Monday, June 02, 2008

Telephone Calls from Gordon

I had to smile when I read the story that Gordon Brown telephones some of the people who write to him with complaints. There is somthing amusing about people picking up the phone only to find the Downing Street switchboard with Gordon on the line. The press predictably reacted with derision, but the practice of senior people phoning customers who've written in with complaints is quite common in the better private sector companies.

I used to work for a very senior manager who not only phoned people when a complaint was received, she usually sent them a bouquet of flowers or a bottle of champagne after she'd resolved the complaint for them. Because of her position in the organisation, the only complaints that reached her were explosive in nature, where the customer was so fed-up they were on the point of going to the ombudsman or the press. The company concerned had a horror of bad press - the rule was to avoid this at all cost. We also all knew that if the complaint got to the ombudsman, the ombudsman charged you an administrative fee just for handling the case, and would very likely find against you and award compensation to the customer on top. So, the senior manager reasoned, she might as well spend what she would have done on the ombudsman handling fee making the customer happy. It was a spectacularly successful technique. Most customers went away converted into hard-core fans of the company.

Behind this is a principle known as "service retrieval". There are essentially two types of angry customers. The first experiences a cold implacable sort of anger. If they are unhappy with your service they simply walk away to a competitor. The second sort gets furious and complains, angrily, hotly, vocally and often in purple prose.

Of the two types the first is the worst. Often you don't realize that problems have arisen in a particular area or division till the sales figures come in, at which point the damage has not only been done, but allowed to spread to other customers, and you still have no information why they walked away. The second vocal customer is great. Their anger is a function of their unwillingness to sever the relationship. Instead they contact you and give you a chance to put things right, whilst letting off steam and they tell you in great detail exactly what is wrong. The best companies seize this chance with both hands, because resolving the dispute well means that you not only keep the customer, they usually turn into loyal repeat customers, spreading word-of-mouth goodwill.

Voters are much the same. The ones who give you a scolding on the doorstep are engaging with you, giving you feedback and a chance to retrieve the situation. The ones who are blank and indifferent are the ones to worry about.

Of course the columnists in Fleet Street scorn this technique. Most are too grand to even reply to the comments that readers leave on their articles (maybe they feel they have jobs for life even if they write tripe). It must feel odd to them that the Prime Minister is prepared to engage with people like that. Actually life would go much more smoothly if more businesses copied the Prime Minister (Orange Broadband, I'm thinking of you!).

My only point of concern is that it got into the press. The company I mentioned at the top of this piece would never in a million years have publicised that they dealt with customers in that way - it would have encouraged those who didn't have a complaint to write in just to get their champagne, and it would have been hard to distinguish between the real complainants, who have important information about where your organisation is going wrong, and the chancers. No matter how good an idea is, it's value is nullified as soon as you publicise the technique.

I'm disturbed at the amount of stuff that seems to end up in PR Week. These PR people don't seem to understand the first principle of PR, which is that the PR person stays in the background and the techniques are not displayed because that defeats the purpose. Gordon Brown appointed Steven Carter and his people in January. In December 2007, just before their appointment, YouGov was showing Labour just five points behind in the polls, which is manageable for mid-term. The latest YouGov poll showed Labour at 24 points behind.

It's hard not to conclude that the new PR isn't working, that while Gordon Brown has made mistakes, the effect has been compounded and magnified by leaks and bad PR advice. Gordon Brown in fact did better when he was "just Gordon", and relying on trustworthy Labour party advisors who would have put their eyes out before they leaked to the press. People knew he was a bit grumpy and a bit hopeless with presentation, and they didn't mind. Remember when he first became PM, and he did a presentation with the screen obscuring his face? PR Week might have curled their lip at the amateurishness of the in-house Labour team, but the public just shrugged and smiled. By contrast the electorate are thoroughly irritated with the constant re-launches that have become a feature of Steven Carter's regime.

My advice to Gordon would be to sack his PR team, stop touring the studios and simply get on with running the country. The country will thank him for it.


Anonymous said...

My advice would be to get a PR team, or rather staff, who understood that you can reach and influence a lot more people - angry or not - with a good online presence, than you can by phoning them up in person.

Of course the personal phone calls are a good thing, but a consistent logo, colour, design, and an understanding that you might just want to engage with the voters rather than the members (who will mostly vote for you anyway!) might be a good idea.

There really isn't anybody in Labour HQ who understand this, is there? (If I'm wrong, please call...)

snowflake5 said...

I think the team around Brown (Carter and co) are separate from the Labour party team.

I don't think Steven Carter and his team are even Labour members, they certainly don't seem to have much loyalty to the party or we wouldn't be seeing these leaks in PR week, which seems to be all about what wonderful PR people they are (though PR isn't about the PR person, it's about the client).

Carter was supposed to be the equivalent to Alastair Campbell and is being paid £137,000. Waste of money in my opinion. Brown was doing much better before these people turned up.

snowflake5 said...

Apologies - I think Carter is a Labour member but members of his team are not.

Anonymous said...

Judging from the body language & general demeanour at PMQ's to-day,I don't think Gordo is too far from throwing in the towel.
Just not cut out for this job.