It turns out that Elton John and Bernie Taupin were right when they said, in 1976, “sorry seems to be the hardest word”, as many service providers are now demonstrating every day. The word most of us struggle with, however, with is “help!”, the title of an earlier Beatles song.
Admitting that you need assistance is often very hard, both on a personal and a business level. Far better to put on a brave face and soldier on than to admit that, for whatever reason, you cannot manage on your own.
But Covid-19, like an earthquake or a tsunami, is the kind of challenge that’s simply too big for anyone to overcome unaided. If billionaires like Richard Branson are willing to go to governments for emergency funding for their airlines, there’s no shame in smaller wine companies raising their hands.
But the help I’m talking about isn’t the kind that is handed out by the state. It’s what might be available from people with whom a business has a far closer long-term relationship: its customers.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen a number of smaller producers and distributors applying the ‘use it or lose it’ argument when soliciting orders. My friend, the British master of wine, Justin Howard-Sneyd who produces wine in southern France, headed a recent newsletter “A plea for your help”. After a brief, chatty preamble, he goes on to say:
“Let's not beat about the bush.
We need your help.
Like a lot of small, young businesses, we operate on very tight cashflow, and at this time of year the bank balance is always pretty lean.
We rely on our annual Wine Club shipment to bring in a guaranteed income in April and May every year, which is when we pay the big bills for the bottling labelling and shipping of our wine.
But France is on lockdown, and lots of people are not able to get to work.
We are working hard on how to make sure our wine arrives on time, but there's a few things up in the air at the moment. Cashflow is going to be very tight for the next couple of months, and anything you can do to help would be really appreciated.”
Recipients of the newsletter are encouraged to buy Howard-Sneyd’s wine (rather than stock up at the supermarket), but also to tell their friends about it, follow it on social media and take advantage of the online tastings he is hosting.
The approach seems to have worked. While it is impossible to know how many of his customers might have placed an order without the cry for help, he is pretty sure that it prompted a significant number to click on the buy button.
Historically, two other Brits have also been grateful for the response they received after describing a predicament. Gavin Quinney of Château Bauduc in Bordeaux uses a monthly newsletter to communicate with his customers and has noted that “sometimes people are more interested in the horror stories… the rough with the smooth”. When he has written about losing production because of hailstorms or frost, the response often comes in the form of orders for wine.
More famously, in March 2013, while Katie Jones was in Düsseldorf, looking for new customers for wine from her 12ha Fitou estate, vandals broke into the winery and emptied two vats of the white wine she had made from 80-year-old vines. At a stroke, she lost all of her 2012 white production – and potentially, her business. Within two weeks, Naked Wines had stepped in and put together an emergency advance offer of her 2013 vintage while the grapes were still on the vines, raising £250,000 ($390,000) and saving her livelihood.
If customers are ready to react altruistically, so too are producers and distributors, with neighbours in the US, Australia and South Africa donating grapes to smaller winemakers who have suffered losses through recent fires, for example. In South Africa, wineries are providing food parcels to communities that have lost work and incomes, while in the US, their counterparts are helping unemployed food service staff, and working on plans to help hard-hit restaurants when they are allowed to reopen their doors.
During a crisis like Covid-19, it is easy to find examples like these, but even when things were easier, people were answering a wide range of calls for help. In the US, National Public Radio, like the Guardian newspaper, relies for its survival on donations from individuals as well as income from corporates. Wikipedia would not exist without people responding to its requests for money, and countless new projects, including a number of wine books, only came into being without crowdfunding.
So, if there is a lesson to be learned here, it’s that maybe we should all be readier to admit when we need a helping hand. If your business is in trouble right now – talk to your customers. You might be surprised to find how happy they are to help.