“If you don’t like what we do, don’t buy our products!”

Summary

The metrics of sales and votes are very blunt when trying to understand what people are trying to tell both firms and political parties. Are there more sharper, more intelligent feedback mechanisms? 

It’s a line that every so often seems to come up in relation to the behaviour of large firms. A similar equivalent could be made for political parties – “If you don’t like us, don’t vote for us!” We well-targeted consumer boycott or an electorate turning the other way every so often changes thinking from the testosterone-fuelled testicle-tennis. But by the time it’s got to that level, the damage either to the firm or to the political party has already been done.

Votes and sales on the whole are incredibly difficult to achieve from scratch – i.e. starting at a zero base. Getting to the stage where sales (or votes) are slightly more straight-forward – for example because of habit (“We always shop there”/”We always vote for X because we are an X family”) is nearly always on the back of someone else’s hard work. The company had to be started by someone and built up. Ditto the political party, which is why it can be dangerous to start taking both customers and voters for granted.

By the time someone has decided to stop shopping somewhere or has chosen to boycott a brand (or even helping drag it through the mud in say a social media firestorm), it’s too late. By that I mean that it will either take a significant effort to turn things around to persuade customer/voter to come back (which doesn’t come cheap in terms of time and resources) or that customer/voter is lost completely.

On the politics side, one interesting case study of this for me is my old stomping ground of Brighton Pavilion. The Conservative vote stayed broadly constant over the past 15 years (just over 10,000) while the Labour vote fell from its peak of 26,000 in 1997 to just over 14,000 in 2010 – the year it lost what was a safe Labour seat to the Greens. In that same period, the Greens went from being a minor also-ran with just over 1,000 votes to taking the seat with Caroline Lucas securing over 16,000 votes. The graph speaks volumes. What went wrong for Labour over the past decade in Brighton that resulted in this trend, and what went right for the Greens? What makes this case study different is that the Greens effectively started from nowhere, but managed to plug away consistently over the decade ultimately to take the seat. What this was not was a swing back to different established party with a presence in the public’s psyche. I’d be interested to know what local Brighton Labour activists attribute all of this to – both in terms of their own views and the feedback they’ve been getting on the streets.

Firms spend a fortune on market research – the total UK industry alone valued at just over £2billion - perhaps in recognition in part of the cost of those ‘lost sales’. That figure I don’t think accounts for any internal work that firms do. Essentially though, this is all part of wider information feedback mechanisms that inform decision-making in organisations. The growth of digital and social media, along with things like Google Analytics has significantly increased the ability to feed in much higher quality data and information into decision-making processes.

One of the things I’d like to see more of is transparency in decision-making and the feedback processes in large organisations – in particular with its structures and practices. Social media provides a huge opportunity for this. The problem at the moment is that too many firms – and politicians, see social media primarily as a broadcast mechanism for messages/adverts rather than as a conversation medium and for receiving feedback. How do consumers other than trying to organise consumer boycotts lean on firms to change their practices – or the practices of their suppliers and manufacturers? There are often cases where people don’t want to make the choice between having to compromise on their values in order to get hold of a product or service that they quite like or value. How do consumers say to firms “We like what you make but we don’t like how you make them” with a view to firms acting on such comments and changing their business practices?

While it’s the bottom line that ultimately counts in business (and votes at general elections for national politicians), as metrics alone they are very blunt instruments. My take is that it is better for business to become more transparent to their consumers in terms of how they operate – in particular how their corporate values manifest themselves in the real world. (All too often, value slogans are completely meaningless and stink of things like green-washing).

It would take some very brave firms to open up their operations (or supply chains) in this manner to such scrutiny in order to improve both products/services to customers and to how their businesses operate. Ditto for politicians at the top of the big two political parties – could they do the same regarding transparency in policy-making and decision-making?

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