Treat lawmakers like customers

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Q. My congressman doesn’t seem to be responsive when I call or visit. What can I do to get him to listen to me?

A. It is very difficult for a member of Congress to be unresponsive to someone they know, so the first strategy is to develop a relationship with him or her. In the past, we used the strategy of contacting our members of Congress at the 11th hour and asking them to support or oppose a particular issue. Often, this was done once a year at a legislative conference, and we made little contact with them the rest of the year. Those days are over.

You not only have to have a relationship with your member of Congress but also have to find a way to stand out. Look at it this way: Why should your member of Congress listen to you? You’d be hesitant, too, if a stranger asked you to support something out of the blue. I know your member of Congress is an elected official and that’s his or her job, but each member has about 700,000 other constituents to listen to.

To stand out, develop your relationship by using a simple plan to get to know them. Show up, shake hands and introduce yourself. In turn, they will get to know you, as well. Supporting them and gaining their trust goes a long way toward improving their responsiveness.

In effect, you want to treat your representative as a customer that you’re trying to sell something to, because that’s what you’re doing. You are “selling” them on your cause and you want them to “buy” your position.

If you show up and become known to your members of Congress, you will find them much more responsive. Once they see you as a friend and supporter, it becomes much harder to just say “No.” They may still say no, but they will also feel compelled to say why, and that gives you a chance to “sell” them by countering their objections.

Wayne Stanfield is president and CEO of NAIMES. Reach him at 434-572-9457 or