GBCC President Gordon Milne interviews
Greg Wilkie, Royal Mail’s Head of Stamps Operations

Cover commemorating the opening of Tallents House

Published in the January, 2004 issue of The Chronicle, the journal of the Great Britain Collectors Club. Reprinted by permission.

Milne: Of all the interviews I’ve conducted for this seemingly-popular, on-going “In the Spotlight” series, I’ve never felt I’ve known less about my subject, than I do about Greg Wilkie!

How have you managed, dear sir, to remain, thus far, in obscurity?

Wilkie: Although I have been with Royal Mail for over 18 years now, this is my first role with any connection to philately. Most of my time with Royal Mail has been spent in customer service and sales-related roles in both headquarters and operational business units.

Milne: In that case, Greg, I feel all the more honored that you have been kind enough to grant me this interview.

The title beneath your name on the initial email I received from you read “Head of Stamps Operations.” For the benefit of the uninformed — and I shamelessly put myself at the head of that list — please explain what your duties/responsibilities entail and how you fit into the overall management structure at Tallents House.

Wilkie: My responsibilities can be broken down into three broad categories:

  1. Philatelic and collectibles customers
  2. Retailers
  3. Business customers

Tallents House provides a fulfillment “pipeline” for all three services.

This pipeline comprises order capture (from paper, telephone and web sources), payment collection, order pick, pack and dispatch, and then, finally, after-sales customer care.

Philatelic Bureau Order Form
A portion of the Philatelic Bureau Order Form showing some of the Royal Mail collectibles. To see the full page, click here.

Milne: How do these categories differ, Greg?

Wilkie:The differences are in the range of products supplied, thus:

Collectors have access to all stamps and stamp products produced by Royal Mail;

Retailers are supplied with stamps in the format best suited for onward sale to end-users; and

Business Customers have access to a wide range of stamps and pre-paid stationery products to allow them to most efficiently use Royal Mail postal services.

Milne: And how and where do you fit, sir, in the overall Tallents House structure?

Wilkie: Most “Stamps and Collectibles” people in Tallents House fall within my area of responsibility.

These people work mainly in customer service or fulfillment roles, with small teams of them looking after planning and performance, as well as ensuring high quality relationships with our clients in other parts of Royal Mail.

Milne: And where does Greg Wilkie stand on the management ladder?

Wilkie: I report to Gavin Macrae, Director of Stamps and Collectibles.

Milne: I’ve seen that name many times in publicity releases about future issues and developments.

As I recall it, the British Philatelic Bureau moved its headquarters in the fall of 2000 from its previous Brandon Street address in Edinburgh, Scotland, to its current (new) home, Tallents House, in South Gyle Crescent. What precipitated that move, Greg?

Wilkie: Finding new premises was made necessary by a combination of factors that included space, suitability and cost. The Bureau had outgrown the space in Brandon Street, and with the plan agreed to broaden our horizons into the collectibles market, space would have been an even greater problem, had we not moved to Tallents House.

On top of the pressure of space, the Brandon Street building and its location made operations very difficult. For example, taking deliveries of product or materials was a big problem due to the relatively narrow streets in that part of Edinburgh

Milne: Ah, Greg, but you make me homesick for the charms of “Auld Reekie” (Scots for “Old Smokey”).

Wilkie: Tallents House, by comparison, is situated in a business park on the outskirts of Edinburgh and has a modern loading bay with more than adequate turning space for large vehicles.

Finally, being in the centre of Edinburgh made Brandon Street an expensive home for the Stamps and Collectibles operation. By moving to Tallents House, not only did we have bigger, more suitable accommodation, but it also saved money.

Milne: I can see the move at the time made lots of business sense. So, three years later, has the end justified the means? If, as I suspect, your answer is “Yes,” what have been the main plusses that have resulted?

Wilkie: It has definitely been a good move for Royal Mail and our customers.

The bigger, cheaper, more suitable space has enabled us to move into the collectibles market and also to concentrate into Edinburgh several other products that were previously being dispatched by third parties or from other parts of the Royal Mail Group.

The accommodation itself is ideally suited to our needs with warehousing space for storage; discrete areas for product assembly and our pick, pack, despatch operations; and open plan offices for customer service and support teams.

Milne: For the curious-minded (like myself), would you please explain in detail the functions and structures of each of these three Tallents House operations:

  1. The Bureau service for collectors
  2. Royal Mail Retail
  3. Royal Mail Direct Services for business customers

Wilkie: O.K. This is how each functions …

i. For philatelic and collectibles customers, I am responsible for the delivery of customer service and the fulfillment of orders for all account holders. This includes, for example, the assembly of first day covers and presentation packs. I also have to meet quality and efficiency targets in the despatch of the product to the customer … which includes the philatelic trade and Royal Mail’s overseas representatives.

ii. Royal Mail account customers are businesses ranging from small private enterprises to multi-national companies who retail stamps to customers for postal use. These products are mainly — but not exclusively — books of stamps and associated point-of-sale material.

The demands of this part of the retail market mean that there are extremely tight timescales for order fulfillment — with every order received by 6.00 p.m. being guaranteed to be despatched that same day for delivery the next working day.

Milne: That IS tight!

Wilkie: iii. Business customers have a similar service level to retailers but the range of products is much wider, and these are sold for postal use, rather than resale.

The product ranges include stamps, of course, as well as Royal Mail Pouch Service, Special Delivery envelopes, Postage Paid Symbol envelopes and international pre-paid products such as Swiftpacks.

There are also other products that support the mail services used by Royal Mail’s customers, like address management products.

Milne: Greg, do these three different operations interconnect? And, if so, how?

Wilkie: Data entry and customer care for all three services are provided by a single, integrated team.

However, the despatch of orders for philatelic customers is managed separately from the orders for the other two services.

Milne: Which of these three operations contribute the most to Royal Mail’s coffers?

Wilkie: All three services contribute to Royal Mail’s overall profitability. However, as I’m sure you can understand, I cannot disclose the details of each.

Milne: Last time I heard a number quoted, the Bureau catered to about 350,000 collectors world-wide. Over the last three years has that number increased, decreased or stayed pretty stable?

Wilkie: The number of collectors is staying reasonably stable … but the mix is changing.

Milne: How?

Wilkie: Well, we have noticed over the years that new customers are either more likely to be buying for others or collecting specific issues. Expressed a different way, thematic collecting is becoming more popular.

Milne: What’s the current split between standing order clients and one-off order customers? How does that compare to either the days before Tallents House or 5 – 10 years ago?

Wilkie: There is constant movement in our customer base. We continue to attract new standing order customers and elevate customers up from one-off purchasing to regular order.

In contrast to 10 years ago, we are recruiting more new customers by offering a broader range of collectibles. This compensates for the general decline in the philatelic market.

Milne: I have to hand (from GBCC VP, Charlie Mayfield) the October 2003 (and thus, at the time of writing, the latest) Royal Mail Stock List.

This provides a much, much more expansive list of items than was available, say, a decade ago.

If I listed those in general sub-sections, are you at liberty to indicate which is generating more/less philatelic appeal today than in the early 90s?

  • Stamp sets
  • Presentation Packs
  • Stamp Cards (PHQs)
  • Definitives
  • Coils
  • Retail/Machine-vended Booklets
  • Country stamps
  • Yearbooks
  • Year Packs

Wilkie: Believe it or not, all of those products were available a decade ago … though it is fair to say that there may be some more products in certain categories.

The areas of most change are booklets and country stamps.

We now have a much smaller range of booklets as we no longer need the machine-vended type. Further, the number of changes — printer, covers etc. — in retail booklets is fewer.

Country stamps have seen a resurgence, with the introduction of both a pictorial approach and the issue of country stamps for England, as well as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

To answer your question of relative appeal, I’d say that each category remains about the same as it was 10 years ago.

Milne: Recently added to that list I rattled off above are peripheral (my term) higher-priced items like the Coronation Banknote Cover, the Coronation Coin Cover, the Coronation Postal Order, Coin Covers and Ingot Covers, all — or most — offered on a limited edition basis.

Some would describe these, critically, as “bleed the collector further” offerings. How would you respond to such a charge?

Wilkie: These products are part of our collectibles portfolio. This is aimed at attracting new customers who do not necessarily see themselves as philatelists or even collectors.

Of course, we offer these to existing philatelists, too, as some wish to collect everything released by Royal Mail.

My view is that these products are optional as there is no common definition of “a collection.” It is up to an individual what to have in his or her collection.

Milne: A good, “political” response, Greg!

Moving on, the GBCC’s Machin maven and much-respected Webmaster, Larry Rosenblum, contributes the following question/observation:

“Although I am sure that Tallents House gets a lot of business from specialists, historically they have not been served well. New varieties are now labelled with the generic term ‘visible change,’ making it very hard for a collector to indicate what is wanted.

“These new varieties are generally not listed and are not given individual stock numbers.

“Specialists don’t need a fancy, full-colour glossy catalogue — à la the USPS — but better identification of varieties would be a big help and might very well generate additional revenue.”

How do you Greg/Tallents House respond to Larry’s comments?

Wilkie: To answer the general question first, we would be happy to respond to a letter, email or phone call from any customer asking about what services we provide.

On Larry’s specific questions, we do not offer the services he mentions.

However, we are reviewing the range of services we offer, and I will ensure that Larry’s comments are included for consideration.

Milne: Obviously no service — of whatever nature — can “please all of the people all of the time.”

GBCC Vice President, Charlie Mayfield, for example is delighted that his request for cylinder singles has been met 75% of the time.

However, on the negative side of the ledger, he reports instances of his delivered order not matching what he requested.

In the latter regard, Larry also volunteered the information to me that two of his recent orders had not been filled correctly — a number, he adds, “that equals the total of the mistakes that I’ve encountered over the last 20 years.”

And I understand that one of my previous interviewees for this feature, prolific philatelic author, James Mackay, recently noted the same observation in a recently published article.

Greg, since this seems to be a common, rather than isolated observation, have you identified such a problem? And, further, what steps have been taken/are being taken to correct it?

Wilkie: Obviously it is difficult to respond to individual points without knowing the detail to understand the problem.

However, I can confirm that we continue to enjoy very high level of customer satisfaction with our service. Further, the number of complaints about wrong/incomplete orders, I assure you, has not risen significantly.

We do take complaints seriously and we have a system in place to trace the cause of each complaint so that we can take any corrective action.

This can range from the further coaching of an employee to changing a process.

Indeed, I invite any of your members who have such problems to contact the customer service team at Tallents House, should the need arise.

Milne: I myself confess to not having been a Bureau customer for some years now.

Lest you wonder why, I ducked out when I found — and I know this is subjective! — that the quality of some of the designs of GB issues of the last five years majorly declined to my traditionalistic eye.

You’ll be delighted to hear, however, that the advance pictures I’ve seen of the January 2004 Classic Locomotives issue are just that, in my opinion, … CLASSIC! (And, thank you, for giving GBCCers a preview of them in the 2004 calendar that you generously supplied to go along with this issue.)

Wilkie: It was a pleasure to send them.

Milne: Anyway, not having seen a Stock List for some time, I was stunned to see in the October 2003 issue such a vast array of “peripheral” (again, my word) high-cost Collectibles items.

Some years ago, you logically extended from stamps to albums and philatelic supplies, but now the list goes beyond the logical (to some) and includes toys, mugs, jigsaws, jewelry, etc.

What prompted this extension?

Wilkie: It was done to expand the role and expertise of “Stamps and Collectibles” to compete with the wider collectibles market.

Milne: How successful has this expansion been?

Wilkie: We are still learning from the testing we have done. It is fair to say that some themes are becoming more popular than others, and we will not be continuing with some.

Milne: That’s interesting. Did Tallents House staff additionally to cope with the expansion?

Wilkie: As with any business, we match our resource to the work load and customer needs.

Milne: That sounded like a well-rehearsed, political answer, Greg … but I respect it.

Wearing my philatelic hat — pulled right down over the ears! — has this extension of activity away from the pure philatelic contributed to less attention being paid to the stamp collector than ever before?

Wilkie: Ongoing efficiency improvements allow an element of new work to be absorbed. Thus, no specific new resource was added for collectibles.

This extension, let me assure all stamp collectors, has not affected the core of the philatelic fulfillment operation as it is managed as a separate process.

Milne: By offering these collectibles, has Tallents House been able — significantly — to extend its customer base? And are you finding that this collectibles customer is a different animal from the traditional stamp collector?

Wilkie: Yes, the collectibles customer is, we’re finding, much more selective, picking individual products that appeal, rather than trying to amass a complete collection … which is the rationale for our standing order customers for philatelic products.

Milne: That’s a very interesting observation, Greg.

Still on the collectibles front, the October 2003 Stock List shows all those items (on pages 8 and 9) having a £2.95 per order postage and packing charge. Yet recently I’ve been led to believe (again, by Larry) that this is to increase (from January 2004) to a whopping £14 (or nearly $25 in US currency). Is this true? And, if so, what is the justification?

Wilkie: In fact, the £14 charge has been in place for some time for some products.

From January 2004, we will be applying these charges across all our services.

The increase does appear large, but it more accurately reflects the true cost of posting orders to overseas addresses. Bear in mind our charges have not changed for a couple of years.

Royal Mail Phone Card
According to Royal Mail’s new fee schedule, the postage and packing charge to send one of these Royal Mail phone cards to the United States is about $25.

Milne: I know that. Indeed, your previous charges I personally considered to be ludicrously low.

But, forgive me for my persistence over these new charges. Believe me, I’m just trying (in the interests of others) to understand them and not be blind-sided when next an order is placed.

Do these increased charges apply to each and every item ordered from pages 8 and 9? For example — and, of course, I cite the ludicrous to make the point (sorry!) — does the £5 Coronation phone card and/or the £4.95 Pillar Box fridge magnet, separately, elicit a £14 postage and packing charge?

Wilkie: The charge is a “per order” one for collectible products. Pick one or ten items from the collectibles list and you pay only the one charge. This is part of an ongoing review of how we can best get our products to market, and it may be, down the road, that we decide not to offer some of our collectible range overseas.

Milne: Thank you, Greg, for the clarity of that response. I am sure that it will go a long way to eliminating a problem should some of our members head off on the collectibles tangent.

Since Tallents House is now a triple-headed entity, what is the system in place to recommend and agree to such changes? And what is the chain of command?

Wilkie: As I tried to explain earlier, Tallents House is the mail order service supplier. We operate to specifications agreed with our marketing colleagues for all the services we provide, either for collectors or mail users.

They determine the product specification, including price, and drive the communications to existing and potential customers.

However, as Tallents House is the part of the supply chain that faces the customer, we do have the role of taking customer feedback on board. We have processes in place to ensure that customer comments and suggestions are routed back to the relevant product managers.

It is more a question of different roles and responsibilities than a chain of command.

Milne: Moving on to matters of a more personal nature, tell us, if you would, please, a bit more about this mysterious, “unknown” man called Greg Wilkie.

For starters, where and when were you born? Where did you grow up? And where do you now live?

Wilkie: I was born in Edinburgh in 1963 and spent my childhood in the city — or close to it — before moving to Aberdeen to go to University there.

I now live in Oxfordshire, having moved there in 1990.

Obviously, since taking up this post, I have been spending my working week in Edinburgh, but I have no plans to move my family up there at the present.

Milne: Are you a collector yourself? If so, of what?

Wilkie: Like many people of my generation, I still have a stamp collection from my childhood. I am not an active collector now.

Milne: Have you any other hobbies or interests away from Tallents House?

Wilkie: Living away from home for much of the time, as I do, does not leave a great deal of spare time for hobbies.

Most of my spare time at weekends is taken up by my two young sons and their extra-curricular activities.

I do have a passing interest in wine and have recently started trying to revive my golfing skills … which were never much to brag about in any case.

Milne: What’s your previous work pedigree?

Wilkie: I have held a variety of positions, in operations, strategic headquarters and marketing, in Royal Mail over the last 18 years. The majority of those roles has been directly related to customer service.

Amongst my achievements in this area are the introduction of a single national telephone number to replace more than 70 previously published numbers, the implementation of a networked complaints-handling system for Royal Mail and the migration of around 1600 staff and managers from 10 separate business units into a single unit.

I have also been responsible for a range of customer satisfaction and mystery shopper measures covering the whole of Royal Mail.

My most recent role before moving to Stamps and Collectibles was as Head of Customer Contact, where I was responsible for the operational performance of a network of contact centres serving a wide range of clients, both Royal Mail and others.

I have an MA (Hons) in English and an MBA, as well as Diplomas in both Management and Marketing.

Milne: Looking into your crystal ball — which is as good as anybody else’s! — what further changes (if any) do you see happening to Greg Wilkie and his current lifestyle — or would like to see happening — in, say, the next five years?

Wilkie: I would hope to continue my career in a customer service role as that is where my interests really lie. In lifestyle terms, I’ve been in this role for less than a year now, so it’s too early to be thinking about what may occur in five years time.

Milne: As this interview will be published at the start of 2004, what New Year’s resolutions are you, yourself, planning to make (if any)? And what do you hope and wish for, as Head of Stamps Operations, Tallents House, for the future?

Wilkie: For myself, I tend not to make New Year resolutions as I never seem to have the willpower to actually lose that weight!!

For Tallents House staff and customers, I simply look forward to a long and prosperous relationship in the years to come.

Milne: Greg, thank you for your generous donation of time and effort to complete this interview. I found it most absorbing, and I’m confident that most GBBC’ers will, too.

If, as we hope, my wife and I get back to Scotland in 2004, I will be sure to take you up on your kind offer of a tour of Tallents House.

My esteemed thanks and good luck!

My thanks to Charlie Mayfield and Larry Rosenblum for their helpful input for this interview.

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