Elections … The Customer Satisfaction Survey With a Kick

With major elections happening in South Africa in a few weeks’ time, and many other countries doing the same on a regular basis, we never usually think of these as the ultimate feedback on customer service and loyalty – but they are.

When you pay good money for something – and let’s face it, the taxes which you and I pay are probably the biggest expense we will ever make over our whole lifetime – you become a customer. Which makes every taxpayer a customer of the political party that collects the cash.

These receipts go toward the products and services ‘advertised’ by politicians in their manifestoes. As they are wont to do, they break the first and possibly the most important rule of customer care: Under-promise, and then over-deliver. In reality, all of the political communication around election time is about gross exaggerations and downright lies, aiming for the lowest common denominator, and appealing to the most basic instincts of the human psyche.

A great example just happened in the UK: It mostly doesn’t make rational sense to be out of the EU, but if I were a citizen, I probably would also have voted for a Brexit. It would have been an emotional decision, not a logical one, and David Cameron lost his job as a result of it.

But when it comes to important things like well-lit streets, roads without potholes, reliable water and power supplies, working schools and hospitals, honesty and integrity of leadership, and so on, well… there are a lot of areas where politicians fall woefully short.

Just as in most commercial organisations, there are four broad types of customers:

  • The advocates, partners, angels, whatever you want to call them, but they represent that tiny percentage of customers that are incredibly loyal to the organisation. (In the case of politics, they are usually those with a vested interest in the political party being in power, and in South Africa this situation is exaggerated by corruption and nepotism to the highest levels. Is this the ultimate “loyalty and rewards” programme?)
  • The “terrorists,” those customers who are incredibly unhappy and probably disloyal, and who go out of their way to sabotage and do damage to the company or organisation. Sadly, in politics, most citizens are mostly apathetic and indifferent, and don’t really believe that they can make a difference.
  • The hostages are those customers who feel trapped. Even though they may be very unhappy, they don’t have too many choices but to deal with the organisation – but this makes them resentful, and they don’t like it at all. Therefore, they try to do damage as described.
  • Finally, the mercenaries – which are by far the biggest group. The mercenaries don’t care who is in power, just as long as they feel they are getting the best deal for themselves. Politicians don’t like them, because these are the citizens who demand performance.

But as citizen/customers, we ‘consume’ the products and services offered by our government daily, making us the ultimate customers and consumers.

If we look at our interaction with the powers-that-be like this, we realise an election – municipal and otherwise – is really the ultimate customer satisfaction survey.

After all …

  • As stated, one of the biggest expenses faced by most of us is taxation; e.g. rates, licences, PAYE and VAT, and numerous other forms of direct and indirect taxation.
  • We either have to pay – or leave the “business”; i.e. emigrate. (The commercial equivalent is the oft-used phrase “customers vote with their feet.” In the political world, it’s actually a real vote with a cross on a piece of paper.
  • We know what we’re getting for our money as we instantly feel the benefit of efficient services, (or suffer the frustrations of product and service failure.)
  • We can judge the quality of ‘leadership and management’ as we soon know whether we’re being ignored, or assisted with empathy and understanding.
  • Interaction with those running the ‘store’ tells us whether they are knowledgeable and trained to be sensitive to our needs, are hardly trained at all, or just couldn’t give a damn.
  • We know when on-time delivery happens and when time has been wasted through inefficiency and incompetence (i.e. ‘lack of capacity’.) We also instinctively know when something is wrong with the trustworthiness, ethics and morality of the company, or if there is hypocrisy.
  • We know whether a brand treats us with respect, listens to us or takes us for granted.
  • We know how the ‘store’ owner and staff deal with complaints, whether they are responsive or give us the run-around.
  • And finally, we also know when we are “paying double” for something that wasn’t done right the first time. Thus, in South Africa, in theory our taxes go towards building, maintaining, providing and/or running roads, schools, electricity, safe water, hospitals, security, social grants, and countless other products and services, (and even events and experiences,) but we still have to pay (again,) for private schools, private security and private hospitals, for SANRAL’s arrogant demands for road maintenance, to bail out SAA, Eskom, SABC, the Post Office, and many other inefficient or incompetent departments, and so on.

Of course, over time the biggest insight gained by any customer is into the culture, values and ethics of the brand and/or store. This is reflected in the actions of the brand or store and staff behaviour.

As customers we always know when the store or brand experience is worthwhile and memorable. In the commercial world, when the experience is shoddy we can take our custom elsewhere. In the political world, such recourse is denied the customer – the tax-paying public. (Just try holding back your rates because your suburb’s water has been off for days and you’ll see exactly what I mean.)

However, we are occasionally given the opportunity to take part in the political version of the “customer satisfaction survey.” (Of course, in South Africa and everywhere else there are examples of customer satisfaction surveys being carried out time after time with little discernible impact on the level of service or the quality of the underlying product. But that does not invalidate the process.)

In the commercial world, such a survey might be conducted at regular intervals during the year. In the political world, the chance occurs much less frequently; every five years if we’re lucky. We may have to wait, but we can at least make our mark. Do we do so wisely – or are we going to do it emotionally, irrationally and illogically.

All we can do is make the most of the opportunity, give an honest score and hope that this is one of those occasions when the brand takes the result to heart and actually does something about it.

Let’s hope so… But I am not too optimistic.

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