The Post Office has been sent a warning

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The soaring number of complaints about the Royal Mail received by the postal watchdog, Postwatch, will come as no surprise to those who have followed the company's fortunes in recent years. The Royal Mail recently revealed that it met none of its performance targets for the first quarter of 2004. Last year thousands of Londoners were inconvenienced by an unofficial strike. And, on top of this, some 14.5 million letters go missing every year. The number of people who have chosen to register their dissatisfaction merely confirms what was already known: the Royal Mail is delivering a second-class service.

The soaring number of complaints about the Royal Mail received by the postal watchdog, Postwatch, will come as no surprise to those who have followed the company's fortunes in recent years. The Royal Mail recently revealed that it met none of its performance targets for the first quarter of 2004. Last year thousands of Londoners were inconvenienced by an unofficial strike. And, on top of this, some 14.5 million letters go missing every year. The number of people who have chosen to register their dissatisfaction merely confirms what was already known: the Royal Mail is delivering a second-class service.

Those who have complained will have already made their displeasure known to the Royal Mail and received no satisfaction. They constitute a hard core of angry customers. There will be many more who, although dissatisfied, have not gone as far as to make an official complaint. None of this bodes well for the Royal Mail when it loses its monopoly over the delivery of letters in less than three years' time.

However, there are some mitigating circumstances for the Royal Mail's chief executive, Adam Crozier, and its chairman, Allan Leighton. It is their responsibility to prepare for the break-up of the company's monopoly in April 2007. Some of its recent problems are a by-product of reforms to guarantee the Royal Mail's future, such as cutting back the workforce, reorganising collection routes and abolishing the second post. While the implementation of these measures has inconvenienced customers, they have also given the company a chance of competing in the future. The Royal Mail's management has also been hamstrung by the company's public service commitment to deliver letters anywhere in the British Isles for the price of a stamp - a function that does not make economic sense. The trade union militancy of sections of the Royal Mail's workforce has not helped either.

Messrs Crozier and Leighton have no choice but to push ahead with their modernisation plan. But they must also make every effort to appease their angry customers. Otherwise there is a strong risk that many will dispense with the Royal Mail's services as soon as they are given the chance.

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