French postal service La Poste sees the adoption of digital tools – aside from being part of the Internet of Things (IoT) movement – as an opportunity to create better customer relations and also work towards a ‘smarter’ city.

La Poste “used to see digital technology as a great bugbear”

Digital development across the La Poste Group is spearheaded by subsidiary company Docapost, which also serves external customers, mainly large firms and public institutions. These services, which include assisting client companies and organisations in making the transition to digital and mobile channels through paperless document transfer and management, account for 95% of Docapost’s €450 million.annual turnover. Another example is the Navigo pass, a contactless smart card which public transport passengers can use to pay for their journeys. Mandated by STIF – the transport organisation authority that oversees the Paris public transport network, coordinates the different transport companies operating in the Île-de-France region and sets basic policy for the network – Docupost is responsible for managing card distribution, implementing charging facilities and running operations from back office right through to after-sales service.

Docapost CEO Murielle Barnéoud talked about the digital transformation of La Poste in a recent interview (in French) during a L’Atelier numérique broadcast on the BFM Business channel. The company’s initiatives combine digital and physical aspects – connected letter-boxes and postmen/women – the aim of enhancing customer relations being the central focus of the La Poste transformation process.

L’Atelier: In the autumn La Poste will be collaborating with the Consumer Electronics Association as an official partner for CES Unveiled Paris, an appetizer for the massive Consumer Electronics Show techfest in Las Vegas in January. Yet just few years ago no-one would have made a mental association between La Poste and digital technology. Such a move was far from obvious. So when did you start down the digital transformation path?

Muriel Barnéoud: Oh, that’s a very big subject! I think we could say that in the beginning we tended to view digital technology as a great bugbear. In fact, when you look at any company’s lifecycle, digital tools and the disruption they bring are often seen as upsetting. People worry that suddenly their processes and relationships are going to be disintermediated, or as we might say today: ‘Uberised’. To be perfectly honest, at first we saw these changes as something we ought to resist.

Today the challenge we all face – and this has been the case for several years – is to move from seeing digital as a threat to regarding it as an opportunity, to make digital a real tool for renewing our business, transforming our internal way of working and – above all – as a way of transforming our relationship with our customers and a means to diversification. These are the main stages of the process. I think that we’re now well past the mistrust stage where we wanted to keep away from digital technology. We’re now entering the transformation phase, especially as regards customer relationships, which provides an excellent opportunity for growth.

What products and services are you focusing on to enhance the customer experience?

First of all products which combine the physical and digital elements.

If there’s one major lesson we’ve learned from experience, and something we can share with other large firms, it’s to avoid setting the different channels, the various customer touchpoints, up against each other. That’s how we’ve come to understand that digital channels are not the enemy, but rather an additional way to feed into and enhance the customer experience.

Take Facteo for instance. Facteo is a ‘smartphone’-type device which all postmen/women in France carry. It helps with something that is very basic but nevertheless essential for our customers, i.e. enabling the postman to make a second delivery or a parcel delivery, say, at an agreed time. This initiative combines both physical and digital services. It’s very simple but, in a way, it’s also revolutionary.

Then another major new venture – which might seem obvious to anybody – digital has provided us with a great opportunity to have a post office open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on your computer, tablet or smartphone. Nowadays you can send a letter online, anywhere, anytime, print out your own stamp, frank the envelope, track a parcel, and access a range of products and services from the whole of the La Poste Group using a channel which simply didn’t exist just a few years ago. This puts an end to queueing and worrying about the opening hours of your post office. These are very obvious changes, which we’ve now put into practice.

So now innovation is opening up all kinds of things to us: connected letter-boxes, for example. Then there’s the Facteo system I mentioned a moment ago, which is an outstanding tool for the customer to keep in touch with his/her postman, and for La Poste as well. You can ask your postman to perform other tasks in addition to the traditional ones, which helps to enhance the customer relationship. We could also envisage for example such services as keeping an eye on older people, especially during a heatwave, and delivering other products in addition to the traditional ones because you have real-time contact, you have a direct relationship and can respond to customer demand.

So Facteo is a simple device which brings postman and customer into direct contact with each other.

Yes, you could say that. As you know, when you place a digital tool in the hands of an employee, whoever s/he is, or a customer, things start to happen that you would never have imagined at the beginning. This is also one of the great lessons of digital transformation.

Just think about this huge transfer of power to the customer. All of a sudden s/he can ask for just about anything, and get it, as of right, as a taxpayer in a direct relationship with a public institution. This is the first real revolution.

The second revolution is taking place among employees. When you bring your people, your staff, into this digital world, you find yourself with the phenomenon of the flat organigram. And this creates a certain freedom to initiate and invent. People are now able to invent things that you never could have imagined previously.

Facteo, the connected letter-box, and so on, all these initiatives could be said to be part of the vision of the ‘smart city’. Isn’t it in fact part of the La Poste Group’s job to work hand-in-hand with local authorities to design the city of tomorrow? Isn’t that what La Poste is already doing?

Yes we are. At least, we’re part of that.

First of all we’ve created a range of solutions for cities. Today at Docapost, for example, we have a solution we call Managing the Citizen Relationship. The system allows cities to get in touch – in a very straightforward and responsive way – with their citizens. Residents can for example report any malfunctions directly to the appropriate local authority department and follow up on such requests to the local administration in a very simple way on their smartphones or tablets.

We also help city authorities with everything to do with electronic consultation, i.e. all kinds of referenda and public surveys.

Last but not least, at La Poste we have a team working on e-logistics, i.e. on all the issues to do with organising people moving around the city. Indeed La Poste provides one of the prime feeds that helps to energise the city with all its networks – from its wider arteries down to its finer capillary structures.

And we’re likely to see some concrete initiatives emerging in this area very soon.

By Lila Meghraoua
Journaliste/Productrice radio