Over-delivering on Customer Satisfaction


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.

Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau – the fun government agency

Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau leaves out the ‘A’ for alcohol in its initials, (TTB) but as its name suggests, it is a government agency that regulates industries that produce alcohol – wine, distilled spirits, beer and ‘other alcohol’. I have always found their website to be a fairly well organized wealth of information. It has improved even more after a recent overhaul, so it’s no surprise that they offer extensive information on label compliance.

In addition to domestic labels, all labels (or rather a jpeg equivalent) on bottles exported to this country must be submitted to TTB, by the importer, for review and approval, prior to import. The certificate of label approval is known by its acronym COLA. Although the antiquated option remains to submit this application by mail, there is absolutely no reason to do so. For several years it has been possible to register for COLAs Online at www.ttbonline.gov which streamlines the submission process and decreases the waiting time for responses.

All mandatory requirements are available on TTB’s site at www.ttb.gov, and in detail in my book on wine importing. Although there appears to be a little discretion among reviewing agents for layout and design, or perhaps they just overlook things occasionally, they require adherence to the mandatory regulations with the fervor of an Army General.

The mandatory information is clearly spelled out, item by item, font size by font size and there can be no deviation. As if wineries would like to test the rigidity of this principle, I am often presented with labels where, e.g., the Government Warning has all the right words, but it is set out in the way that the printer feels will be the most aesthetically pleasing for the label. I will usually have to go back and forth with the example a few times to show that only the heading can be in bold, the text must ‘wrap around’ (i.e. (2) does not start on another line) and font size minimum is 2mm. Here it is done correctly:


Conversely, no reference to any health benefits from wine can be made, no matter how well substantiated or carefully worded.

As another example, even though a label clearly states the appellation is Western Australia and it additionally says it is produced and bottled by a winery with an address in Western Australia, the label must still include the words “Wine of Australia” or “Product of Australia.” Let there be no doubt!

The word “Sulphites” is a spelling accepted and used routinely throughout the world, but TTB consider this a misspelling and insist on the word “Sulfites.” The European spelling must be deleted. Simply adding the TTB required spelling will not suffice. This applies to other statements made by foreign countries that TTB has stipulated as conflicting with their views, such as a recommended number of drinks per bottle.  

When it comes to the mandatory information, there is no wiggle room. Anticipating potential problems and doing it accurately the first time will save the brand owner, and the importer, headaches and wasted time.

However, nothing can prepare you – including TTB’s own website – for those quirks and idiosyncrasies that will inevitably crop up during the course of any importer’s career. Oh, if you dig deep enough you might find something buried in their periodic rulings and regulations, but often you have to know what you’re looking for or anticipate that a certain turn of phrase or word will be a problem. In the normal course of operations, they’re neither easy to find nor anticipate. Here are just a few of the obscure ones I’ve encountered:

  • The use of “powerful” to describe a table wine in the winemaker’s description. This may be the biggest, baddest Cabernet or Shiraz on the planet, but you may not use this word to describe it, lest it be construed as a fortified wine.
  • Any mention of fortified in the winemaker’s notes, even if it is meant to be helpful and merely to inform the consumer that this particular grape is normally a component of fortified wines in its native country, Portugal. However, in this instance it is used to make a soft, fresh, fruity style of table wine. TTB is convinced that despite the wine’s clear, light color, stainless steel fermentation and its 12% alcohol, the consumer might be misled into thinking that this was, in fact, a fortified wine.
  • Describing a wine as “lively.” This is limited to sparkling wines and, although a wine may be positively dancing off the tongue, if it is not in any way effervescent, with the appropriate characterization and designation, then you cannot use this word.
  • “In Vino Veritas” which was part of a family crest was forbidden, because to declare “In Wine There is Truth” would be to encourage drinking.

This is by no means a complete list of the various issues I’ve encountered, but it’s meant to illustrate the need to take TTB’s regulations seriously, because they certainly will. If you feel strongly that your label has been misunderstood, misconstrued or misinterpreted, there is always the option to upload a letter of explanation with the application as an attachment. This has worked for me in some situations.

Quirks, foibles and idiosyncrasies notwithstanding, TTB is one government agency that does appear to try to make their information easily accessible through constant website redesign, updated sections and requests for feedback. It just takes a little patience, experience and a willingness to suspend disbelief when faced with yet another obscure, but mandatory label regulation or prohibition.

And never, ever let the winery print and attach labels until the COLA is obtained. You just never know when one little word will make all the difference.

Playing the Odds – Winery Email Campaigns

Like most wine importers and distributors, my email inbox is inundated with requests, even demands, for my attention. Buy my wine! Check out my website! See my reviews! And I would bet that my response is mirrored across the country. Click! Deleted!

They come from foreign wineries, Google translated from another language, stiffly worded and a little funny in their awkward phrasing. They come from marketers with a superb command of the English language, overly confident that I will love their wines as much as they do and they have obscure awards to back it up. They come from domestic wineries looking to expand their reach, from imported wine brands that have some distribution in the U.S., but are looking for more regional importers.

Occasionally, I delve a little deeper. If the email has my name as the addressee (a simple thing, but a big plus), or expresses a specific reason for contacting me, it might prompt me to read. I may be captivated by a vineyard photo that shows a multi-generational family, looking proud and happy. I can be a sucker for the sweet naïveté of their PR efforts. I may see something in the prose that prompts me to check out the price attachment or their website. And once in a great while, I will contact the winery to make a suggestion or forward the email on to one of my clients I think may be interested. But that’s me. Most importers and distributors aren’t consultants and I venture to say that most, if not all, of these unsolicited emails will be ignored and deleted.

A few months ago I received a box of wine out of the blue from Spain. I hadn’t agreed to receive samples from them and unaware it was coming. Inside, there were six beautifully packaged wines from different regions each bottle encased in a decorated metal cylinder. There was also a coffee table size, hardcover, full colour book. And a folder of marketing material. I leafed through the book. Gorgeous, artful photos of vineyards, wineries, landscape, bottles, food. With almost no words. What was I supposed to take from this? I read the accompanying letter. It took me to the website, where there was an invitation to a “virtual tasting” without accountability or stated purpose. I still don’t know what it was about.

Perhaps other recipients of this wine were so impressed by this extravagant marketing exercise they immediately signed up to be importers and distributors. Perhaps they saw the marketing as sophisticated and edgy. I was simply mystified. They had made some crucial mistakes with me:

  • They did not identify whether I was importing new wines
  • They did not identify whether I was interested in importing from Spain
  • They did not identify me!
  • They provided no compelling reason or purpose for the samples
  • They did not follow up in any way.

Eventually I drank the wines, which were actually quite good. I threw out the marketing materials. I recycled the metal tubes and I kept the book. I’m a book lover. I can’t bring myself to dispose of something so beautifully produced. It’s collecting dust on my office shelf.

Focus, specificity and knowing your audience is key to outreach for a winery or wine region organization. An email can work if some research and preparation is conducted beforehand and the communication is personalized and compelling. A personal contact to determine a) if samples are welcome and b) what the desired outcome is, would be advisable. And follow up is essential.  

But maybe that’s just me.


Local Wine Events – Bang for the Buck

In my last post I talked about wineries trying to penetrate the U.S. market using the wine trade event as a vehicle. This topic is directed at the U.S. importer/distributor that has just launched their first brand or brands and is looking for a way to gain local exposure and create buzz.

I say “importer/distributor” because this is a different animal from:

a) an importer who is selling only to distributors. In this case the importer is, or should be, concerned with the big picture. Having brought in a container of wine, the focus should now be on connecting with distributors in different states, forging relationships across a swath of regions and sometimes the whole country. Local events are not going to further this cause and will, in fact, take time and attention to a macro from a micro level;

b) a distributor that is buying their wines from an importer rather than importing their own. They should be concentrating on building up critical mass in a portfolio with broad market appeal throughout their retail territory. Their concern is providing their sales team with sufficient opportunities for sales across a broad spectrum of vineyard regions, styles and price points. Trade shows and tastings will become a factor in their sales programs, but not normally the point of entry to the market for one new brand or a small number of new brands.

The new importer, who is also the distributor in their own state, has chosen to launch their first brands utilizing a ground swell from their home turf. They are counting on developing a local following for their wines and building from there. This importer may also be developing distribution in other states and other ways, but if they have chosen to become a distributor, along with the usually onerous licensing and infrastructure, it is incumbent upon them to start building sales volume locally first. They know this market and its demographic makeup. This importer eats at local restaurants, often has connections to people in other professions and businesses and develops a team of willing friends and volunteers, some of whom become part of a professional sales team.

Which brings me to the local wine event. My mantra, throughout my wine importing book, and in all my wine business advice, is to make every expenditure count. No matter the level of your financial worth or business budget, I see no reason to waste money. If you’re going to do a local wine event, weigh the factors. Does it bring in sales? What is the goal? What is at least a rough cost benefit estimate? Running around town pouring wine for everyone’s wine tasting may make you the most popular person of the moment, but that isn’t the point. You want bang for the buck.


Is the event tied to a retail selling opportunity? If you hold a wine tasting at a local wine bar or restaurant, do they have a retail store, or will someone be in attendance that can take orders, or give a coupon for 10% off at the nearby store if you buy the wine there? Has the store already stocked it? Doing the wine tasting in the hope that the store will purchase the wine if they see enough interest is no sale at all. When a customer comes into the store and finds they have to order it, waiting days or perhaps weeks for delivery, they’ll lose interest quickly. The public is fickle. They may love the wine you poured last night, but if they can’t buy it then and there, or at least the next day, chances are they’ll move on. And they will forget.

Does the event give you exposure beyond the event itself? I’m normally cautious about consumer-only public wine tastings, but at the local level it may be positive exposure. If you sponsor a local golf, tennis or charity event, presuming the expense is manageable, will the local paper and online press give it an extended shelf life? Are there people in attendance who are influential or likely to remember the wine, purchase it for themselves, or recommend it to others? Can you promote it before and after for additional brand exposure? Can you use the event to continue to promote the brand in conjunction with the event’s cause in other settings? Is it likely to elevate the brand’s quality, giving it a ‘halo’ effect by virtue of its association with certain occasions or people?

Whatever the event you choose, make sure you tailor your approach to the setting. If it’s a wine bar or wine dinner, have knowledgeable, professional people hosting, or do it yourself. If it is a sports or outdoor charity setting, think of a theme that will direct attention to your wines and ‘brand’ your brand. Make it entertaining and enhance their experience. Make it memorable. And always have lots of photos taken for the website and Facebook page. Let your retail customers, and potential distribution customers see that you get behind your brand and you are out there promoting it. The website or Facebook page becomes interesting, interactive and builds momentum for the brand. And who knows, a retailer who would not otherwise have stocked your wines may suddenly decide they have to have them.

Wine events can be fun, they can be a great perk to the business and they can help launch a brand when everything comes together. Just don’t lose sight of what you are trying to achieve. Look at what you need to do to maximize your return, so that you can continue to do events and continue to enjoy them because they’re also providing a sales and expansion opportunity.

Wine Events and Their Role in Finding a U.S. Importer – Attracting a Partner is Not about Colorful Plumage


There are many routes to market in the U.S. This post is about wine events and their role in finding representation.

It never ceases to amaze me that a foreign winery – and this applies to a wine brand owner from any country – will often willingly splurge on an extravagant wine fair, trade show or tasting event without the slightest understanding of what will happen, who is attending and whether it is a beneficial, or even viable, path to finding an importer. I do empathize. If information to the contrary is not readily available to them, the idea of a wine event on U.S. soil seems like a good idea if someone is interested in attracting a U.S. importer. Especially if it appears to be well promoted or is endorsed by a government trade agency. But after event fees, wine samples, shipping, customs clearance, air fare, hotel and food costs, they very often return to their home country with a fistful of business cards and little else. It is a broad brush approach to something that requires focused, careful attention in the planning and equally meticulous follow up.

Let’s take the government sponsored event, for starters. Trade organizations representing countries or regions can be very helpful in sourcing business, pointing the winery in the right direction or providing tips on the U.S. market, but they can also be much more focused on promoting the whole country than the individual winery. Foreign trade organizations on U.S. soil often represent their locally produced food as well and their knowledge and experience within the wine industry may be limited. As such, the event may include seafood or specialty foods, be loosely organized around a collective national identity and not necessarily attracting the right audience. It may fulfill marketing objectives within their annual budget, but end up with event goals that conflict with a winery exporter. On the positive side, they are non-profit and should be more affordable and, if they have been listening to their constituency or consult with experienced marketers with good connections, it could be a well attended event.

An independent wine fair will often be splashier, extensively marketed, well organized, in a desirable location and EXPENSIVE. I’ve seen one show charge as much as $48,000 for an exhibitor’s ‘pavilion’. Even a booth is around $3,000. Whether they attract the right audience and a range of potential partners for a new exporter’s products remains in doubt. Even less certain is whether the exporter will ever recoup the expense for such a costly event in wine sales.

There are wine events, fairs or even conventions that are worthwhile, but it requires investigation and preparation. You cannot assume that if someone in the U.S. is organizing it they must know what they’re doing. You cannot assume their goals align with yours.  

As a winery interested in coming to the U.S. for the express purpose of finding representation for your wines, the questions to ask yourself, or event planners, are these:

When is the event held?

Ideally, it should be on the cusp of seasonal buying times and not directly in competition with high profile events in the same week that will draw trade away

Where is the venue? How expensive is it?

It should be somewhere that attracts attendees, but not so expensive as to make it prohibitive to both exhibitor and attendee. Many events are free to the trade to attend.

Who is invited? What is the caliber of invitee and level of interest?

The organizers should ensure that importers and distributors with interest in adding to their portfolios are the main invitees. These are your customers. Without an importer, you cannot be distributed, but often distributors also have their import license. 

Can you get the list of importers and distributors?

Being able to contact them beforehand to let them know you will be exhibiting and where you will be located is the first step in determining interest. Researching their qualifications will also allow you to make some decisions about whether they might be a good fit for your wines.

How many wineries are exhibiting?

There should be sufficient number and diversity to make this an attractive event and a draw card for invitees.

Are consumers included? What is the trade/consumer ratio?

Sometimes a charitable portion is included, or consumers are invited at higher entrance fees, to help defray costs. You must be gracious and pay attention to this segment but this is not your customer and their enjoyment of your wine will not sell it to a wholesale partner. Your entire objective must be to find an importer, whether it’s someone for one state or fifty. Without that, this is a wasted exercise. Anyone else who tries and loves your wines will not be able to find them for sale and will forget about them shortly after the event, or at least long before you are able to ship wine and establish distribution.

A wine show is just one way to market. There are many others. However, a winery that relies on this venue as their only way to an importer, without doing their homework, is bound to be disappointed.