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Preserving trust in an era of distrust

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Wine critics are insulated from the buying public. They live in a sort of bubble in which popular tastes are shut out, and only their own impressions impinge upon their consciousness. Yes, there’s something solipsistic about being a critic—maybe even narcissistic. But that’s the way it should be, because the critic must remain immune to all influences except that of his own taste and discernment.

Sales people, on the other hand, must constantly be in touch with the public. It’s always been something of a chicken-and-egg conundrum whether the success of a particular wine, or type of wine, is due to the top-down approach of marketing and P.R., or whether it’s from a bottom-up movement from the street. Probably it’s a little of both, and individual cases will vary. However, this we do know: customer satisfaction is more important now than ever.

By that I mean that the customer has more ways of being satisfied (or dissatisfied) than ever—more ways of expressing it, more capacity to share with others, more ways of having leverage at the winery. This is due, obviously, to the Internet and social media, and ease with which we can get online and publish our thinking with mobile devices. But you already know that.

So it wasn’t particularly surprising when I saw this study yesterday on “Three things consumers want [from a company]: responsiveness, involvement and conviction.” What was surprising was the huge gap between what people say they want more of, and how they think companies are actually performing. Measured by this metric, most companies suck.

For example, in the area of greater responsiveness (to complaints, questions, concerns, and so on), 78% of people want an almost “on demand” responsiveness from the company. And yet, only 17% of the respondents felt that companies actually respond in a timely manner. That’s a gap of 61%. If I was doing business with a company that answered my queries only 17% of the time, I’d find another company to do business with.

Corporate America certainly understands this and is responding. In my own life, I use Comcast, PG&E and various web service companies a great deal, and, like you, I sometimes have the need to contact them. In each case, their response time has gotten much faster, and the process of contacting them has gotten easier (not that it’s pleasant…). So kudos to them for that.

Wineries don’t have as good a track record. It seems to me they could be doing a much better job reaching out and staying in touch with customers or potential customers. You might think that bigger wine companies have an easier time of it, because they have bigger budgets and can afford to hire communications experts, including digital ones. But bigger wineries also have more demands from their customers, so it all kind of evens out in the end.

The “conviction” issue is interesting. It means that consumers want their brands to have “a clear mission and purpose,” even to the extent of “driving change in the world.” We’re told that Millennials in particular feel a sense of obligation to the world’s problems and, in that sense, they’re more likely to support a company that, for instance, helps the environment. But this is a tricky business: oil companies (Chevron, for instance) tout their environmental concerns, but lots of consumers don’t believe it; they think Chevron is “greenmailing”—telling lies to further their actual cause, which is making profits.

How can a winery tout its “convictions” in such a way as to seem authentic, not phony? It’s vital for companies to figure this out, because a phony conviction can have a backlash. I think there are two ways of doing it: one is to avoid getting stuck with a negative image in the first place (the way the oil companies did), because then you don’t have to tear down those walls of suspicion. The second way is to get your message out, clearly and directly. This, too, is problematic: if you tout your do-goodness too much, people will say you’re just trying to win their friendship (and their money). If you don’t say anything at all, nobody will know about your good deeds. The challenge is to talk about yourself in such a way as to inform people but not lose their trust.

  1. Steve,

    “. . . the critic must remain immune to all influences except that of his own taste and discernment.”

    I would contend that a critic can’t be insular. S/he must be receptive to outside influences so as not to become myopic. Doctrinaire. Dogmatic.

    Think back to the British wine critics circa the 1960s who “internalized” styles of French red wine that were unhygienic (e.g., “dirty” cooperage brettanomyces), oxidized, excessively tart and tannic and herbaceous, musty and moldy — attributes wrongly ascribed to “typicity.”

    It took a lone voice like Robert Parker to stand up and exclaim these emperors had no clothes.

    Few if any wine critics today would “champion” that begone era style – and rightly so. Those wines failed to provide pleasure in the glass.

    The science of winemaking has eclipsed the hand-me-down-from-generation-to-generation “art” of winemaking.

    Turning out attention to contemporary business practices, “Corporate America . . . response time [to complaints] has gotten much faster.”

    Most likely because independent third-party arbiters like J.D. Power & Associates now exist.

    (Aside: Your Comcast service might be getting incrementally better — but not that much better. See

    “Wineries don’t have as good a track record.” Largely because wineries are farms runs by farmers. They rise before dawn, work all day past sunset, and lack the time or savvy to master modern communications tools. A good day for them is checking off most of the items on their daily bucket list . . . running a farm.

    “You might think that bigger wine companies have an easier time of it, because they have bigger budgets and can afford to hire communications experts, including digital ones. But bigger wineries also have more demands from their customers . . .”

    You the consumer are NOT a bigger wine company’s customer. Their customers are their partners in the channels of distribution: distributors, brokers, retailers and restaurateurs. And that’s were their efforts are expended on communications.

    From companies to respond effectively to the public’s clarion call for “responsiveness, involvement and conviction,” their leaders have to strive for “authenticity.”

    ~~ Bob

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