Planning the CHOICE Awards is a little like planning a wedding. No bride, sure, but a similar amount of organisation and hard work: book a venue, tee up an MC, invite guests, select a menu, prepare speeches, make seating plans – and then there’s the little thing about choosing awards and winners.
We'd learnt from the inaugural CHOICE Awards in 2010 that a long lead time was critical, so just weeks after that event, we started planning the next. It's a huge team effort involving everyone from testers to the design team. Oh, and the CEO. He drives the Steering Committee. The fact that he rides a Vespa means his eyes are everywhere, he'll change lanes if the opportunity arises and he's zippy. We all just hang on and try to keep up.
And so the process begins. We start with a blank sheet and ask lots of questions:
- What did we do last year?
- What worked? What wasn't so good?
- What categories will we have this year?
- What should the criteria be?
- What will make an interesting magazine or online story?
After a few meetings, it starts to take shape. We choose categories where we have the most expertise, so we steer away from things like bake-offs and bird impersonations. What CHOICE knows is product testing, banking, food and services.
The first few categories are decided easily - washing machines and TVs. We test these regularly and know them inside out. And they’re big ticket items that cost households lots of money. Next we decide to repeat two awards from last year because they reward things which are so integral to a positive consumer experience - Consumer Champion and Best low-fee bank account. We also decide to add another financial award - Best online savings account -because we've just run the high-profile Better Banking campaign encouraging Australian consumers to move their money to low-fee, high-interest accounts. It makes sense.
CHOICE is also about shopping. Some people do it because they love it, some because they have to. Either way, a few retail categories seemed appropriate and useful. It also gave us the opportunity to enlist the help of our committed CHOICE members - 200,000 of them. Their goodwill towards CHOICE and interest in what we do is one of the true rewards of working here. In a world of disengagement and me-ism, they buck the trend. They're ready to pitch in, share their opinions and make intelligent observations. Anyone who tries to pull the wool over their eyes is asking for trouble.
So the research team goes to work to devise a series of surveys. These guys really know their stuff. It's a honed skill to be able to ask the right questions and keep the flavour neutral. A mountain of data expertly treated becomes the statistically robust “wisdom of crowds”.
The hardest category to choose was food. It's one of our key areas of expertise, so we should be able to make an award for the best something, right? Harder than you think.
We have dieticians and food policy staff who spend their lives reading food labels, sitting on advisory committees, preaching the message that we consumers want to know where our food has come from and what's in it, we want to be able NOT to choose trans fat, genetically modified or preservatives. It's a battle. Best supermarket, best organic, healthiest fast food, most nutritious kid’s food? All fraught with logistical problems. We just don't have the resources to cover every food outlet or product nationally to make a fair assessment.
Finally we settled on the best restaurant hygiene rating scheme. Not the sexiest award, but something that’s taking off worldwide and really worth applauding and encouraging. We all know about hatted restaurants with great food, but what about basic hygiene? Anyone who's had food poisoning will agree.
Once all the categories are chosen the real work begins. Methodologies are devised, research is conducted, calculations are made, drafts written and winners finally emerge. There are some surprises, others are predictable.
The one that stands out for me is the winner of the best value mobile phone service, TPG. In a field of big players, they came out of nowhere, voted by CHOICE members as offering the best value service and the one they'd most likely recommend to their friends. It's not rocket science to find out what consumers really want and then give it to them, but it seems to elude many telcos. It's great to see a company providing a service that people are happy with.
And so the wedding - I mean Awards ceremony- approaches and we all frock up. It's a night of celebration and good cheer. We enjoy the moment before the planning starts all over again.
And finally, a tip for couples - a good MC and good wine make all the difference.
We’ve had our say, now it’s time for you to have yours. What products have stood out for you in the past year? What companies would you like to award for superior service?