Congress needs to delight us

On Monday, the Gallup Organization released a poll showing congressional job approval at its lowest point since 1999. Only 37 percent of the Americans Gallup polled March 7-10 said they approve of the way Congress is handling its job. That’s eight points lower than Gallup measured just a month ago.

On Monday, the Gallup Organization released a poll showing congressional job approval at its lowest point since 1999.

Only 37 percent of the Americans Gallup polled March 7-10 said they approve of the way Congress is handling its job. That’s eight points lower than Gallup measured just a month ago.

This sudden slide surprised in several ways. First, the polling didn’t reveal a parallel decline in ratings for President Bush or the way things are going in the country as a whole. Second, the decline was precipitated by both Republicans and Democrats. Republican approval for Congress dropped 10 points, from 64 to 54 percent, in the past 30 days. Democrat approval declined nine points, from 33 percent to just 24 percent.

In the same poll, Gallup pegged Bush’s approval rating at a steady 52 percent, 15 points better than Congress. That’s an important benchmark because it nullifies the notion that tough issues such as Iraq, Social Security or the economy are responsible for Congress’s showing. If issues were responsible for Congress’s woes, Bush’s ratings should have been affected, too.

Few members of Congress will acknowledge concern about those numbers. Seasoned survivors of plummeting polls know that ratings for individual congressmen often don’t coincide with opinions about Congress as a whole. But these latest numbers should at least set off warning bells. Low institutional numbers might be the harbinger of declining numbers for individual members in the near future.

What could be the root cause of Congress’s sagging image? I think the answer to this question can be found in corporate studies of consumer satisfaction.

For some time now, marketing gurus have warned that customer satisfaction is not enough. To stay competitive in the marketplace, companies have to “delight” their customers, not simply satisfy them. That’s something that Congress isn’t doing very often — delighting Americans, individually or collectively.

“Delight marketing” experts have laid down some rules for pleasing customers. The starting point is an unblinking gaze upon consumers and their preferences.

There cannot be enough communication with customers for marketers seeking to delight those who use their services or purchase their products. Congress is losing its focus in this area. The need to respond to the press, lobbyists, donors, the White House and scores of other interests leaves Congress little time to pay more than lip service to voter contact after elections. Voters sense that, and it’s taking a toll.

Delight marketing also involves responses to expectations. To really please a customer, marketing consultants say, you have to exceed expectations. So businesses are told to underpromise and overdeliver.

That may be one of Congress’s main problems. Excessive promises made in the heat of last fall’s campaigns are now breeding discontent because Congress isn’t delivering what campaigning members pledged.

The element of surprise is another strategy of the delight marketers that eludes Congress. Consultants point out that you can delight customers with pleasant surprises — unexpected rewards or benefits like a spontaneous upgrade to first class.

Congress almost never surprises anyone, especially with anything that would genuinely benefit anyone. What if Congress suddenly decided that it will order many government offices to have weekend or evening hours to serve the public better? Wouldn’t that be pure delight for voters forced to leave work or arrange child care to complete mandatory transactions with the bureaucracy? Such responsiveness would surely surprise.

The failures of Congress to delight Americans will become more of an issue as voters, like consumers, become more emotional about perceived indifference to their needs. Marketing experts say that, whereas consumers once considered bad customer service a simple annoyance, today they can become enraged by slights, viewing themselves as “victims” who are being “hurt.”

If Americans get riled about a mint missing from a hotel pillow, imagine how crazy they’ll become about policies that matter.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.