Political Campaigns Offer Customer Service Amid Pandemic
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because campaigns adopting customer service tactics may mean a more responsive democracy for us all.
By Nick Fouriezos
Nancy Mace is running for Congress, but if you checked into her campaign outreach lately, you would hardly be able to tell. Her social feeds are chock full of coronavirus updates, and her email list — used mostly for fundraising in the past — has become a heartfelt forum for relaying advice from business owners and medical professionals she has personally interviewed. “I’ll be honest, it’s been a tough week of social distancing,” the Republican state representative in South Carolina began in a March 26 email, before promising to continue “plowing through” questions sent to her by email, text, Facebook and Twitter.
There were no donation asks, no volunteer requests. And Mace is far from alone in changing her outreach strategy. As the pandemic has seized Americans’ attention, candidates for office are turning to customer service techniques and technologies more often honed in the corporate world.
In Florida, state senate candidate Shevrin Jones has become a virtual PSA, his Facebook flooded with posts about hotline numbers and food bank drives, tele-town halls and tax payment extensions. Ben Sasse, the junior U.S. senator from Nebraska, has been answering constituent questions posed in flash-card format: “Hey Ben. Where the [heck] did all the toilet paper go?!” one asks, to which Sasses gives both a long, thoughtful answer, and a shorter one: “Everybody poops.” The Joe Biden campaign for president has had staffers doing “check-in” calls, asking voters how they are doing with coronavirus and social distancing, and connecting them to local social-service groups when necessary.
Social distancing has put door-knocking and campaign rallies on hold. But similarities between campaigns in the corporate and political realms mean that there are smart ways customer service can be co-opted for this moment. In fact, Adam Meldrum, a GOP digital strategist who advises both Mace and Sasse, argues that a shift has long been necessary … and has only been exacerbated now that campaign ground troops are stuck at home.
In a typical campaign, “you have hordes of phone bank volunteers calling people to no answer, and volunteers slogging door to door,” Meldrum says. “How much more efficient could a coordinated set of virtual volunteers, reaching out to people via Facebook and Twitter and WhatsApp be?” It’s that kind of logic that has candidates like Minnesota state senator Mark Koran using relational outreach and customer service tools such as Prompt.io and Buzz360.
The key, Meldrum says, is to emphasize social customer service. Companies like Starbucks, Nike and Netflix have built a reputation for using their social platforms to not only push their products but to thoughtfully — and promptly — engage with customers who have questions, complaints or ideas. In politics, that also means soliciting, and answering, the questions of voters directly — whether they are submitted in real-time through Facebook or Instagram Live, as Mace has, or compiled and then answered later in a thoughtful way, which has been Sasse’s strategy. “It’s really important to be simple in your communications right now,” Meldrum says, adding “it’s a risky time to take risks.”
If you’e sending texts, and you’re ignoring the replies, you’re doing it wrong.
Phil Gordon, CEO of Prompt.io
But there’s nothing simple about these times. From the presidential race to down-ballot contests, candidates have been forced to re-deploy their resources. The shift to peer-to-peer texting, which began in 2018, has accelerated now that staffers who previously ran events and knocked on doors are stuck at home. It’s not hard to imagine them conscripting customer service reps to handle an increase in questions from voters, now that election dates are being changed and traditional in-person events are being canceled. But it’s not just call centers and P2P texting companies, such as RumbleUp or Hustle, that are benefiting. Some campaigns are looking to automate their customer service responses over text and social media sites — and are paying previously corporate-focused programs to do so.
“We were built for enterprise clients, [but] since this disaster has hit, we’re getting tons and tons of calls,” says Phil Gordon, CEO of the automated messaging platform Prompt.io. “Suddenly campaigns and nonprofits can’t do events, fundraising, canvassing, and so they are relying on other forms of technology.”
Both businesses and political campaigns require multi-channel communications, which Prompt.io meets by offering texting services bolstered by Facebook messenger, as well as live chat options. And the underlying tech is “very easily portable,” says Farz Sokhansanj, the company’s specialist in overseeing nonprofits and political entities, who joined in late March in the middle of the outbreak. Previously, he spent seven years working at NationBuilder, a Los Angeles-based technology startup that builds software for political campaigns.
“Coming from the political tech space I was in before, I was seeing how people … [were] not engaging with email, and it was getting harder and harder every day,” Sokhansanj says, noting the way Gmail and others have segmented inbound emails into the “Promotions” tab, meaning they are rarely read.
Broadly speaking, 90 percent of text messages are read within three minutes of delivery, giving automated texting platforms like Prompt.io an advantage over other forms of outreach like email or direct mailers. And unlike P2P texting programs, Prompt.io can create a give-and-go that simulates a human customer service conversation. “If you’e sending texts, and you’re ignoring the replies, you’re doing it wrong,” Gordon says.
Just like with customer service formats that get a little too cheeky, the biggest obstacle can be setting the right tone. “The biggest question we’ve been getting from clients is: ‘We don’t want to sound tone deaf, what do we do?’” says Nathaniel Kronisch, CEO of paid media placement company Buying Time Digital in Washington D.C. “That’s the hardest tightrope to walk.” And candidates may be tempted to use their platforms to politicize, which could be a big mistake when also trying to bill their efforts as purely informational, Kronisch says: “It’s important not to misinform people, and not to point fingers or go negative right now. There will be plenty of time for that later, but now is not the time.”
But staying silent in a moment of crisis could be just as dangerous for candidates trying to prove their ability to rise to the moment. And so Mace, and others, promise they will be ready to answer the call for constituents. As Mace signed off in her email: “I am here to help.”