The Cost of Broken Promises & Betrayal: What the UK Election Result Can Tell Us About Customer Trust

When the UK’s third largest political party, the Liberal Democrats, lost a devastating 695 seats in the UK local elections on May 5th, it was just a year since they had become the nation’s sweethearts during the 2010 general election campaign.

How had they fallen so far from grace in such as short period of time? 

The answer seems to centre on an overwhelming sense of betrayal felt by their supporters and a desire to express their feelings about broken promises and breached trust:  to let their vote do the talking.

Elections Offer a Unique Perspective on Customer Behaviour

Elections provide an extraordinary opportunity to observe the workings of the relationship between an organisation and its followers or customers, collapsed into a single day.  Rarely do we get a chance to see the specific and quantifiable impact of the behaviour of an organisation manifested in customer behaviour, in a bite-sized chunk.

And the UK elections of May 5th 2011 were a stark illustration of how people will desert those organisations who promise much and then fail to deliver. 

There are clearly some important differences between allegiances involving the electorate and political parties and those involving organisations and their customers.  For a start, individual personalities traditionally play a significant part in voting outcomes and this is less influential for most organisations.

However, in this election, the personalities at local level counted for little.  What seems clear is that voters decided that they would repay harshly the party that had made promises, and who had through subsequent actions not only failed to deliver, but infuriated their incredibly loyal supporters with changes in policy that contradicted the very principles of the party.

So why should this say much to customer service organisations? Because the psychology of the individual voter’s decisions on 5th May has great similarity with the psychology of being a customer.  The breach of trust and disappointment felt by theUK voters reflects much about the emotions and thoughts of customers in long term relationships with organisations. 

Customers don’t get the same sort of chance to express their views en masse in such a devastatingly clear fashion.  But they will experience the same indignation and desire to express their dissatisfaction as the voters do.  And they will demonstrate their anger and disappointment in the same way:  by leaving the organisation and letting whoever wants to know how the organisation has failed and cannot be trusted.

More Than a Rational Reaction to Broken Promises

When the underlying psychological processes are considered, the lesson for customer service organisations has more significance then being a simple example of how, if you promise one thing and then do another, your customers will leave you at the first chance they get.  Many organisations would argue that they are well aware of that fact already.

On closer examination, the actions of the electorate reflect more complicated psychological processes that reflect less than realistic expectations and irrational, disproportionate evaluations, and these are pertinent to every customer-organisation relationship.

There are a number of psychological processes that play a part in the response to breach of trust and disregard for loyalty and many fall into the category of cognitive bias.

Cognitive bias is the tendency to judge something or someone in a way which is not consistent with a logical and accurate evaluation of all the possible evidence.  Obviously this type of detailed searching out and weighing up of all the evidence relating to a person or situation is not practical or possible in daily life – we would be incapacitated if we tried to do this every time we had to make a decision.  So cognitive biases are the tendency to value, decide and act on the basis of shorthand rules of thumb in order to achieve the speed of decision making that is necessary for survival. 

However, just because cognitive biases are necessary – and we all rely on them – does not mean that they will lead us to the best decision or outcome in every case.  Often they lead us to expect something that we shouldn’t, evaluate something inaccurately and make the wrong decision about someone or something.

Because of this, it is very important that politicians, and customer service organisations understand something about them:  too often the assumption is made that customers are rational, logical decision makers who have access and will use all the information available to them.

The Effects of Failing to Live Up to Expectations

Perhaps one cognitive bias that the Liberal Democrats failed to see coming was the disproportionate reaction we tend to have to things that fail to live up to promises.  Much research in the field of product failure has shown that our evaluations and emotions are significantly affected by not having our expectations met.

The huge negative response to Liberal Democrat candidates in the election is likely to have come at least in part from the high expectations and elation felt when they did so well in the 2010 General Election and formed a coalition government with the Conservatives.  The shock and distress expressed by many unsuccessful Liberal Democrat candidates when they lost their seats in the 2011 election suggest that they singularly failed to recognise the strength of emotions that failing to live up to expectations, or “expectancy disconfirmation”, can induce.

Canadian academic Peter Darke carries out research into consumer decision making and has recently reported some research into what happens to trust when negative expectancy disconfirmation occurs.  That is, Darke and his team have examined the effects of products which fail to live up to the claims made about them. 

This research, published in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science 2009, demonstrates that we are disproportionately emotionally affected when something disappoints us, as compared to when it lives up to expectations.  So, if organisations make a claim for something and it does it, then we may be pleased:  however, if it makes a claim for something and it does not, then we are very displeased.

Furthermore, the failure to live up to expectations causes a deterioration in trust that extends naturally to the product itself and unsurprisingly also perhaps to other related products.  However, this loss of trust extends more widely in a way that cannot be easily explained in a logical way.  It reaches not only to the organisation providing the product that failed, but also to other non-related products and even non-related organisations. 

Clearly trust is not built, or lost, in a rational manner.  When we have our trust betrayed by a failure to deliver on promises, we have cognitive biases that lead us to change our evaluations of completely non-related things, people and organisations, despite there being no logical reason why we should.  Somehow, the specific breach of trust eats away at our general sense of trust.

A Paradox for Competitive Markets

These findings suggest that broken promises cost organisations, and industries, much more than it might seem at first glance.  It also means that in competitive market places, rather than rubbing metaphorical hands with glee when a competitor’s product or service fails to deliver and their customers are disappointed, organisations should quickly step up trust-building activities for their own product, service and company. 

Counter-intuitively, if your competitor is seen to fall short, rather than you gaining greater credibility by comparison, you are likely to experience some loss of trust and could experience what might seem like entirely unjustifiably lowered evaluations of your own product or service. 

And what to make of this?  Probably many things, but for now perhaps, another nudge from psychology towards increased collaboration and cooperation between competitors, since this study at least suggests that in some way we are all in the same irrational boat together.


Darke, P., Ashworth, L. & Main, K.J. (2009) “Great Expectations and Broken Promises: Misleading Claims, Product Failure, Expectancy Disconfirmation and Consumer Distrust” in Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science Vol 38, Issue 3 pp 347 – 362.


One Comment to “The Cost of Broken Promises & Betrayal: What the UK Election Result Can Tell Us About Customer Trust”

  1. No one seems to have punished the UK Labour party for breach of the promise it made in the election campaign. Of course not; Labour lost the election.

    The Liberal Democrats also lost the election, and by a much greater margin. They hold less than 10% of the seats in parliament and are in no position to fulfill any “promises”. Cognitive bias indeed.

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