Ignore customer relationships at your peril: The demise of out-of-touch political parties

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Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews. Source: AAP/Ellen Smith.

Despite the importance of big data, the nature of developing genuine customer relationships is generally not understood well enough by most businesses, and is not often on the agenda for thorough examination.

This got me thinking about political parties and the nature of their relationships with their party members and the broader communities they rely upon to get elected.

When speaking with Leslie Roberts, principal of ERM Advisory, he said: “In advice-based professional practices, such as accounting, financial planning, legal services, et cetera, it is all too common for the topic of customer relationships to be subject to gut feeling, unsupported by any system or process to substantiate the claim of ‘good relationships’.  Guessing seems to be good enough. Yet, interestingly, customers (such as myself) like to express our opinion and our view. Most of all, we like to be heard — there is understanding and then there is being understood. Some customers, through a bad experience, will poison a brand tenfold, yet research shows an estimated 96% of customers never have reason to complain. However, we cannot take customer relationships for granted. Even the most loyal of customers will leave if we do not meaningfully engage with them on their level. As a customer of one political party for many years, I gradually became disenfranchised by an ‘out-of-touch’ and somewhat arrogant standing.”

So what’s this got to do with my favourite subject, selling better?

Well, everything as it happens.

What are these political parties selling and to whom?

It’s hard to ignore the farcical events happening on a daily basis on our nation’s political stages, such as the infighting, warring factions and leadership one-upmanship by one particular federal party and its state factions, especially in Victoria and New South Wales.

This fiasco is on full public display every day and has the media in a frenzy, reporting every nuance, every innuendo, and every jibe. And let’s be honest, many of us are looking at this drama like one would look at a train crash happening in slow motion. We cannot turn away as it’s fascinating in a macabre sort of way. It is also a shameful trashing of a big name brand that seems to have lost all sense of purpose to what it once stood for. I suspect Menzies would be turning in his grave.

Following the Victorian election, fingers are pointing everywhere looking for someone to blame, and there is a question mark over leadership and little evidence of strategic direction. Instead, from the outside, we see competing ideologies butting heads. Everyone in this party, it seems, is losing it, lost or looking for answers — and some are wanting to fix this before it’s too late. But where to start?

Well, for one thing, they could start by stepping out from the comfort of their own insular abode and get involved with the broader Australian community. They could seek feedback and insights that would broaden their horizons and give them a better understanding of what people really want and need, what people are really thinking and saying and what people are doing to pave a pathway forward to the future with or without politicians.

By the way, before anyone accuses me of bias, I declare I am neither a Liberal or Labor Party member. I am purely interested in asking the following questions and exploring the current state of affairs from the perspective of selling better.

So, what lessons can we learn from how each of the main parties approached ‘selling themselves’ in the 2018 Victorian election?

And what are the consequences of not learning from these lessons for both political parties at a state and national level in upcoming elections?

Learning lessons

Someone asked me the other day: “Did Matthew Guy lose the Victorian election or did Daniel Andrews win it?”

I think it was a bit of both, and here’s why.

Matthew Guy and his team’s campaign appeared to focus on scare tactics and marginalising voters by sending messages most of us could not relate to. They came across as internally focused, forgetting how to listen to and engage with the constituents on all sides. They presented no real purpose or vision for our collective future and didn’t show a real and tangible pathway forward. What they had to offer lacked depth and substance — except their stance on law and order — and their overall brand and reputation was severely affected by the infighting of their national ‘colleagues’.

In sales terms, they were not customer-centric because they forgot who the majority of their customers were and, instead, focused their message on micro-segments that would never win them an election. Fundamentally, they chose not to listen to or give what the majority of their ‘customers’ wanted and needed, and they had no real strategy or compelling value proposition we could buy into. Their main message was ‘get back in control’, which was completely at odds with the reality of our experience in Victoria and their reactive behaviours and out-of-touch campaign. People saw through this for what it was: desperation and disunity. Who’d want to buy that?

This does not mean the individual Liberal candidates in their various electorates were not doing a good job or worthy of being elected. Some of them are capable people, such as John Pesutto who lost Hawthorn, a bluer-than-blue-ribbon seat for the Liberals. How do you lose Hawthorn? Well, because of all the reasons mentioned above.

Like any business or sales team, it doesn’t matter how good the individual is if the company brand is on the nose, the whole team is not coordinated and united around a compelling purpose and vision, you cease listening to and engaging with the majority of your customers, and there is nothing of value to sell. If this is the case, there is very little hope of success. You are at high risk of going out of business fast.

Contrast this with Daniel Andrews and his team’s campaign. He and his team were centred around a clear vision for our collective future. We could see what we were buying. The team was coordinated, united, disciplined and consistent. They gave us a compelling value proposition we could buy into that offered unity, stability and sanity, which was in clear contrast to the Liberal Party’s insanity. Dan Andrews himself stayed on an optimistic course, talking about what could be done, and what would be done. He used positive, can-do language. He demonstrated a track record of tangible successes and he was including, not excluding, all of us in his message, whether we liked him or not. He displayed a calmness and confidence many of us could relate to without coming across as arrogant or out-of-touch.

Whether you like or dislike Dan Andrews and his team, they gave many of us a reason to keep moving forward together with purposeful optimism. And that is what the majority of us bought on election day — even rusted-on Liberals voted Labor for the first time ever in their lives. Now that is saying something.

Key takeaways

So whether we are a business or a political party, nobody and nothing is immune to the power of having a clear sales strategy, sales process, committed sales team and leaders, and healthy, can-do, inclusive culture that paves a pathway to success.  

I asked Ian Davidson, business leader and long-time Liberal Party member, for his perspective on this article and the Liberal Party’s path forward. Here is what he had to say:

  1. Nobody should be taken for granted in the dynamic world of today;
  2. Real engagement is the key;
  3. We need to develop the method and disciplined approach going forward and stick to it;
  4. We need an independent group of committed individuals who will be listened to and help manage the way forward;
  5. We can admire the past but the traditional approach will not work going forward;
  6. Remember potential voters are on both sides;
  7. Points of difference are not just negative comments about the opposition;
  8. It is not just about policy but also confidence in managing the big picture;
  9. Genuine engagement not superficial engagement; and
  10. If the mindset is wrong, change will be very difficult, no matter how good the policies or people.

“They appear to talk, but fail to listen.”

A final word from Leslie Roberts: “From where I sit, there appears to be sufficient evidence to make a rather obvious statement: ‘Ignore your customers at your peril.’

“In sales and marketing terms, if one doesn’t stand for something then one stands for nothing.

“Yet, I have every reason to believe the Liberal Party I have been associated with for years has a strong conservative core of strength, especially around fiscal good management. But folks ain’t buying!

“My own experience clearly shows politicians like to be friendly. (I have to go to events as there are people to meet, things to do, and babies to kiss!) However, many fail to engage with people in genuine and caring discussions.

“They appear to talk, but fail to listen.”

We all know when salespeople talk and fail to listen to customers, they fail in sales. And the same is true for politicians.

Effective politicians and political parties, like effective salespeople and client-centric businesses, aim for genuine ‘customer’ engagement by asking questions and actively listening to and understanding the real needs, concerns and priorities of their constituents. Taking this information on board, they can then form meaningful policies, strategies and action plans in the context of their values and the overall environment they find themselves operating in. From this, they can take a clear vision and value proposition to market that is meaningful and engaging to their ‘customers’ which enhances the chances of people ‘buying’ what they are selling.

It’s selling 101.

However, if political parties do not take heed of this then change, from some, is going to be very difficult indeed.

Remember everybody lives by selling something.

NOW READ: How much is your customer-centric mantra costing you?

NOW READ: Are chatbots harming your customer service reputation?

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