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The Human Touch

Some years ago, when I was in corporate marketing, I was transferred to our company’s pharmaceuticals division – the people who make and sell prescription drugs.  After a few days of going out on calls with sales reps to doctors’ offices, I came to a surprising conclusion: Physicians, with all their scientific training, often made decisions on which drugs to put into their sample closets or to write for a beginning prescription based not on rigorous analysis but instead on their long-time experience with the drug company and on how much they liked – and trusted – the sales rep.  If they didn’t like the rep or thought the manufacturer was arrogant, they seldom used their meds.

This decision-making process made sense to me. 

The drugs we were selling treated hypertension and lowered cholesterol, and there was a lot of competition among similar drugs with similar profiles at similar prices made by other companies.  So, unless a patient had special needs, why shouldn’t the physician want to work with a company with a good reputation and with hassle-free reps?

The same is true with the wine, food and hospitality business.  Sometimes we feel that ratings, scores and number of stars are the only things that count.  But in a competitive world where we are flooded with messages and multiple sources of communications, our experiences with the people who are the face of the winery, restaurant or lodging are often the final, if not first, deciding factor.

What made me think about this are some articles I’ve been doing about European wines, some made by small farmers with small family properties, and some made by negociants and other producers with large product lines.  We have often been told that small producers are the salt of the earth and make the most-honest wines.  And I’ve met many whose wines I love and whose dry wit and droll humor I relish.  I root for these gals and guys and their wines, and wish them well, especially since their margins of error between success and failure are so small with devastating downsides. 

But I also have good relationships with large family-owned producers – for example, the Drouhins, the Symingtons, the Moueixes, the Bridges – who also make great wines from great terroirs, who advance the art and science of winemaking, develop new markets and who care as much about their products and their family’s reputations as anyone else.  I want them to succeed as well – good people, good wines.

The point is this: I think too often consumers, writers, sommeliers, restaurateurs and others get hung up in the dogma that small is always good or that big is always evil or at least impersonal.  The fact is there are some small producers I have met who are bad people – cheats, not nice to their employees, angry, paranoid, who care nothing about their customers – but who may still make very good wines.  The same is true of large producers.  So we need to judge “authenticity” in the people who produce and market the wine as well as in the wine itself, and having one doesn’t guarantee the other.

And doesn’t it make more sense to deal with people we really like who make good-quality products at competitive prices?  And worry less about what demographic they represent?  Or whether this wine received two more rating points or that this restaurant has one more star?

I love it when consumers say at a public tasting where a winery is pouring, “I really like these people” almost before they comment on the wine, or, conversely when someone tells me, “The food was good, but I didn’t like the attitude of the people who served me.”

Enjoying life is as much about relationships as it is about pristine, sometimes sterile evaluations of products, and relationships are crucial if we truly want to build brand loyalty.  Quality and value will always be very important when we make decisions for ourselves or for our businesses.  But they are always a lot more enjoyable when we can add an additional product ingredient – a warm human touch.

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