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Sunday, 28 August 2016

ParcelForce: I'm trying to help you fix your site ...

[Short link to this article if you need it - - or retweet me]

[NOTE: Executive summary is in the  "Problem determination" and "Key Summary Points" at the end]

I recently had an exchange with ParcelForce (A dividion of the UK Royal Mail Group) regarding a package I was due to receive from them. I received an email from "PARCELFORCE WORLDWIDE <>" saying that my item was dispatched by "Express 24" and providing a tracking number and link. While this is far from the worst customer service example I've seen, it does warrant a post because of all the information and evidence required regarding the issues involved.

The tracking link is where the problems started. I clicked the link, and it directed me to and prompted me to display a popup window. I've no idea why they need a popup given that the landing page is completely blank - why can't it just be inlined? I thought legitimate popups had died years ago! As normal, these are the options you get for popups (the exact look of this menu depends on your browser of course):

Now, as a security savvy person I tend to err on the side of caution, so I pucked the last option "Show 'http://tracking...'" to allow this one popup to appear. The popup duly appeared, but what I got was a spinning logo in the popup. The tracking information never appeared:

(Source image is actually the one at - I don't normally like leaving animations in web pages but it annoyed me so I hope you can feel my pain!)

I tried with both Firefox and Chrome and hit the same issue, on both Linux (RHEL) and Windows 10. Here's a screenshot showing all three browsers with the spinning popup along with the version numbers:

At this point I posted the above animated GIF on my twitter account tagging @parcelforce. Here's how the conversation went when ParcelForce started replying:

SXA: Dear @parcelforce why on earth are you using a near-blank page with a popup which most browsers will block for your tracking links?
SXA: Of course now that I've allowed the @Parcelforce popup it's just displaying a spinning icon and not actually showing me any tracking info
SXA: If this parcel arrives and I haven't been able to find out in advance to ensure I'm at home I will not be amused @parcelforce
PF: @sxa555 I'm sorry to hear that, could you DM your tracking number please and I'll take a look for you. - Matty
SXA: @parcelforce It's now showing up between my tweet and your reply :-) Being sent by "Parcelforce 24" means it'll arrive tomorrow I assume?
PF: Could you send me the number? I'll check it out for you. - Matty
SXA: Broken again (spinning image in popup) while I check for updates. Has anyone found @parcelforce tracking reliable?
SXA: Once yesterday out of about 10 times @parcelforce tracking worked. Every other time this is what I get. It's a joke [spinning image from above included in this tweet]
PF: You should be tracking the parcel at - Jonnny
SXA: Then why does your tracking email send me to Jonny?
SXA: Take a look at the email Jonny @parcelforce - the URL at the bottom is from the blurred out tracking link from you

At this point it got a bit strange. I gave them a screenshot of the email along with the last message:

But it was the response that surprised me as it looks like the emails aren't quite sent by ParcelForce themselves, despite the domain it's sent from, and the ParcelForce logos ...

PF: This is because the company who sent this game us your email address to send you the details but this is our contract customers...
PF: tracking page he email with the details would usually be sent to the sender) - Jonny.
SXA: @parcelforce I can't understand what "contract customers" means. But surely on a parcelforce domain it's not a reference thte sender?
SXA: @parcelforce Bottom line - tell me who is responsible for the broken page at that I was pointed to so I can complain
SXA: @parcelforce Thanks for the link though - it worked but doesn't give me any more than out for delivery before 6)
PF: @sxa555 It's not broken Stewart, I can used this page fine and see the full tracking?
PF: Contract customers are customers who sent the parcel who have a contract with us
PF: @sxa555 The tracking will not give you any further information than this? We do not offer live tracking. - Jonny
SXA: @parcelforce Which page works for you? I did tell you the .com works for me - who do I contact about issues with the .net which still spins
PF:@sxa555 .net and .com both work for me. No spinning they just load up. - Jonny
SXA: @parcelforce I've sent my tracking link via DM. Can you tell me which browser version + OS you're using. Fails on all four of mine

I then had a brief exchange via DM where I gave them my direct tracking link from the email. The assistant said it loaded find on Google Chrome. I asked which version and OS and they said "Not sure to be honest. But I can advise this is the first time that anyone have complained about .net in all the years I have been working on Twitter. - Jonny"

SXA: I'm going to have to give up on @Parcelforce. Their assistants can't even figure out which OS and browser version they're using. Hopeless

[At some point around the time I posted that tweet another DM came through telling me the chrome version and verifying that it also worked on IE11 for them]

PF: @sxa555  I have supplied this information to you. Sorry but we do have to assist people with parcel enquiries. - Jonny

From the last response it was clear that there was no real interest in working with me to diagnose the problem with their site, so I gave up and decided to write this blog post instead.


I subsequently did some further investigation. If I tell me browser to permanently accept popups from the site then the information displays correctly (I'm guessing that at some point when I got it to work I'd done this in a private browsing session as I couldn't get it to work again on the day) However from my experimentation it seems slightly worse than that: Even when you say "always allow" the popup doesn't always work first time - you need to shut it down and reload for it to show the details. All of which is a complete usability nightmare.

If you look at the source for the popup page it's using HTML frames. One of which is called  SNP_mod_popup and is the one that starts with the spinning logo and should get refreshed with the correct information. I haven't gone any further into debugging why the popup doesn't work without the "always accept" option - I figured I'd leave something for the ParcelForce techies to do ...

  1. Don't use popups. Saying that, the fact that ParcelForce's .net page is listed as "© 2007"might go some way to explaining if it hasn't been updated in 9 years.
  2. Don't have allow people to send out emails via your own domain which point to sites that aren't the ones you recommend (the whole "contract customer" thing was bizarre. Why does a customer/vendor-supplied email need to come from one of parcelforce's domains? Yes it has the sender reference on .net (see screenshots below), but couldn't that be combined somehow? If not, your IT infrastructure needs some work.
  3. Don't say "You should be using" and give the impression that isn't something that you support if that's what the links in emails received by customers are being sent to. If there's an issue with your vendors, stop them from using it. When I started pushing for a contact for the .net domain, that was when they started responding to my regarding that site instead of pushing me away from it.
  4. Stick to one domain. I had to take it on faith that, and were all legitimate and all were seen during this exchange
  5. Why do you need two different sites to perform the same function anyway? Duplication of resources - although each is slightly different.
  6.  Is it really true that no-one else has ever run into this problem? If so, I'm staggered as it's fairly easy to reproduce. Or is it the case that as with many online retailers, if a site doesn't work first time people just give up? Probably, although if a vendor has sent via Parcelforce they're a bit stuck and can't go elsewhere 
  7. If you have the choice of courier, use DPD instead as their stuff just works and you can track your delivery far more accurately. This is 2016, the age of IoT. Not being able to say more than "It'll arrive sometime today" isn't really excusable.
(For completeness, the image on the left below is the tracking information from, the one on the right from the popup at - broadly similar information presented differently.)

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