Who delivers? Nick Hasell gives couriers the chance to prove their many claims.
Intrigued by the range and competing claims of courier companies, Management Today courted a logistical headache and devised its own form of consumer research, sending identical packages from its office in central London to three major European cities via five carriers.
While speed was of the essence, points were also to be awarded for cost, the eventual condition of the package and a notional sense of customer service - what use, after all, in sending a package that takes an age to arrange, is carried at vast expense and arrives having been mauled en route? Although our comparison can make no claims to definitiveness, deduce what you will from the following.
On first encounter by telephone there was little to choose between our five unsuspecting contestants. Once past the digitalised muzak of the recorded hold, placing the booking was uniformly straightforward: quotes were provided immediately and, in some cases, insurance offered as an extra. Having existing accounts with both DHL and Federal Express obviously made things simpler, yet also raised issues of security with those carriers to whom we were not "known". UPS, for example, explained that it did not take packages from unknown clients and hence insisted on the completion of a security declaration before a consignment would be accepted (a measure apparently introduced in response to guidelines issued by the Department of Transport in the wake of the Gulf war). While Securicor and TNT eschewed such formalities, the latter stipulated that we leave all packages open so that they could be inspected by the courier before sealing.
When pressed on delivery times, none was significantly able to offer a firm guarantee, stating instead that receipt should be within one working day for Paris and Duesseldorf and two days for Milan. On this point all sought recourse to the phrase "pending customs clearance", with widespread acknowledgement that the methods of Italian customs were notoriously unpredictable (and so they proved). Rather confusingly, different companies had varying forms of classification as to our package being rated as a "good" or a "document". The former then required a pro-forma invoice.
To ensure that all operated under the same conditions and in line with our unwavering sense of fair play, each package ended up being accompanied by paperwork. After reconfirming the details, the calls were usually rounded off with the obligatory "Thank you for choosing ... (here insert name of company)". At this point, feeling slightly dishonest, I resisted the urge to reply that I had also chosen four of their competitors.
Having specified 3.00 pm for pick-up, DHL took the immediate lead by arriving 25 minutes early; all, however, arrived by the agreed time, UPS notably on the dot. Had their suspicions been aroused? The zeal of the latter's driver in explaining company strategy and exhorting the advantages of using UPS might have led one to think so, yet perhaps it was simply the genuine (and slightly disconcerting) evangelism of a front-line employee. Whatever the reason, it was all very impressive.
Some were more exacting in procedure than others, Securicor being alone in not requesting the recipient's phone number - an oversight that was later to cause problems. Yet it was also here that Fedex effectively "lost" before it had begun, the driver somehow having come to put the wrong package in the wrong wallet; hence Paris ended up with Milan's package and vice versa. Surely here was a case for a little less speed. While for our purposes this made no material difference, all packages being identical, other users might understandably have taken such a faux pas less sanguinely.
The Paris and Duesseldorf offices were both straightforward city centre locations rated within the one-working-day range, and so seemed unlikely to present any problems for delivery. Three of the five carriers came in on time - significantly it was the same three, with DHL first past the post by a matter of hours in both instances. Indeed, it was notable how these two sets of results so closely echoed each other, with the slight variation of UPS and Fedex exchanging second and third places.
While not exactly fragile, all packages but one reportedly arrived in good condition, the single exception being Securicor's delivery to Paris, which limped across the finishing line into reception "badly bent".
Milan, however, proved for many a stumbling block, the delivery point being both out in the suburbs and, according to two carriers, curiously not on their A-Z. One can only assume that this was a different edition from that possessed by TNT, which, in what proved to be the its finest hour, completed delivery in just under 19 hours - some 22 hours ahead of DHL, its nearest rival. Again three of the five delivered within the one working day estimate, TNT's swiftness here displacing the dominance of the previous three.