Saturday, July 9, 2011

Market Needs & Human Needs

It all started with tomatoes, my favorite fruit. My childhood summers were often spent pulling weeds in the family garden. The one in Randolph, New York was huge, at least to my child's eyes. We had lots of tomato plants and my mother and grandmother put up quarts and quarts every fall. The working in the garden was tolerable if I could have a tomato sandwich afterward; bread, butter, mayonnaise with just a touch of salt and pepper on those big juicy tomato slices.

When I had my own home and family we continued the practice of a family garden. Tomatoes were always a must and I canned and froze tomatoes for everything from chili to home made tomato soup. We learned quickly the alternative was gross. Store bought tomatoes were the result of so called technological progress, where tomatoes were bred for machines to pick them easily. They were hard and dry and picked before they were ripe and they traveled half way across the country to get to the grocery shelf.

Then we had to stop planting at the community garden, as we were always gone when it most needed us. We started going to the Farmer's Market instead. To my delight, we got real tomatoes grown for taste and nutrition, for customers, not for consumers. The distinction between consumers and customers I learned from my love of tomatoes. A second distinction I learned was that these local growers were working to satisfy human needs, not just the needs of the market.

I'm thinking today of the distinction between meeting market needs for consumers as compared to meeting human needs for customers. A recent event caused me to reflect on these distinctions.

I called the doctor's office. I got a recording. "We appreciate your patience. Someone will be with you shortly." As I sat with the phone to my ear, getting more and more impatient, this message was repeated eight times. But it wasn't the only message. The other was, "You are a valued customer. Please hold for the next available receptionist." I must say, as I heard it again and again, I didn't feel valued. Just the opposite. That message was repeated seven times. And of course, there was the usual garbled musak in between. I waited on the phone for fifteen minutes. Fortunately, I wasn't calling about high blood pressure.

In my experience, the so called communication industry is the worst. They can give you so many recorded options (none of which seem to apply) that you give up in utter frustration having never spoken with a live human being.

This is what I call meeting market needs (we don't want to have to pay employees to sit idly by waiting for calls). It's what I call treating me as a "consumer" (since I'm a buyer of a product, it's a lot less personal). I'm not sure there would be an unemployment problem if we would get back to meeting human needs for paying customers.

That brings me to one of the opportunities of living in a place like Brookings, S.D. We have a Farmer's Market where we know how our tomatoes were raised and who raised them. They are red (usually, although I've adjusted to eating yellow ones from one local garden), fresh picked and juicy. We are treated like customers. We have an accessible medical clinic where we're treated like human beings. We have merchants who will often talk with you about mutual interests and community happenings because you're a customer, not just a consumer. So it always worries me when people are always talking about growing, about bringing in larger and larger businesses and how "big" is always better. I don't call it better, nor even "development", when market needs take precedence over human needs, when we become just a number on a balance sheet and are treated that way. For me, small is still beautiful.

Carl Kline

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