Saturday, February 8, 2020

The Email You Don't Want to Get


I have a role that puts me in contact with winery owners, analysts, entrepreneurs and occasionally even people with checkmarks next to their Twitter accounts. They run the gamut. I get a couple hundred emails a day - most of them junk but more than enough to have me working 12 hour days to keep up. People are always asking my opinion, and on occasion, they want to give me their opinion.

This week I received an email from a casual acquaintance who is a wine consumer but likes to read the SVB State of the Industry Report and check in every year with me. This year his email was disturbing. Here is what he said almost verbatim. I've changed the region to 'wine country' to make it more general and added emphasis:


The Email 

Hi Rob,
(Deleted small talk about the SVB annual report) 
A funny thing happened during my most recent visit to wine country.  This was the fourth year of an annual father/daughter wine trip.  Our daughter's the type of person the industry should be watching for; 39, a successful professional, and an early collector. 
 We had a good time, but on our flight back to Chicago she shocked me by saying 'Dad, let's stop these trips.  We were treated better in every restaurant and retailer than we were in any of the wineries. And many of them obviously didn't give a (expletive deleted) we were even there, let alone that we were Club members.  Let's do the Grand Canyon next winter.'
Yep -- we're doing the Grand Canyon in winter rather than going back to wine country! 
I fully realize as a consumer/collector I'm not on anyone's radar and certainly no 'whale' in any way, but we focused on reserve wines, bought at every winery and did drop over $10,000 in total.  My daughter noted 'that's probably negligible in this great economy'.  As an aging Boomer, well out of the 1%, I hadn't considered that. 
As I thought about it, I had to agree with our daughter's analysis. We had 15 visits;  every one with an appointment set many weeks in advance.  Four had no record of our reservations while others had it for the wrong time or type of tasting.  Only two had bothered to look at what we had bought from them in the past.  Only once were we met by the person we were told would be meeting us.  Several set us down with a glass and a bottle and walked off -- only to reappear while bruskly asking 'you want to taste something else now?'  
She said she only felt truly welcome at three places.  She was also, in her own words 'royally pissed off' when we were presented with our invoices at several locations only to see hundreds of dollars listed as our 'suggested tip' based on our case purchases.  I told her it might be a new approach to generating fee income.  She said it made her feel even more inadequate as a customer and certainly less comfortable recommending wine country as a place for colleagues and friends to visit. She also noted, which I had missed, not a single winery thanked us for being a club member or allocation customer.
I seriously believe something is broken when the Inn bellhops and housekeepers are nicer to you than are the winery staffers.  When presenting pitches to buy wines above $50 per bottle and sometimes well above that, the quality of your sales staff is actually important whether ownership supports its need in their business model or not.  I worked my early career with Control Data.  I know the mighty might not think it, but they can fall.

I'm more than a little embarrassed for our industry. If I was an owner or manager and I got this email, it would be a gut-punch.

In this case, we have run over the opportunity to bring in a new young consumer; something that's desperately needed today.

I keep hearing how DtC revenue is increasing, how much better and evolved we are in the tasting room, that we are getting professional training and delivering a great experience for our guests. Now I'm questioning what I know.

Are wineries preparing for by-appointment customers? Do wineries know the names of those coming and how much they have purchased prior, how long they have been club members, or even if they are already in the club? (That's also a question about your winery's electronic systems and the ease and ability to review your consumer data.)

I personally think tips are a good thing to allow in tasting rooms, but it has to be managed. Instead of managing the issue, many wineries just prohibit tipping which doesn't work either. Some guests really do want to tip someone for a great experience and we should give guests what they want. But we don't want staff grubbing for tips during a luxury experience either. That's just not a best practice in hospitality. So it's even worse to me that a management team would allow a suggested tip line on a visa bill. That's encouraging the wrong culture.

It's one thing to hear about someone who had a bad experience at a winery. It happens. But this is an experienced consumer who is trying to pass on his love of wine to his daughter and didn't visit just one winery. They had a bad experience with 12 of the 15 wineries and now would rather go look at rocks next year rather than visit your tasting room. That's not an aberration. That is a trend. And while you can blame this all on a self-entitled consumer if you want, I wouldn't presume that. This is meaningful industry feedback and something worth pondering.

Action Steps:

If you work in a hospitality area:
  • Pretend this letter is addressed to you. Ask yourself if there is anything in this that might resonate. 
  • Share this with others you work with and talk about it on your team. 
  • Before you get this letter directly, make sure pieces of it don't apply to you.

If you own a winery or manage a tasting room:
  • Ask yourself if you have a CRM system that empowers your staff to greet and recognize good customers and club members for their loyalty. 
  • Make sure that it's routine for staff to have time to prepare for a by-appointment guest, and give your staff the tools to succeed.
  • Audit your customer reservation system routinely. Have a friend make a reservation 6 weeks out and make sure the tasting room staff can pull up the reservation correctly. I hate it when a restaurant I planned on taking someone to loses my reservation. At a minimum, I feel unimportant. That's not a good experience.
  • It's a best practice to engage with a soon to arrive guest and personalize the up-coming visit by putting a face to your winery and assigning an employee as a touchpoint. Try not to change the staff member that's pre-positioned to host a customer. It's not always possible, but human contact and interaction are so important to the success of a visit, especially from someone out of town who is spending their hard-earned vacation and has high expectations for their experience. 
  • Double-check that the staff has adequate training. Send in professional shoppers to test your beliefs and routinely discuss positive and negative results with the team. And in the process, don't create an environment where negative feedback results in a penalty. Failure has to be a learning experience or poor performance will be hidden from managers.
  • Make sure you are managing your tipping policies and remove suggested tipping lines from your visa bills.
What's Your Opinion?
  • Is there some piece of this email that resonates, or do you think this only happens in some other region and not in your winery?
  • Is there a best practice you can offer below in the comments that might help others in the industry?
Please join this site on the top right-hand side of the page, and offer your thoughts below. I respond to everyone -  though I may be a little slow this time as I am the keynote speaker at the Oregon Wine Symposium Tuesday and getting on a plane Monday.

Please share this post on your favorite social media platform!




91 comments:

  1. This is incredibly frustrating to hear about let alone experience. Considering plateaued growth and many uncontrollable external variables in the industry, excellent service should be an absolute priority. I have found tasting room staff often give more attention to obtaining new members vs giving existing members the same service effort. New member growth is important, but I would guess the motivation here is personal financial incentive.

    I definitely think a confirmation system, whether personal or automated, to verify reservation details should be implemented by all wineries. Refining this initial detail alone could mitigate other potential frustrations and seemingly would have created a much more positive experience for the gentlemen that reached out to you. As you mention, staff also needs better training. Not only as it pertains to company and industry specifics but also emotional intelligence.

    It all comes down to approachability and the ability to adapt and cater to each unique person/group. It’s difficult in a saturated market to cultivate a real competitive advantage but service will always win. Hopefully this is a lesson for wineries and service providers across all industries.

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    1. Briana, I think part of the emphasis on new wine club members is tied purely to compensation. I have seen TR staff--which could also have a good career in car or insurance sales--easily sign up 15 - 20 new members on a busy Saturday. That is an added $300 - $800 in wages for the day, prior to tips.

      Then at many wineries, there is the commission on bottle or case sales, typically with bonuses on wine that is not moving. Again there is usually a commision aspect which is not insignificant to the front-line workers, although it tends to be much less than "new member commissions."

      Finally tips - if a group of four take an hour of time and even tip generously, it does not come close to the amount earned by serving 50 tourists at the wine bar.

      There is also great pressure to perform - fail to sign up new members, or directly sell enough wine, and their term of employment will tend to be measured in months.

      Kind of a monster of our own making, no great solutions, except perhaps borrow lessons from great hotels as to end to end customer experience. Eg. walking into a hotel for the first time, and the doorman knows my name, as does the front-desk clerk, as does the housekeeping staff that I passed in the hallway 5 minutes after checking in. How is that even possible? How is every single tough point in a great hotel effortless, and perfect? What lessons are there to learn from and apply to winery ops?


      Crispin

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    2. Oy vey! While I totally agree that customers ("guests") should be treated with respect, the wine "hospitality" industry keeps trying to outdo itself by falling all over everyone. It's just wine, folks, and it's just supposed to be a lovely day out in the country, no?

      Delete
  2. Briana - thanks for the note.

    I agree with your comment about the push to get new customers - and it's heightened in an era that has the industry flattening in growth. Over emphasis on the next customer, at the expense of the good ones we have is a common trap for all relationship based companies.

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  3. Rob,I have respected your opinions for many years.Yes the industry is changing but it is not the doom and gloom that you talk about.Staff are imposable to find.I opened a new retail store for Crystals can not get anyone to work, so I work it my self.We do sell out every vintage at Juslyn but not enough DTC yet.I and my fellow vitners on Spring Mountain welcome our guests and love when they visit.I assure you we all know who is visiting us and what they bought in the past.I feel u maybe talking about the very large wineries who are impersonal but that is the tourist trade not wine collectors who get amazing treatment in small wineries.Just my view.Keep up the good work u do for all of us.Best Perry.

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    1. Perry - Thanks for the post. I sincerely appreciate you weighing in!

      I've been accused of being a doom and gloomer ever since the industry started showing signs of weakness. Funny how that works. When it was going well, it was a different story. :o)

      I'm not posting this to be controversial, but to offer an insight that leads to a question for every individual to ponder: Does any of this apply to me?

      I can tell you from looking at twitter responses to this post so far, about 10% of the responses are piling on saying it is not a surprise or the situation is even worse than this. About 5% feel that this doesn't apply to them. The remaining 85% or so are grateful for the opportunity to think about this topic and consider if it does apply, if they can learn from it and if there is anything in it that might make their operation better.

      That's why I write what I write. I hope I am helping the industry.

      Delete
  4. There is no question that the tourist mills of the "traditional wine country" (yes, I mean Napa Valley) have become jaded and privileged. Fame will do that to you. I have never experienced this kind of treatment in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Suisun Valley, Mendocino, or Lake County. If you want real hospitality, check out the Midwest or Texas. Rule of thumb: if you've never heard of a region, you'll be treated well.

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    1. UNK 7:59. Thanks for the comment.

      It's important to note that I never said this is Napa. In defense of Napa, I would point out that most of the best practices that define good tasting room practices have come from Napa and Sonoma beginning in about 2002 and in earnest in 2008 as a result of distributors cancelling their relationships.

      Napa is an easy target, and IMO the experience is generally more polished there and in smaller region, more seat of the pants and homey. Which is better? It depends what the consumer wants.

      The point of the post is to have all wineries think about the topics this guest raises. Every one of these points is important in Napa, Sonoma, the Santa Cruz Mountains, Suisun Valley, Mendocino, Lake County, the Midwest and Texas equally.

      Delete
    2. Or you can visit rural France and go to as many wineries as you want. I don't think I've ever been treated poorly there. And what's this about tips?

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    3. Most French wineries in Bordeaux require appointments too....

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    4. Yes, in the better known regions of Bordeaux one needs appointments in advance. However, in other regions of Bordeaux one can visit with little or no advance notice, though one may be denied if the owner is busy.
      I have visited many quality wineries in France with less than 24 hours notice and been very well received. Often by the owner/winemaker. Frankly, the 2 times I visited wineries at Napa Valley, I was greeted by bored and not very knowledgeable employees. A bit better in Sonoma Valley, and much better in Anderson Valley (Mendocino).

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  5. Rob, long-time lurker, first time commenter.

    I've been in the wine business for 27 years and for the entirety of my career the industry has been growing/expanding and we all know a rising tide floats all boats. An expanding category can make participants lazy or train them that success comes "no matter what"... which is far from the truth but easier to believe in that environment.

    For the first time in my career we are facing a plateaued or declining industry due to many factors: competition from spirits, competition from cannabis, young people choosing lifestyles without alcohol of any kind, consumer boredom due to lack of innovation, etc. This new reality will increase competition and only the truly savvy operators will succeed and grow.

    I highly recommend the book "The Mind of the Customer" (available on Amazon for under $20). The basic learnings from that book are:
    - Treat every customer as if they are your only customer
    - Become a "trusted advisor" and your customers will buy from you due to your expertise and having their best interest at heart

    I would personally add: Amaze and delight every customer! Customers are desperate for unique experiences. Surprise them with off-the-wall varietal offerings or local food/wine pairings, non-traditional flight offerings (rather than Flight of Chardonnays how about Flight of Non-Barrel-Aged Wines or Flight of Barrel Samples Only). Set the tastings in unexpected environments, tie in your tour with a tour of a local barrel cooperage for a premium price. Change up your tasting experience offerings each year or offer a menu of different experiences to keep things fresh for your loyal customers and club members.

    Most importantly, have fun and share your passion for this incredible industry with those who come looking to you for education and entertainment. This is our job. But for our customers our products are an enjoyment, an escape, entertainment and an experience. Let's not lose sight of that and that will keep the regulars coming back and bringing new customers with them.

    Cheers,
    Mark

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    1. Mark - Thanks for being a long term lurker and joining the posting community. Appreciate your POV. Thanks for adding your perspectives.

      Delete
  6. Rob - ironically I just posted this piece on 2/7. My realties over 100 wineries in two years is not too different. This is not an aberration - it is sadly becoming the new normal. https://link.medium.com/hfTlK25CW3

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    1. Nice piece. Thanks for sharing. I have been wondering if we have gone too far in the cost of tasting fees. Originally the fees were meant to make sure we had serious wine tasters, and discourage a pub crawl mentality. Now I'm wondering if we are dissuading serious wine tasters, and I am convinced that we are dissuading younger consumers. Like most trends, they seem to swing too far before reversing course.

      Delete
  7. Wow! That's an eye-opener, particularly since they are repeat visitors. To not have had a single "thank you" for being club/allocation members is inexcusable.

    Your list of suggestions is spot on, Rob. I'd add that mystery shopping and training needs to be ongoing and revisited frequently. One mystery shopping visit does not an accurate assessment make, just as one-half or full-day of training doesn't instantly convert the average hospitality professional into a master of sales and customer satisfaction. New skills must be practiced with repetition. And difficulty with new skills may warrant a revisit to uncover the hospitality pro's resistance to implementing skills taught.

    Also consider various ways to teach, train and reinforce desired behaviors. Here's one inexpensive place to start: https://www.amazon.com/Romancing-Grape-Lynda-Paulson/dp/0962803901/

    Here's hoping the industry can do better over the next year.

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  8. This is an opportunity to give other wine regions a chance! Go to Washington, Oregon, even within California go to the more "down to earth" wineries.
    With the amount of money that it seems these people spent, they could probably fly to Spain and focus on one of it's regions. It seems its time to move on from "WINE REGION" and give other more exciting places a chance! =)

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    1. Leo - this could be a letter to any wine region including Oregon, Washington and smaller California regions - or Napa/Sonoma.

      The point either way isn't to solve for this consumer. It's to reflect on out level of service and hospitality as industry players.

      Delete
  9. Other action item: Ignore the pretentiousness and snobbery of Napa, and come visit Washington wine country. The scenery is amazing, the people are super friendly and the wines are gorgeous, not to mention very affordable vs. Napa wines. I've been working/ tasting in this region for nearly two decades and never experienced anything close to what you went thru with your daughter. It's embarrassing for the region and the industry as a whole.

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    1. Not to be repetitive, but this could be a letter to any wine region including Oregon, Washington and smaller California regions - or Napa/Sonoma.

      The point either way isn't to solve for this consumer. It's to reflect on out level of service and hospitality as industry players.

      Delete
    2. No, sorry Bob, Washington isn’t immune to this. I’m a fairly knowledgeable Seattle resident, and I went out to the Woodinville tasting rooms for the first time last year. There were a few great experiences, but about half the wineries seemed like they couldn’t wait to get rid of us!

      Delete
  10. I was in Tasting Room management for many many years and excellent customer service was our top priority. ... now as a wine tasting driver I ask my clients for a full report on customer service. There's a very wide range how drivers are treated by wineries as well. You might get the eye roll or you might be treated to a driver's lounge with a place to plug in and get out of the elements. If Tasting Room staff does not appreciate drivers bringing them customers they probably won't make our next itineraries.

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    1. Good perspective Anon 2:55. Thanks for the comments.

      Delete
  11. put the link on my blog www drbooze com Let me know if you prefer me to take it down.

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  12. There is nothing worse than feeling invisible during a winery visit. I once turned to my husband (after being ignored for 15 minutes in a Sierra Foothills winery) and suggested that maybe we had died but didn’t know it...that we were walking around as ghosts unwilling to accept the fact that we were dead. He pinched my arm. It hurt. I wasn’t dead. So we took our wallets and good purchasing intentions somewhere else.
    Our label doesn’t have the funds for a tasting room, which is why we give the best email/phone customer service possible for our DtC.
    Thank you for sharing this!

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  13. Very interesting article. I work with quite a few wineries as an infrastructure provider, but like to taste and buy as well. I won't taste or buy in Napa any more. It seems that the wineries are either overwhelmed by the tour buses, or don't care, or the tasting fees are too high. I like Paso Robles and tend toward the smaller more boutique wineries. I will agree that at full employment it is difficult to find staff who are interested, care and will show up for work. While this makes an owner's job more difficult, it is just part of the program. If the owner or winemaker never shows up in the tasting room to talk to the "folks", how will they know how their customers are being treated?

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    1. I'm being repetitive, but this could be a letter to any wine region including Oregon, Washington and smaller California regions, Paso - or Napa/Sonoma.

      The point either way isn't to solve for this consumer and direct them to a region someone likes and thinks gives better experience. It's to reflect on our level of service and hospitality as industry players and improve.

      Delete
  14. I think there is a reason everyone assumes this is Napa Valley. Because we all have been treated like this in Napa.

    I'm in the trade and was managing a $1 Million buying budget at the time, yet was treated very poorly by three big name wineries in Napa Valley.

    *and if an industry buyer is treated that way, how more frequently are consumers treated poorly

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    1. Austin - I understand your view and thanks for offering it.

      I think it's easy to presume it's Napa because this person spent $10k for 2 people over 15 wineries. We focus on the $10k part and default to the most expensive region. But this amount isn't hard to spend on most major regions with those brackets.

      Regardless, this isn't about bashing a region. The risk is deciding this doesn't apply to your favorite region or your own winery and if you do, the learning is lost.

      Every region can improve and the intent here is to offer this customer feedback then for you to consider if any part applies to your winery.

      If we just default to Napa bashing, we loose the benefit this was intended to produce.

      Delete
    2. Rob, thanks for the good work - Few people can make so much productive hay out of one piece of consumer feedback.

      You're right about the Napa-bashing not being the point, but still, they clearly visited Napa, and Napa clearly has a consistent issue that I'd argue other regions don't have as severely. It's worth mentioning that the customer's daughter didn't say "Let's go try OTHER wine regions next time." These bad behaviors can taint the entire industry for a customer - Since Napa puts itself on a pedestal, they do have an out-size responsibility to get it right.

      For what it's worth, I have found staffing to be incredibly challenging. There are good people, but there are FAR more openings. Even if you work hard to create a culture and a compensation structure that invites the best to apply, it's hard to recruit without being seen as poaching talent - and that can be a very sore subject in a small valley.

      I believe that finding ways to improve the talent pool is just as important as coaching and system improvements.

      Delete
    3. Not really Napa bashing. Ok, maybe a little. However, Napa is the first wine tourism destination that many will experience, unless they happen to live near one.

      How their Napa experience goes, will likely decide whether they try somewhere else.

      The region this family went to, and their experience with it, is preventing them from trying another wine destination.

      Delete
  15. I have never been treated like this in Napa, or anywhere around the world when wine tasting.

    I am sad to hear that these people were treated badly, but I wonder what they did to cause tasting room employees in 12!!! wineries to treat you badly. You reap what you sow, right? Obviously the employees should treat club members better, but something seems weird here.

    Go in, be nice, have fun!

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    1. Thanks thenapakitchen for commenting.

      It's easy to blame the guest. Maybe their expectations are too high? But shouldn't ours be high?

      I really don't know this gentleman well, but have corresponded with him occasionally for 4 - 5 years and spoke on the phone once. I could be wrong, but he doesn't strike me as entitled or a complainer.

      We can presume a lot of things about this. Maybe it's my fault and I am just trying to post something controversial. Maybe it's the customer's fault. Maybe it never happens in your favorite region or winery. But if we go down that path, we lose the opportunity to see if there is something that resonates with our team and can help improve our own operation.

      Delete
    2. Hi Rob, I really hesitated before posting that, because I don't want to blame the guest.

      Maybe it is just me, but if I was a club member and being treated poorly, I would make sure that the winery knew when I was there. I would cancel my membership and let them know why I was doing it. And I am not a complainer, either - just returned my first meal ever a few months ago! :)

      I completely agree that everyone can learn from this - and the fact that it is very hard to find good help in expensive housing regions is a big part of the problem.

      Delete
  16. Wow, make tracks to the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia and experience Canadian hospitality as well as splendid Wines.

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    1. Rick. Thanks for the comment, but this isn't about recommending your favorite region. It won't help the dialogue about improving. And while I love the Okanagan personally - and I mean love that region a lot, there are many things endemic to the region that need improvement. That is the point of this post.

      Delete
  17. This is a very common problem throughout Northern California wine country. The issue certainly involves staff attitudes but begins with winery owners and management. Owners and managers seem to be generally clueless about customer acquisition and retention. We own a vacation rental in No. Cal. and have attempted to send our visitors to local wineries. We've asked wineries to provide free wine tasting to our guests in return for our directing those guests to the winery. We know that guests who visit a local winery and receive a free tasting typically buy large amounts of wine before leaving, sometimes to the tune of multiple cases. Our guests perceive value received, the winery gets a new customer and immediate revenue. Simple, right?

    At least half of the wineries that we visited rejected the concept outright. The typical response was "But I get $4.95 per tasting and i'm not going to give that revenue up". We have tried to explain the difference between a potential customer who, without the promotion, would never come to the winery vs. five or ten bucks that probably would not have been captured anyway, but to no avail.

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    1. It is worth mentioning that it is not technically legal to offer a free tasting to incentivize a visit. I wonder if you would meet the same pushback with a lowered fee (50% off) than a comp'ed tasting.

      Delete
  18. Thanks Big Valley. Your perspective is useful to a different problem set that I'll blog on soon.

    We have a problem attracting young consumers. Wineries are charging a stiff cover charge and that is dissuading new customer acquisition. Tasting fees are definitely an area to reconsider.

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  19. Rob, you and I are ex-coworkers from the old SVB days...I hear what you are saying. I was at a local coastal winery on Sunday...NOT in Napa and got a great experience with someone who remembered who I worked for, and our names. I have experienced other wineries that have you saying "WTF" by how they interface with you. Fortunately my step son works has worked a a few wineries that were "different" in a good way..he was pouring wine at one, and Assistant Club Membership Manager at another..both of those were in the Sonoma/Napa region. I personally liked my last two visits to Paso...seems more friendly down there, at least in our experience. Hope they remember, WE are the ones buying wine.

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  20. I've been a wine enthusiast for just a short time, less than 10 yrs, and have traveled in our region (Northern Cal, Oregon, SE Washington)extensively. I have, as yet, avoided Napa Valley . . .for two primary reasons. It's way too expensive (tasting fees of min $35 . . most over $50) and way too snooty. My wife and I have visited Sonoma and Mendocino counties and have had to place a reservation 1 time. The staff, for the most part, are friendly, helpful and attentive. Some are a bit aloof. . .or perhaps just by themselves in a room with 6-8 customers clamoring for their attention . . .but they have never been rude or surly. We have even been able to sit with winemakers and owners to ask questions regarding process, varietals, and all those fancy wine things.

    Perhaps it's time to look somewhere other than Snootyville and really sample what good hospitality is out there. . just waiting for you to stop in and chat.

    Steve R

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    1. Steve - I appreciate your views. Thank you.

      You are making the same mistake as others by attributing this to Napa. This post isn't about Napa or any other region. It's about taking a look at this consumer's views and seeing if your winery or the people you manage in a winery can improve by reviewing his perspectives.

      Delete
  21. I've been on all three sides of this, as a consumer (too many times to count), an winery owner, and a consultant. It's helpful to remember that tasting rooms are quite emotionally draining on staff; tasting room managers typically last only three years per site. That's not to excuse lousy service, but to remind us that it's quite common (and not just for the pretentious.) As the earlier comments indicated, it can be hard to convince owner/management that their customer service is lacking. I've even had owners claim mystery shopper reports were false.

    Unlike restaurants, we don't get the same immediate feedback; it can take months or even years. By then the long term damage has been done. Note that your letter writer didn't say they were dropping all those clubs/allocations and telling why. No, they spent $10k instead. ALL those wineries probably think they did a great job. I'd bet some staff even got bonuses for those sales. There's a lot we need to do as an industry, but start with 3rd party audit your tasting rooms often and treat staff well (allowing tips is neither treating staff well nor requiring better service.)

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  22. It seems here that there is a common thread that staff at all Tasting Rooms are working for commissions. At our Tasting Room, there are no bonuses/compensation for bottle/case sales or wine club signups at all, yet we all of us love selling bottles and Club memberships. We are eager to tell the story and try to give each customer what we think they are looking for in the experience - and would only expect tips to be based on wine/food service and maybe amount of time spent helping customers pick out bottles they might love. Yet, often there is no tip at all - (perhaps because customers assume that staff is making commissions on sales) - disheartening for the staff....

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    1. Managing the tipping process isn't easy. Tasting rooms charge a cover charge and that makes a customer feel that they've paid in advance - at least some feel that way. Some rightfully feel since they've paid, then they should get service - no matter how long it takes to get the wine they want. After all - when they buy the wine, they are once again giving the establishment more money. But wineries aren't clear on tipping guidelines either. It's not an easy thing to do to find balance but I hate glass bottles with pre-positioned twenty dollar bills in them.

      I'm sure someone has a system they feels works well for tips and is the right balance. I'd like to hear that.

      Delete
  23. Interesting, I must be lucky because I have been to two different wine regions in the last few months (including Napa and Sonoma)and was almost always treated well, appointments/tours were well planned.

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  24. Manager at a Washington WineryFebruary 10, 2020 at 2:56 PM

    As someone who has worked behind the tasting bar, as tasting room (and wine club) management and now managing the managers - this hurts. But I can see how it could happen SO SWIFTLY. For this reason we take calculated steps to making sure our members feel important, valued and known at all times.

    It comes down to the management. Making sure the people at the tasting bar aren't overworked, that they’re generally able to keep up with the trajectory of the conversation while managing multiple groups, and making sure they're not spread so thin that they're unable to make connections/have fun. This is wine, after all.

    Mistakes happen, reservation losses happen - but training your employees to be gracious and make your members feel welcome is sort of day one (having good POS/WC software is later on day one). And as for the price on new customer’s heads’ - any Business 101 class preaches the gospel of maintaining relationships over gathering new customers. It's math. Yes, we want new people, and we gear programs specifically to attaining new members - but never at the expense of our existing membership. Their patronage is what keeps the lights on, and to misunderstand that is fatal.

    Hopefully this serves as an eye opener to many; may they pivot their current structure to better accommodate their wine club/list! And for those of you who are dissatisfied club members… leave! Life’s too short to try to convince others that you matter… and there is a lot of good wine out there – spend your money in a place where both are a given ��


    ReplyDelete
  25. Rob,
    Two comments from reports I recently read come to mind:

    From Rabobank's 2020 Alcohol E-Commerce Playbook, "“Being a consumer-focused company does not require a degree in computer science – it requires empathy. Empathy is what allows e-commerce teams to understand consumer behavior, identify the most urgent problems impeding a great consumer experience, and fight for the resources to fix them.”

    And they're talking about digital. It should be easier to be personable when face-to-face with the consumer.

    From a recent Forrester report: "Brands spend almost 80% of their interactive marketing budgets on the mass acquisition vehicles search and display advertising.
    Yet, in the US, 40% of revenue comes from returning or repeat purchasers, who represent only 8% of all visitors."

    The message is simple. There's more and better business from catering to and learning to understand your repeat customers than there is from new customer acquisition. In the story you told, think about how many people will hear about their experience and how it will effect them.

    It's a sad but necessary lesson.
    Jon

    ReplyDelete
  26. PLEASE NOTE THAT I AM DELETING COMMENTS THAT SUGGEST PEOPLE COME TO A CERTAIN REGION AND GET BETTER TREATMENT. IT'S A SELF-SERVING COMMENT AND SHOWS A SEEDY SIDE TO HOSPITALITY, PARADOXICALLY UNDERSCORING THE FEELINGS OF THIS CONSUMER ABOUT SOMETHING BEING BROKEN IN WINE COUNTRY.

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    1. I see your point Rob but some areas treating people poorly is a fact. Should it not be heard in this blog so they have the chance to correct it? I can tell you that certain areas treat people better and have more experienced people taking care of customers. Yes it's not always true but most of the time it is. We have all heard the stories and experienced it personally. I will bet you that everyone in the Wine Business knows the area we are talking about without having to say it. What does that tell you? Be careful with suppression of free speech too. Everyone has an opinion and they also have a right to it as long as they state it fairly. Just because you want your writing to be neutral doesn't change or diminished their right to their opinion in a blog. I love your articles but on this one I must disagree. Sorry.

      Delete
    2. Mitch - Thanks for your post.

      To be clear, I haven't deleted posts that finger-point about this experience being in Napa. In every instance, I've only said that this isn't about Napa. It's sad to me because it's deflecting from the opportunity to look inward when posters presume this doesn't happen in your region.


      Disagreement is welcome here. Self-promotion is not, and in this case it entirely misses the point.

      This post should be an opportunity for self-reflection. I've been deleting posts that say 'Come to my winery xxxx' or 'Come to XXX region.' It's shows poorly on posters who go down that path and it won't generate a single new visit.

      I had a very interesting conversation last night with a client in Oregon who has a reputation for great hospitality. He did the right thing and handed it to his staff for review. In fact his staff already had it and were reviewing it before he asked them to look at it. They used it as a check list to see if they could be better anywhere. Even with their great reputation, they found this letter useful and have implemented a few new twists to their rigor. He could have blamed it on another region or said his hospitality is bullet-proof, and it is. But instead he made changes to his own program. That is an enlightened response versus blaming it on another region or worse, trying to use this forum as a marketing vehicle to get people to come to their winery.

      Appreciate the disagreement and there is no need to be sorry for it. Please continue to offer your views.

      Delete
    3. Thanks Rob. I agree about the self promotion. You will notice in my statement I did not mention my winery or denigrate another winery or area although I think area is OK. I see what you are trying to do and I applaud it. I think the ones that get it will, and the ones that don't never will. I like you story on the Oregon client. I did the same by sending your article to all my staff before I even started posting here. Like the Oregonian, I don't think my staff needs it either but we never stop looking for ways to be better. That's the difference I was referring to. Well run businesses love negative feedback because it gives them an opportunity to improve on something they were not aware of. I think you can imagine what poorly run businesses do?

      Delete
  27. I’m in the retail wine trade in Northern California and can say it’s such a different world today!

    It can be painful and disheartening to visit local wineries these days as the tasting rooms seem to be viewed primarily as a profit center instead of a place where they’re planting seeds for future sales.

    Someone in my position is viewed as not being part of the “team” by so many wineries and I’d say these people, whose wines we had been selling for years, are a bit short-sighted.

    We often make an appointment for a visit and this typically works well for all concerned. But sometimes we stop in at a winery on the fly and things can go off the rails.

    Hosting an out-of-town wine friend, we stopped in at a place whose wines we’ve been buying since the winery opened its doors. Having presented a business card, we were led to the tasting “salon” (sounds much better in French, no?) and the fellow tossed out a card listing 8 wines. “You can taste just four wines…any four…or I can pour you four tastes of our Chardonnay or four tastes of our Cabernet. Or one of four of the 8 offerings, but only 4!”
    We were told we would not be asked to pay.
    We asked for a spittoon, which they provided.
    But we were admonished right from the start: only 4!
    If you’re pouring someone four tastes of the same wine, you’re not really a tasting room, you’re a bar.
    For the average Joe, that reception carried a $40 price tag.

    Later that afternoon we stopped at another cellar where they had a receptionist. We provided a business card and mentioned having their wines in our shop. She said nothing but escorted us to a table where we were seated. A young fellow who was wearing a coat and seemed like he might be someone in charge of parking cars took our request for a flight of four wines. These were presented in really small glasses, making appreciating the fragrances and flavors quite a challenge. They brought a small card explaining the taste sensations of each wine. We surmised this was to help tasters, since the lackluster wine glasses would not allow people to find half of the descriptors on the tasting brochure. The fellow cleared the empty glasses and disappeared, again, not saying a word. We were going to depart but thought we ought to make sure this was gratis. Good thing, as we’d have been embarrassed if the kid came running after us in the parking lot.
    “Do we owe you for the tasting?” we asked and he looked at me sideways saying “Why of course! You had two $30 flights of wines. Of course you owe us. Why wouldn’t you?”
    We explained that the business card in the little book on the table indicated we are a trade partner.
    The fellow said “Listen, we offer trade tastings gratis Monday through Friday, but not on weekends.”
    We told him we work Monday through Saturday trying to sell your wine and we are here on our day off curious to taste the current line-up.
    A few moments later he brought the bill, saying they comped one flight and gave us 20% off the other. With the tax, the bill was $26 and there was a tip line on the credit card invoice so we could leave him a generous remuneration for the privilege.
    Having sold the last bottles of their wine the following week in the store, replacing it was a simple decision and we’ve not carried their wines for maybe 5 or 6 years.

    A customer told us of a visit to Napa with a group of friends. They made an appointment in response to a release letter, booking a limousine so nobody had to be the designated driver. They arrived at the winery and at the gate was a couple who did not have an appointment. The couple was invited in to taste, while the young Millennials who thought that winery visit would be the highlight of their short visit to Napa from San Francisco were told the alleged appointment was not noted and as a result, they could not bring their group of 6 in to taste. The winery made a lasting impression on those youngsters and it’s not the impression you’d want to make.


    It’s a brave new world.

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    Replies
    1. That is so disappointing. Thanks for sharing the experience. It adds thought to my fear that we are far worse in the tasting room than I had thought.

      Delete
  28. Hello Rob. A note from a hotelier...This is an excellent piece. If anything it is a wake up call for everybody. As much we all want to believe we are on the ball, quite often we drop it. The worst part is that it is highly likely the 12 wineries are not even aware of their shortcomings and may even believe they did wonderfully. What I know from over 20 years of boutique hotel management is always assume you are in the wrong when issues such as this are brought up, but also be your own customer.

    As operations get bigger, it becomes tougher to keep a handle on the service and almost inevitably, the delivery becomes mechanical. This leads to a disconnect between customer expectations and delivery. As correctly pointed out by others, there is the issue of finding good staff, but there are also two other issues, one is having experienced hospitality managers that are present and not in some office in the back. The other is training. If your annual budget does not include training of staff and management, you get into trouble well before you know it. My personal hint to those in the trade is take that e-mail and tell your staff you were one of the wineries and use it to involve your staff in developing a strategy to prevent it from happening. The worst you can do is being defensive. And finally, a mystery shopper every quarter is definitely worth it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Anon 12:53.
      Thanks for the comments and suggestions. We all appreciate views from outside perspectives. We can learn from each other.

      Delete
  29. Great article Rob and thank you so much for sharing. This is a great way to get tasting room managers/owners to have the conversation with their sales team, regardless of if it applies to them or not. Always nice to have a "hypothetical situation" to discuss, even if you know this is a problem at your business. We need to all band together to welcome and support everyone into our beverage category and wish success to all of the nations wineries.

    I find it kind of insulting for all of you Napa/Sonoma haters out there. Y'all are riding on the backs of Napa/Sonoma's success and if Napa/Sonoma fails, so does the industry. Where do you think major wine tourism in the US started? If people have a poor experience in any wine region they may not travel to another, a bad experience reflects upon all of us winery owners. We need these tourists in our hotels, eating at our restaurants, shopping at our boutique stores and of course buying wine... in any wine region. This tourism is essential to any wine region who relies on wine tourism to support its local economy. Let's stay positive and we must keep building the brand of Wine.

    This article is meant to be discussed internally, like in your tasting room with your team. It's not meant to help you point fingers at any wine region and point blame. If you say it doesn't apply to you, you're missing the point and missing out on a good exercise with your team.

    Thanks Rob! Spot on.

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    1. Thanks for the comments Anon 8:41.

      The top wine regions will always get the most attention and criticism. That's life. But we have to look at this kind of valuable critique and see if we can improve, no matter the region. I'm irritated - to the point of deleting comments now, from people in AVA's who presume this wasn't from their region and are taking a self-serving approach by trying to invite people to their region through these comments. Nobody is coming to your region by posting here. This isnt a consumer site. Instead, I'm looking for the industry to come together, learn from each other, and turn around the current trends.

      Delete
    2. As you have seen in this blog, the top regions may get the one and only chance to impress a customer. The customer may become bitter from that one experience and ruin it for the other areas. I don't see a problem with people advertising another region and long as they are not talking specifically about their own winery. How do you feel about that?

      Delete
    3. Mitch - see above response to your post. Thanks for asking.

      Delete
  30. I don't know that a tipping system is as important as a tipping culture - Seattle is going through a transformation due to changes in wage requirements, and a desire to move away from an inherently flawed system to something... else. Service charges are now the norm and are frequently met with resistance from out of town and out of state visitors who are surprised to see that an 18% or 20% service charge has been added. My experience is that setting very clear expectations at the delivery of the bill goes a long way to improving customer experiences; one of the local restaurants managing this difficult transformation is a steakhouse which explicitly mentions the service charge on the paper bill, as well as an explanation by the server upon the delivery of the bill. My own practice in the winery here in Woodinville is to physically tap the 'no tip' button for the customer if I feel that the transaction does not warrant a tip (this may be better solved in software but you do what you have to do with the tools) and I'll say "I'm clicking 'no tip'" because it feels right. Balance here is key, and we aren't selling lattes - we are providing experiences and if the experience may warrant a tip, only then will I allow the customer to see the tip button (no suggested tip is provided - I agree with you completely here) and we also ban 'seeding' of jars with money at the open. I'd appreciate a separate post regarding tipping such that the discussion can be better developed and thoughts shared within the community. It starts with a tipping culture, and the system should be built around that culture that makes it clear to the customer what that culture is.

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    1. Tipping is and should be voluntary. If I get good service, it is my way of telling you how you did. Adding some cost charges onto my bill instead of the prices of the product is not acceptable at any time. IMHO. If they need health care, pay them more or provide it for them and pass it on in the prices. If your customers stop coming you should not provide that benefit because they are not willing to pay for it. That is the way of the free market. I provide benefits for my people. 401k 4% company contrbution, 75% health care paid, 1 week sick leave, 2 weeks vacation, company cell phone if needed. If I can't pay some months, it comes out of my salary. They need their benefits. That might be an option for you too. Take it out of the owners pay. How is your turnover?

      Delete
    2. Tom - Thanks for your thoughts and suggestions.

      I will get a post on tipping put us as soon as I find some time. It's obviously a big deal and one that has a lot of heat surrounding it. I agree it's about management of the system largely. There are many difficulties though.

      One I discovered is that Wine Direct for whom I have a ton of respect and which has a sizable market share in DtC as a logistics platform, has a tip or no tip option for wineries. There is no way to have a tip line and leave off the suggested tip amounts or change those suggestions. I don't know why they can't change as I know other merchant providers can remove that line and customize it. Hopefully they will make an adjustment. But that is just one problem in managing the tip culture. A post about that - I agree will be good industry dialogue.

      Delete
    3. Mitch - Good comments. I have one client that has the same view and pays a living wage. It's not right for everyone, but the result is they have a no tipping policy and well-paid and really good staffing. The old adage of getting what you pay for does apply here.

      Delete
    4. Yes. We both agree. It's business 101. Bill and Dave(HP) once told me:"If you pay attention only to your bottom line you will almost always lose. Take care of your customers and employees and the money will follow" The customer experience is the most important thing in this business. People have thousands of choices in wine tasting rooms. Make sure they leave saying yours was a good one and they are coming back again because it was fun. Pretty easy when you boil it all down.

      Delete
    5. As a decades long member of the winery hospitality community I can say that tipping is not expected or required but is appreciated. However, when a group of four (non club members) receives free tasting for any number of reasons and spends 45+ minutes at a semi-private bar with a full presentation, gold medal wines and extra bonus pours upon request (not to mention touring and local cuisine suggestions) and chooses not to purchase any wines, and tells you what a wonderful experience they had and does not tip. Well, you feel a bit used for sure. "Free wine bar!" My conclusion is that in 2020 "free" equates to "not important" in the minds of many and perhaps should be phased out for non club members.

      Delete
    6. I understand your feelings. We get them too and it really irks the tasting room staff. Fortunately most people buy a bottle or two and that is enough for me. There are not very many of them that use us a as a free bar so I hope the experience will be respect for what we are doing for them and take the high road next time and buy something. There may come a time when we charge everyone not a club member. So far it has not been that frequent.

      Delete
    7. OWG and Mitch - There are always edges in a population. If you have free tasting, you will have more hangers on and feel used. If you provide an excellent experience and charge too high a tasting fee, a percentage of the population will feel they already paid the tasting fee and don't need to buy more, which is close to the same.

      A few years ago in the DtC survey we run, I asked about tasting room fees versus refund policies. Those who refunded fees for a purchase above a certain amount had a very high correlation of purchases based on the refund policy.

      Understanding your own data is important to success. In this example, one thing I suggest is a no refund policy on tasting fees, but instead giving a credit on a future purchase.

      If it were my winery, I would experiment with tasting fee charges and if like $45 for the regular tasting in Napa, I would cut that in half and see what happens with traffic and sales by giving a credit on the next purchase. If I were in a region with $20 tasting fees, I might offer a $40 credit on future purchases over (???).

      On a slight variation if my tasting room had a dip in traffic from 3-6, I again might experiment with lower tasting fees in that time period, and see if I could advertise to younger entry-level consumers, play more current music in the tasting room, and see if I could make progress on getting more of those consuners in a club.

      Delete
    8. Thanks Rob. All good advice. I have passed this on to my tasting room staff. We have always given the tasting room fee back with a purchase. We find it leads to future sales.

      Delete
  31. I invite everybody here, ESPECIALLY those who currently are in wine industry hospitality, to open a new window in their browser and type in the following words: Adele Gutman Sparkling Sunshine

    The system of customer recognition that she developed is exactly why the bellhop, housekeeper and valet would all say "Hello, (enter your name)" to EVERY guest they come into contact with.

    That's the part that no one is talking about... in this letter, other peripheral industries around the wineries are employing this technique, which is why the people in this letter are getting treated better at the hotels and restaurants than they are at the wineries.

    Seemingly like everything else, the wine industry is choosing to be slow to keep up and, as a result, it's NOT just a generational thing... it's an overall customer experience issue that is beginning to expand to ALL customer bases in discretionary-spending industries.

    But it also brings up the elephant in the room: staff compensation. A winery will spend untold amounts of money on their buildings, their barrels, their equipment, their high-profile "consulting winemaker", etc etc etc... I recently observed a winery drop over $35K on a table!!!

    But they invariably cheap out at the veeeeeeeery last stage: the person actually PRESENTING the wines to the would-be customer! Instead, they offer wages well below local living expenses and then seem shocked when an endless cycle of low morale and high turnover occurs and since most TR staff NEED their commissions to survive, they're visually deciding whether someone walking in the door is "worth their time or not" and it absolutely KILLS potential long-term brand loyalty.

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    1. Good comments UNK 3:15. Thanks for offering your suggestions and thoughts.

      Delete
  32. Small sign as guests leave the premises: "Thank you for visiting today, I hope you enjoyed our wines and our hospitality. If your visit was not what it should have been, and your issue was not solved to your complete satisfaction by our team, please take my business card. When you have a moment, send me an e-mail or call my cell phone - I'd like to hear from you. Thank you. (Signed: GM/Owner)

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    1. Thanks for the post Colin. We have to start by being hungry for both positive and critical feedback. It truly is a gift. There are lots of ways to get it from Net Promoter Scores, signs on doors, and messaging with collateral materials to name some.

      Delete
  33. Rob, Is this really a shock to anyone? This has been building at least since I worked in the valley in the 90s and first heard the term, "Napatude." And as more and more of the .01% buy into the valley as a lifestyle choice, it has only accelerated to the point of absurdity.

    These days one can drive past the fake French chateau on their way to the fake Tuscan villa and at each be treated like the staff is doing you a favor by letting you have a tiny amount (for a not so tiny fee) of their "genius juice." Why it seems like it was only yesterday that someone in Napa was actually in the construction phase of what would be the world's first dwarf themed winery, only to be derailed when the Little People of America group become vocal about this monstrosity.

    This is a fundamental problem of an arrogant and out of touch culture, and it won't be solved with more p.r. consultants.

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    1. Did I mention that this wasn't Napa yet?

      The point isnt about running down a region. It's to see if there is anything to learn as individuals no matter your region.

      Delete
  34. Taking the TR people's side for a minute: they are expected to be educators, entertainers, ambassadors, salesmen & women and often times, stock people and cleaners. They generally are not paid very much and on top of it, as one person said, are treated/paid like they are not that important. And yet, to be sure, they are the first and last impression made on the visitors, guests, members and VIPs. To the visitors THEY ARE THE WINERY.

    I have mystery shopped till I dropped and yes, have encountered many many TR folks who would rather talk about themselves than find out about who I am and engage me and start a relationship. It can be an empty and unrewarding experience.

    There are a few wineries who believe in training! They are the ones who train on a continuen, not just once every few years. And that is exactly why they are so good. As one winery CEO says, "training never stops"!

    I have noticed this: retired people make good tasting room hosts and hostesses. They are in it more for the fun, not the money....and most of them understand the "gracious and connecting" part of the job.

    It is noticed that wineries in areas other than THE VALLEY... like Paso Robles, Temecula, Oregon and New York wineries are far more laid back and generally more friendly.

    Bottom line....more money, time and effort in creating better trained front line folks is, by far, one of the best investments a winery can make.
    I rest my case.
    Lynda Paulson

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    1. Thanks for your post Lynn. An old story of mine: Back in the middle 80's I banked a PR firm that was instrumental in the MacIntosh release at the Super Bowl. (They created an iconic commercial you can see on YouTube still: https://youtu.be/VtvjbmoDx-I) Anyway, one of the highest paid people after management was the receptionist in the front. This young man had a law degree and was greeting people. When I asked why, they head of the firm said "You only get one chance to make a first impression"

      I filed that in the "You get what you pay for" box.

      Delete
  35. I work at a small family owned winery in Sonoma Valley. With every customer who visits I always thank them for stopping by. And, with every customer who buys something, whether one bottle, a case or more, I always thank them for their business. We sometimes have scheduled tour groups come and when they go to leave I always get on the bus to thank them for visiting and for their business. It's a small simple thing to do but I don't think anyone else does that. You can't take any customer for granted. It just doesn't work anymore.

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    1. Anon 5:52. You get it!

      At its core, hospitality is simple. That said, I've talked to a few winery people now about this post, each with great reputations for dialed-in hospitality.

      The comment that struck me from all three was, "we never stop finding ways to be better."

      It's really the continuous improvement that sets them apart. Each one of them told me they found something in this letter that made them better.

      You have the the soul of excellent hospitality. I'm betting you are also training, handling details and looking for continuous improvement too.

      Delete
    2. I agree Rob. Anon 5:52 has got the spirit. I hope his employer appreciates him. If not their are other wineries out there that will.

      Delete
  36. My first thought, having worked all my career in service, is not to overthink it and attribute it to any demise of the wine industry. Could we just call it burnout? Being in service with that ever-present smile is hard. I'm sure that lots of wineries get their share of jerks, drunk at that with the lack of DDs. Every public-facing business can learn from this experience. Everyone take note!

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    1. Thanks for weighing in Anon 5:58. I appreciate your views.

      Delete
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