Senator Smith’s Edge

Senator Smith enjoys high approval because he knows what every good public servant knows — it’s all about constituent services.

Most people are fortunate enough to never have to turn to their elected representatives for help. For those that do, the primary means of contact is via telephone. A voter calls either seeking help to redress a perceived wrong or to tell the politician which way to vote. Handling the “which way to vote” calls is fairly easy for anyone with basic listening skills — all the caller wants to do is vent. Handling the “help” calls is different. Callers are expecting concrete action on a specific issue.

Contrary to poplar belief among political staffers, these callers are almost all completely sane citizens with reasonable expectations. While their issue may never make headlines, it is no less important to them. The majority of these help calls are for assistance in dealing with government agencies. They present a politician to be perceived as either just another bureaucrat who doesn’t give a rat’s hinders for the public or as a true man of the people, smacking hated bureaucracies back into line for his constituents.

Callers will make up their minds within a few seconds of the beginning of the call whether or not the person on the other end of the line is competent. First impressions are everything during the initial contact. Demonstration of competency and concern will shape the rest of the call. Follow up (or lack of) will form the voter’s final and lasting opinion of the politician. This is why it is a bad idea to let the 19 yr old intern take incoming calls. As well meaning, personable and bright as she may be, she doesn’t know what she is doing.

The use of unskilled labor to answer incoming phone calls speaks to the politician’s attitude to those calls. The task is viewed as unimportant; therefore an unimportant person is assigned to the task. The politician who values his voters realizes both altruistically and with political cunning, that they are the reason for his job.

People who have a bad experience with a product or service will tell, on average, 13 people. People who have a good experience with a product or service will tell only three (U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics). A single mishandled call will predispose at least thirteen people with whom you have probably never had contact, to believe that you are a jerk and your product or service is junk. The oddest statistic is that people who have experienced a problem with a product or service that was resolved to their satisfaction are far more loyal to that product or service than those who never experienced a problem. In other words, a voter who calls a politician’s office for help and is helped will remember it for many elections to come — as will one who is blown off.

Consumer horror stories make great conversation fodder. You can stretch a story about a call to Indian tech support out almost as long as the fruitless and frustrating call itself. You can bet that when election time rolls around and the conversation turns to politics and politicians people will be sharing their horror and success stories.

Remember the old shampoo commercial “I told two friends about X, and they told two friends, and they told two friends”¦” as the TV screen filled up with two, then four, then eight, then sixteen and on and on images of the spokes model? Word of mouth spreads information at a logarithmically expanding rate. Advertisers, marketers and savvy politicians know word of mouth is the most powerful force for or against a product. Word of mouth cannot be bought, it must be earned.

And this is where Senator Smith is a winner. The senators’ constituent services are second to none.

Several years ago, before I was politically active and just your basic anonymous voter I had occasion to call both Senator Wyden and Senator Smith’s offices about separate issues within a month. I’d never called either one of them before.

Although I am a Republican, I called Senator Wyden’s office because I felt the issue was one with which he was more readily identified. The call was answered by the proverbial 19 year old intern who was clearly annoyed at the fact that someone so important as her – she was, after all, interning in a Senator’s office (thanks no doubt to her mommy and daddy’s rather sizeable political contribution) — was having her nail polishing or naval gazing interrupted by some lowly citizen. She was uncaring, untrained and clearly stupid. Whoever thought it was a good idea to put her on the phones must have been even stupider. Now, not only do I disagree with Senator Wyden politically, but since I know that the character of an organization is a reflection of the character of its leader, I am thoroughly convinced that he is a typical self-centered politician who couldn’t care less about his constituents problems.

A few weeks later I was trying to get some Federal agency to give up some public records information. After an hour or so of being transferred around on the phone I finally got to the head of this small agency — or at least her voice mail. Over the course of the next two weeks I left a message every morning. Out of sheer desperation, and not expecting any action, I called Senator Smith’s office.

The receptionist was polite and professional. She gathered some basic information in a manner that told me she knew exactly what she was doing and would get me to someone who could address my problem. She transferred me to a staffer who gathered detailed information, gave me her direct phone number, and promised me that she would call me back within 24 hours with a status report.

THE NEXT MORNING I received an extremely apologetic call from the elusive agency head. The woman was positively falling all over herself with excuses and apologies. You would have thought she had received a call from Don Corleone, not a Senate staffer. As promised, that afternoon, I received the status report call from Senator Smith’s staffer. She said merely that she had made sure the agency head was aware of my request, action would be forthcoming, and if it was not, to please call her back.

Even if she had called me back to tell me that I was SOL, I would have been no less impressed. The efficiency, care and follow through displayed by the Senator’s staff told me that they would have done everything possible to help me.

As I have become more involved politically I have met many people with similar experiences with both Senators.

I disagree with Senator Smith on many, if not most of the major issues. I will vote for him, however, because I know his constituent’s problems are important to him.