Monday, July 18, 2011

Postcards from Wine Country

Like many pursuits in life, when I get into something, I like to really understand it. For awhile now (more than 15 years), I have been “into” wine. Lisa and I had a chance to spend some time together in Sonoma this past week, I had a chance to reflect on customer service, particularly through the eyes of a wine taster.

For those of you who have not had a chance to visit the wine country, we are fans of the Sonoma side. A bit more laid back, a bit less like Disneyland (Napa). While Napa has some great wines, it’s just not our speed. The Sonoma side still has some agriculture feel left to it and particularly when you find a smaller winery where the family is involved. While we were there, I experienced some things that are transferrable to any business – whether you’re in the paint business or financial services.

A personal touch matters. We visited about 15 wineries this past week. Some are the sort that you walk in the door and they ask, “So are you here for tasting today?” (No, actually I was just driving by and thought maybe there’d be a good taco here… yeah, I ‘m here for tasting!) The ones that were memorable were those where people were interested in helping each and every person discover the wines that were from their winery.

Mike Talty, the owner and winemaker from Talty Vineyards (a small producer in Dry Creek Valley) showed us personally his three different Zinfandel styles (the red ones, for the record – the pink ones are not our style, although it’s OK if that’s who you are). Lisa asked which one he liked best personally – he struggled with the question, and I suggested that it was like choosing which of his children he liked more. He agreed – but you could tell that he loved his wine and loved sharing it with his guests. Certainly he had a business to run, but it was more about creating that experience for each guest that mattered. His 1/2 hour with us created a great experience. But it didn’t have to be the winemaker (although that was better). It was his passion with his job (and maybe the fact Dire Straits was playing in the background!).

I can tell when you are being fake nice (and you can’t fake whether you like your job). This is Corollary 1a from the first. If you don’t like your job, it’s pretty apparent – even after a full day of tasting wine. And when you are from a script, even more so.  Hello, welcome to ___ Winery. (pause) Where are you from? (pause with the enthusiasm of a wet noodle) What would you like to try first? (really long pause). Or the attitude that, “You are just one of 500 people who will come in here today and I could really care less about you unless you order a bunch of wine and join our wine club.” Then there was the winery that stopped us in the parking lot and asked us what brought us to the parking lot. (Hint: “I love the smell of Napalm in the morning …”) Welcome to Disneyland … bye-bye.

It actually matters that you care. Sorry, it does. Why is wine better on a sunny day in California in the vineyard than in January in Iowa ? It’s the experience. You are part of the experience whether you sell shoes, credit cards or wine. People can figure out if you don’t like your job PDQ.

The product isn’t enough – it’s the experience that counts. I like free stuff, so the special wine pour matters to me. But more than that it was that you listened to what I like and didn’t just read off the script.  Our friend Linda at Geyser Peak not only bent over backwards to make sure our experience at their winery was great (we enjoyed the great tour and barrel tasting), but she called her friend at another winery to make sure we were treated well there, too. Do we love Geyser Peak wines – yes. Will I always remember how Linda went above and beyond – yes. There’s another note here – we’ve known Linda for more than a decade (see below). Yet, every time we are in California she and her co-worker, Lisa, go out of their way to make “the couple from Iowa” feel like we got a local experience – exactly what we are looking for. They make our experience. In fact, the wines are good, but not that much better than others around them, but our connection with the people matters.

Every once and awhile, you can make a connection that lasts a lifetime. This is a longer story than I have room for, but one worth noting. We were long-time members of the Canyon Road Wine Club (they called it the Roadie Club – maybe the laid back nature and bocce ball in the back attracted us). The people in the tasting room became our friends – not “call every week” friends, but “make sure to stop when you were in the neighborhood” friends. It probably helps that we are from Iowa and are different compared with the horde of folks that come up from the Bay Area (not that there’s anything wrong with that ;). Canyon Road closed a few years ago (sad) and we transferred our club membership to their sister winery, Geyser Peak. We have kept a part of this club and connected to them because of our relationship with Lisa (the tasting room manager) and Linda (a long-time employee). Every time we come out they make our experience special, because they know us, what kind of wine we drink and what we like to do. Remarkably, I don’t think this is because they have a great CRM system, but because they are one. I’m sure there are many more people that buy lots more wine than we do, but we appreciate them every single time.

But this time we found a new winery to love (as well – we’re not leaving Geyser Peak). Paradise Ridge is a little winery in Russian River that opened a new tasting room on Highway 12 (a main road in Sonoma). It was the end of the day when we stopped by, but Annette greeted us with, “Welcome to Paradise” and had glasses out before we could sit at the bar (notice difference to point #1). She clearly loves her job. I don’t think you can fake that kind of enthusiasm. Especially when you make your son work there (and her husband the next day). We spent about two hours talking about their wine, where is was grown, drinking different things and enjoying the business. We bought quite a bit. When we got back to the hotel I texted an old friend and said we found the “new Canyon Road” because they were so much fun. And that’s what wine is for Lisa and I – fun. They have good wines, to be sure, but wine is about friends and fun, and that’s what we found at Paradise Ridge. Annette was infectious in her fun – you knew that it was a job, but it was also “her” winery, even though I don’t know if she owns any of it (or that it would matter if she does).

Annette took care of us as we were shipping some wine back to Iowa – but in the end it felt more like we gained a new member of our extended family. As we were getting ready to ship, we came back to the tasting room and she had a big group come in. It was just she and her husband working. Lisa and I felt compelled to (and did) grab some glasses and tried to help out. It’s a bit out of character for me (although probably not for Lisa) but it seemed like a friend needed help. As I reflect, it was a part of the connection she made with Lisa and me. I’ll probably only see her 5-10 more times in my life – we don’t get out here that much – but it made a lifetime connection.

My last observation was coming home on the plane. The man across from me on the plane was talking loudly at his credit card company (which will remain nameless but rhymes with Emerican Axpress) before we took off. Being in the credit card business, I eavesdropped (sorry). He wanted to buy some wine but they declined his transaction. In all fairness, that happens. Lots of reasons, but it happens. The customer service person on the phone kept asking for the Merchant ID. He said, “I don’t have a clue, I’m just trying to buy some wine.” They asked him to have the merchant re-run the card, to which he repeatedly said, “I’m on a plane, I’m not there.” This went on for many minutes, until he had to hang up because we were leaving. The juxtaposition between my experience at Paradise Ridge and this was shocking.

So my question is: How much harder is it to be genuine and engaging than fake and scripted? Certainly we need scripts. Certainly we need process and real answers to support our service promise. But in the end, customer service is about heart. Do you really care about the person across the counter or on the phone? Do you really want to serve the customer or are you trying to manage to an average call time or just bide your time until 5 o’clock? Do you have the empowerment to solve problems and create experiences, or just to check boxes and follow scripts? My company is not perfect at this by any means, but it reminded me that we need to keep working.

This idea I call “Plan B Philosophy” is largely about adapting to the changing market and business environment. But regardless of your business model, the core has to be serving the customer. My experience in Northern California gave me a revised lesson in what service can look like. What is service to you? Post your experiences below – I know you might just have 2 minutes to write about them, but please do share. Your experience might just raise the “average” experience a bit and we’ll all be better off for that.