Tasting room customers

Have you ever noticed at this time of the year, when we are getting ready to celebrate a season of giving with family, that people are often grumpier and more selfish than usual? I was aware of this as I stood in line at the post office and watched an argument about who was in line first, as I drove in heavier than usual traffic and was cut off by an aggressive driver, and again as I did some last minute shopping around some scowling people. How much more enjoyable it would be if we took a deep breath, left our stress at home, and put a smile on our face as we went about these chores? Imagine what a difference it might make to our interactions with others and the ripple effect it could have on our day and their day.

It started me thinking about our customers. As an importer, I sell to distributors and retailers. I try to make sure my transactions with them go smoothly at any time, whether it was for my own imports, or these days as I assist clients with their portfolios. But I’m not perfect and life isn’t a well oiled machine, so sometimes things go awry. Just this week I received an irritated email from a distributor. He attached his recent P.O. to the email on which he had circled the statement “Please note trucking reference on bill of lading.” According to him this had been ignored on the past three orders, incurring $15 each time as a surcharge from the trucker, for a total of $45. Now, imagine if I said to him, “We can’t be responsible for your individual requirements when they fall outside the norm” or “we don’t actually know if it was the warehouse’s fault.” The end result could have been aggravating the distributor further, making him feel as if he is not important to me, ultimately resulting in the loss of thousands of dollars in subsequent orders because he decided to purchase wines from someone else. No matter how good your wine is, chances are there is always someone else with something similar. The incentive to buy one brand over the other is how you make them feel about the purchase.

Instead, I took responsibility, apologized to him for the repetitive errors, assured him it wouldn’t happen again and offered him a credit on his next invoice. I’ve done two things in this instance: generated good will for a very tiny sum and virtually assured another order, so that he can collect on his credit.

On another occasion, a distributor’s trucker picked up the order from the warehouse and en route the load shifted. When the truck arrived at its destination, a pallet slid out of the back doors and smashed on the ground. Numerous bottles in the 56 cases were broken, although some were not. In any case, all the cardboard cases were soaked with wine, and many of the labels were marred. Even though this was in no way my responsibility (having transferred liability at the warehouse door to the distributor), I called the winery in Germany and arranged for  them to ship a number of boxes and labels on the next container, for free, to supply my customer and allow them to repack, relabel and sell the undamaged bottles. This cost the winery very little, it cost me nothing and made the distributor very, very happy.

I know someone who owns a successful organic fruit and vegetable business at a ski resort who effectively eliminated his competition because, early on when he really couldn’t afford it, he assumed responsibility for every complaint his customers made, even if unfounded. If they said the quality wasn’t up to their standards, that the lettuce was wilted or there was something missing from the order, even though he had personally filled it and knew differently, he replaced it, no questions asked. He would make a point of visiting them, getting to know their needs and at the same time they got to know him, creating a relationship. Instead of taking advantage, customers started to respect his integrity and increase their business with him. Importers and distributor principals can’t always visit their customers, or at least not that often, but listening and responding positively to complaints goes a long way towards making them feel valued.

When you go out of your way to accommodate a retailer by making sure he has sufficient wine in stock, the shelf talkers you promised, the sample she requested to taste with staff or a special delivery outside the normal delivery schedule, the retailer will likely reciprocate with concessions of their own, such as valuable store space for a display or giving you greater opportunity to increase shelf placements.

Featured store wines

Featured store wines

Samples are a necessary component of doing business in wine. Distributors and retailers cannot be expected to buy unknown wines and new vintages they haven’t tasted. Think about how much more we all buy at Costco – or at least I do – when we taste the products provided at the little stands dotting the store. The same can be said of wine samples. You are unlikely to sell wine the customer has not sampled and you can’t afford to be stingy. To withhold samples is counterintuitive. If your portfolio is large, you may want to select representative samples from each of the brands, but generally you will sell what they have tasted, and those wines that were not sent out will not be on the current order. If the customer tells you they need a second bottle to taste with staff or to send to the satellite office, or something was corked, you may bemoan the lost revenue but good customer service means you send it or risk losing the sale. Most people don’t have the time to waste on requesting samples they’ll never consider buying.  

Doing the right thing even when it doesn’t appear to benefit you is a little like the expression “do the right thing even when no one is watching” except that your customer is always watching and evaluating you. It could be the small distributor who grows and your wine sales will grow with them, or the retailer who opens up two more stores and triples his orders from you. This is your reward for hanging in there with them and treating them like an important customer, even when, financially, they were not.