An error message I encountered on the website of a logistics provider last week triggered a string of events that exposed inadequacies not just with the provider, but also with the sector at large.
It is no wonder that the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) is offering a hand to help the logistics sector break out of its rut.
Last Thursday, I tried to schedule a parcel pickup on SingPost's ezy2ship.net portal when an error message showed up.
The site would not accept my 5kg package, which I was planning to return to e-commerce site Shopee for a refund.
I reported the problem to a SingPost call-centre agent, who then took my booking over the telephone.
Multiple issues with the booking followed, which led to several more exasperating calls to SingPost, as well as a rude awakening that its competitors offered no relief.
First, I did not get a confirmation number via SMS until more than an hour later. I understand another team had to confirm the order and initiate the SMS - although its system had already captured the booking.
The inefficiency points to a manual workflow that the likes of McKinsey & Company and Boston Consulting Group would advise firms to cut out in any digital transformation effort.
Second, a message was lost in translation between SingPost and its contractor, whose delivery personnel was to pick up the package.
The delivery staff did not bring a SpeedPost consignment note, which I needed to fill up, even though I was told the instruction to bring the note had been entered into the system. The delivery staff member told me he saw no such instruction in his smartphone app.
Systems that do not "talk" to one another is a common problem in the business world. This is why troubleshooting is crucial in any system-integration process.
It was unclear how the instruction fell through the cracks. But without the consignment note, there would be no pickup. I needed proof of mail for my refund with Shopee.
Another booking was placed at 4pm for a second pickup on the same day. By then, I had lost confidence in the service and was trawling through the Web for alternatives.
FedEx and DHL? They do not offer domestic pickup and delivery service.
Another well-known courier firm, Ninja Van, suspended its call-centre operations during the Covid-19 pandemic for the safety of its employees and would respond only to e-mail or live-chat queries.
E-mail wouldn't cut it. I needed instant feedback. But its live-chat feature was nowhere to be found on its homepage.
Ninja Van could also do better by upgrading the level of interactivity it provides on Facebook Messenger, which is currently being used for FAQ-type queries.
Nevertheless, I created an account hoping to schedule a pickup quickly, but realised later that I must top up a minimum credit of $50 in my account to get started.
It didn't make sense to park so much credit with Ninja Van for a delivery that costs only $7.
So, I moved on to make inquiries at Ta-Q-Bin, only to be disappointed again. Its domestic parcel pickup and delivery is reserved only for corporate clients.
Understandably, companies cannot operate as usual as they have employees working from home during the pandemic.
But some forward-looking organisations have taken advantage of the crisis to implement sweeping, lasting changes.
Their efforts have only made the inadequacies in other organisations more glaring.
For instance, Citibank and DBS Bank have rolled out Internet-based phone technologies to let call-centre staff work from home.
The two banks have plans to continue with this arrangement even after the Covid-19 pandemic ends as part of their business-continuity plans.
Similarly, more thought could be put into streamlining workflow and plugging service gaps in the logistics sector. For instance, one under-served area is consumer parcel pickup for return, which will be in demand as e-commerce grows.
My parcel was eventually picked up by a SingPost staff member instead of a contractor later that night - after a manager stepped in.
Recognising that the industry needs to step up, the IMDA had in 2017 rolled out a transformation blueprint called Industry Digital Plan for the sector and offered to foot part of the tech-upgrading bill.
The IMDA will also be investing in an islandwide network of 1,000 locker stations to minimise door-to-door trips to ease the increasing strain on delivery manpower due to the rise of e-commerce.
The idea is to have couriers deposit parcels into the lockers by scanning a barcode, with an SMS notification and passcode sent to the recipient to retrieve the package. Parcel pickups from consumers for returns are also possible via these lockers.
Technology is only one ingredient for change. Others include committed leadership and an adaptable workforce. And real change is also often accompanied by a workflow or business-process overhaul.
Hopefully, the pandemic provides the much needed wake-up call for the sector to take action.