I’m one of millions in Australia who are courting a fine due to not filling in my Census form. This is not a post about my objection to the data issues associated with the process (that’s a whole other post altogether!); it’s about #censusfail.
Days before the drama that was unleashed on Tuesday night when the ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) website went down and would not let anyone log in or save what they had filled in so far, let alone submit their form, I had joked with my husband about whether or not the ABS was prepared for the onslaught of millions logging on at once. Of course that scenario was planned for – and tested – but the fact we considered it showed the ABS has not communicated at all well.
This brings me to some lessons for business owners that I’ve been considering since Census night:
1. Spell out what you want your customers to do clearly – there was so little communication from ABS about how they wanted people to fill in the form, or what the other options were, that it created a panic and negative publicity that could have easily been avoided if they had educated the population in the months before Census night.
2. Don’t make assumptions – there was a huge assumption by the ABS that the Australian population was so confident with online platforms we would all happily switch to filling in our Census forms online. The 2006 Census saw the ABS trial eCensus with a take-up rate of around 10 per cent. By 2011 this rate had climbed to a third of householders, but it was a big ask to expect that figure of 33 per cent to jump to almost 100 per cent. Sure, paper forms were delivered to those who weren’t expected to access the internet, or you could ask for a paper form by calling the ABS hotline, but so many people fell through the cracks.
3. Personalise your communication – one of the biggest issues people faced (before the system checked out altogether, that is) was that the scant instructions for submitting Census information was delivered in a generic letter to householders during July and early August. With so much junk mail now delivered via mail, many mistook the “To the resident” letter as not important and recycled it. If you want to get your customer’s attention, you need to communicate directly to them – as an individual.
4. When things go wrong, be the first with information – as the ABS website went down on Tuesday night Twitter was flooded with #censusfail tweets and memes. Yes, there were people who were always going to poke fun at Census whether it succeeded or not, but the sheer volume of tweets, Facebook posts and updates on social media platforms around the country showed the level of frustration people were feeling – and the ABS’s response to this was underwhelming. Crises demand calm, measured communication that explains the situation, what is being done to fix it and what is expected of those affected. It wasn’t until the following day that any definitive explanation was given for the site failure and by then it was met with derision and even more cynicism.
An organisation like the ABS is not as agile as a small or medium business, which does make it easier for us to pick up the pieces when something goes wrong, but the biggest lessons in all of this are planning for all scenarios and keeping customers informed every step of the way.