by Alistair Mackay (@almackay) “A customer that complains is a good customer,” said an entrepreneur while explaining his business idea to me recently. It’s definitely the right attitude to have, and an attitude that would do our politics a huge amount of good.

South Africans don’t change their votes much. In the five general elections we’ve had since democracy started, only two provinces have ever switched allegiances: the Western Cape (in 1999 and again in 2009) and KwaZulu-Natal (in 2004).

Customer Service Survey by 89studio courtesy of
Image by 89studio courtesy of

Contrast this with American presidential elections, where “swing states” define the campaign, or British politics, where voters regularly turf out the governing party for the opposition, and you have to ask yourself: is there something blindly loyal about South Africans or are our political parties as bad as each other at listening to us?

Good for business

What that entrepreneur understood is that customer complaints are good for business, if you listen to them. Not only can frustrated customers spark ideas for product innovation (“I can’t believe you can’t do X on this platform!”) but the act of complaining is a sign of loyalty.

A customer that truly doesn’t care about your business won’t bother complaining to you about it. They will simply stop buying from you. And you may assume that, for every customer who complains, there are many others who silently gave up on your brand. If they complain, they are offering you the opportunity to fix whatever has gone wrong.

What’s more, research has proven that customers who have their complaints resolved are more likely to be brand advocates than customers who had no complaints to start off with. If you quickly resolve a customer complaint and remove the obstacles that were upsetting them, they feel valued, important and heard — and this emotional glow is a powerful driver of loyalty.

Feel betrayed

Failing to resolve a customer complaint results in anger and negative word of mouth. Once-loyal customers make the loudest and most vociferous brand detractors because they feel, on some level, betrayed.

If the EFF’s vitriol about the ANC isn’t enough to prove the point, how about the disgruntled Cell C customer who got angry enough to erect a billboard against Cell C on Beyers Naude Drive last year? Or the recurrent threats by Woolworths shoppers to boycott the retailer for importing Israeli products?

It’s important to be able to tell legitimate criticism from trolling. Not all criticism requires action from a brand.

If a customer complains that the beach sand on their holiday wasn’t quite as white as that portrayed on the brochure, a simple and lighthearted response is probably enough.

“We’ll miss you”

A famous example of not giving in to customer demands is Southwest Airlines in the US: A passenger contacted Southwest to complain that its approach to travel was inappropriate (it uses humour, much like Kulula), and its president at the time, Colleen Barrett, responded with a letter saying only “We’ll miss you.”

A humorous, fun culture is a core part of its brand and it is not willing to sacrifice it for customers that don’t like it.

All businesses and political parties should know which fundamentals of their brand they will never sacrifice, and what criticisms and complaints are important to action.

The problem we face is that our politicians seem to be incapable of distinguishing the “good” complaining customers from the bad. Instead of developing a strategy for both and engaging deeply with complaints that matter, they react to all criticism with anger, defensiveness and arrogance.

Examples of our culture

A few examples of our award-winning customer service and complaint-resolution culture:

“We don’t want your dirty votes” — Nomvula Mokonyane in response to service delivery protests, 2013

“Get off your entitlement horse and pay for your preventable disease yourself” — Helen Zille in response to a tweet criticising her stand on HIV and access to anti-retrovirals, 2011

“What makes an 18-year-old think the state owes them a house? It’s a culture of entitlement …” Lindiwe Sisulu in response to demands for housing, 2014 (for the record, minister, it’s the Constitution that makes them think that.)

Can you imagine a call-centre agent speaking to a customer like that?

Closet detractors

Not all citizens who protest or complain are closet supporters. But some detractors are making noises because they would like the party or business to change. They have complaints that need addressing but they are willing to listen. They don’t like what they hear yet, but they are potential “swing voters”, ready to switch their brand of choice if you show that you care.

Learning to listen, engage and innovate to remove people’s reasons to complain would transform SA politics. It’s an important thing for all brand-owners to remember, too.

The impulse to get defensive or ignore negativity is always there, but if you handle it correctly a customer that complains could be the best thing to happen to your business.


Alistair MackayAlistair Mackay (@almackay) is marketing manager and head of content at Yellowwood, (@askYellowwood) a leading marketing strategy and brand development consultancy. He has experience both as a brand strategist and as the digital media manager for the Democratic Alliance, and believes that innovative, insightful and generous marketing is both good for business and social change in South Africa. He contributes the monthly “Brand Politics” column, exploring lessons brands can learn and apply from politics, to MarkLives.

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One reply on “Brand Politics: The gift of protest”

  1. Complaining ? I fell to thinking the other day as I settled on a couch with a book because we were load shedded, how easily we fold our lives around 2 hours without electricity with very little discernible public complaint. We just accept it. This led me to thinking that in general South Africans do not complain enough – I mean elsewhere the Government would have fallen if the electric supply utility was doing was Eskom is doing. In passing I do feel sorry for tourists – they are bombarded with reasons to come and see this country and when they do, we turn the lights out for 2 hours a day.
    Anyway back to the lack of complaints, we put up with the bureaucratic bullying of banks, insurance companies and other such institutions, again with little complaint, and let’s not go to Telkom and its ilk. By the way have you ever tried to do the simple task of changing your address with the Municipality ? All of this we [relatively] meekly accept.
    Then I started to wonder if I wasn’t perhaps falling into that well known South African trap of looking at only 1 section of the population and opining based on that section alone? After all another section of the population regularly takes to the streets to complain about a whole range of things. Often those protests have a political element and too often they result in personal injury and property damage as they turn violent which doesn’t really help.
    What I don’t understand is though is the fact that every 5 years or so we get together and vote the same sorry lot back into Government !

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