As a 40-plus-year veteran of the produce industry, I’ve witnessed many changes in our industry. I remember sitting around the sales desk in the afternoon as we were reflecting on the day, and hearing “old-timers” talking about “how it used to be.” Now, I think I am one of them.
The profound effect of people in our business cannot be overstated. The technologies that enable internet communications, instant access to information, and always-on smartphones have changed the way we conduct business and communicate.
Gone are the days of remembering dozens, if not hundreds, of phone numbers to be dialed on your rotary phone. There are no more fax machines, Telex machines, and handwritten sales orders and large ledgers tracking sales. Gone, too, is the personal touch and — to an extent — the rich relationships that were formed because of the humanity we brought to our business interactions.
The relationships in the grower-shipper community, sadly, have also been affected. We used to talk virtually every day to dozens of people critical to our business.
At the end of the day, this business — like most businesses — is still about people.
They became part of our lives — we celebrated with them the birth of a child and grieved with them the loss of a friend or parent. I spoke to dozens of customers that I never met in person, yet knew their kids’ names and how their Little League team was playing.
It feels like not that long ago when several large parties were held over the Salinas growing season. From the Joe Gheen Barbecue to the Grower-Shipper Stag Dinner, just about everyone was there. While technology has affected our business like every other, the produce business has also been subject to some unique factors that separate rather than bring us together.
The move from product specialization to generalization amongst grower-shippers and even the death of Cesar Chavez, whose United Farm Workers labor union forced grower solidarity, are a few examples.
Why this trip down memory lane? Because while our heads are down in our smartphones or locked on our computer screens, it can be easy to forget something important — people matter and the human touch is critical.
In our technology-saturated lives where, in theory, social media and technology can keep us connected with our loved ones all over the world, people are lonelier than ever.
According to a 2018 Cigna study, 68% of Generation Z says no one really knows them.
According to that same study, the average person has one close friend. And 25% have no confidante at all. This isolation is reason to bring back the humanity to how we run our businesses and how we communicate to customers and ultimately consumers.
While our heads are down in our smartphones or locked on our computer screens, it can be easy to forget something important — people matter and the human touch is critical.
Harvard Business School professors Ryan Buell and Michael Norton say companies can benefit by increasing “operational transparency,” indicating the human effort involved in their services. For customers and consumers, show the people behind your company and the “who” behind food on the table. People want to know who grew it and where it was grown. Do the farmers behind my food have similar values to mine? Do they care for the environment? How do they treat their workers?
If we are not answering these questions, we are not making those meaningful and lasting connections possible.
For guidance on how to interact with your employees and customers, look no further than to Walmart’s Sam Walton, a master of showcasing humanity.
When he died in 1992, there were almost 2,000 stores, with sales of $50 billion, and 380,000 employees. Many of those employees would tell you they worked for “Sam,” not Walmart. He had that kind of connection with his Walmart family.
Do you have that kind of connection with those you work with? If not, it’s not too late. Don’t be afraid to pick up that phone, not to send a text message, but to make an actual phone call.
Pick up a pen, not a keyboard, to write a personal note and raise a glass with friends and colleagues when a celebration is in order instead of hitting a “like” button, because at the end of the day, this business — like most businesses — is still about people.
Tim York is CEO of Salinas, Calif.-based Markon Cooperative.