach Los Angeles later in the day.

None of this happened. I don't even remember an apology.

And I was the one who had to bring up the little matter of payment.

Do I still have to pay? I asked.

In an equally nonchalant voice, the Fed Ex woman said she "could" remove the charge if I "wanted."

I wanted. And the package did arrive by 1O:30 a.m. the following day.

But when I got a chance, I called Federal Express headquarters in Memphis, Tenn., to see how often Federal Express screws up.

Official answer: Not often.

"Our success rate is not 100 percent, but it is something like 99.9 percent," Sandra Munoz, a spokeswoman, told me.

Which is great, until you do the math. Fed Ex ships 2.3 million packages and documents every day, so a 0.10 percent failure rate means it screws up 2,300 packages per day.

The difference between Fed Ex and, say, the Postal Service (which burns our mail in empty lots) is that a frenzy of self-examination ensues when Fed Ex does goof. Or at least it is supposed to.

Something called a "Quality Action Team," working off a 10-item "Service Quality Indicator" list, investigates each failure and assigns a numerical value to it.

The worst thing one can do is lose or damage a package (10 demerits) and one of the least bad things one can do is bill somebody wrongly (one demerit.)

What happened to my package should not have happened to my package. Not only does Fed Ex have 473 planes, but maintains five "hot spares," according to Munoz, that it can rush into service when another plane breaks down.

Munoz didn't say so, but I got the impression that secret tribunals were held in the caverns beneath Memphis, where Fed Ex employees were sternly dealt with if they made mistakes.

And if they made mistakes often enough they were either fired or made Postmaster General of the United States.

"Every package is tracked every single day, and every service failure is checked out and corrected," Munoz said. "The reason doesn't matter. We find the cause of the failure and correct it. Every single morning, we have a worldwide conference call of all the key people in charge of each of our 192 countries, and they all go over what went wrong the day before."

And considering that Fed Ex reported revenues of $8.5 billion for the fiscal year ending May 31, 1994, I guess people still have faith in it.

By the way, in order to complete this column, I needed some documents from Federal Express and I needed them quickly and without fail.

Munoz faxed them to me.

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