Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Customer service can't afford a bad day...

The Wife and I spent yesterday wine tasting with our friends Mike and Tina. Tina's in the wine industry, and has an ultra-refined sense of everything surrounding a given wine; she's an unbelievably talented resource, even though she's fairly new to the inside of the wine business. The Wife, Mike, and I aren't nearly as sophisticated, but we definitely know what we like, and what we don't. As my palate has matured over the past 8 years since I began drinking wine, I've moved from simpler reds like Beaujolais to those considerably more complex. But, regardless of complexity, it's fair to say that when I'm enjoying a glass of wine, I manage to shift into a different mental gear.

Note that I used the word "enjoying". I think it's safe to say that we consider wine a hobby we enjoy. Sure, some might consider that statement a bit wine snobbish, but I think it's important to enjoy a hobby on one's own terms. I look at triathletes and think they're nuts; however, they obviously enjoy the sense of accomplishment they receive from their hobby, despite the pain they have to endure to prepare, to compete, and to recover. They enjoy it. And I'm there at the finish line to enjoy a glass of wine, either with the triathletes, or in a toast to them.

Personally, we tend to steer clear of the big, traditional wineries of Napa and Sonoma, instead searching out smaller, more boutique-style wineries who cater more towards individual wine drinkers. Nothing against the Broncos and Gallos of the world; hell, I'm a capitalist, too. But, we strive to find the small guy who's trying a little harder to be different. Whether it's Kaz in Sonoma, Willow Creek Winery in Amador, or Paoletti in Napa, we try to stay a half-step away from the crowd.

To me, much of the enjoyment of visiting wineries is the ability to talk to the folks who work there. In the big wineries, we often end up speaking with folks who are there because they're interested in wine, but for whom the job is, well, a job, not a calling. At places like the three I mention above, I have extremely fond memories--of Kaz leading 20 of us into his basement, walking us through the labor and love that goes into succeeding as Sonoma's smallest publicly-open winery; of Dave and Kevin blending wines right out of the barrel to get our opinions on their unique Portuguese-style creations; of sipping a brilliant Malbec while walking through the caves with Gianni, listening to him describe the lifelike statues lining the walls.

For small businesses, cultivating a relationship with each and every customer is vital; we feel welcome as customers at these three (and many other) wineries, because we're there and take an interest in what they're doing. Maybe we'll buy some wine that day, maybe we won't, but we've stumbled into the winery for one reason or another, planned or not. Whether the customer is a loyal repeater, a first-timer with intent, or a random one-off, the small businesses of the world (of which I'm one) always need to have their game faces on, and can't afford to piss someone off--true if you're a winery, a mechanic, or a one-man consultancy.

I mention this because of an experience we had yesterday at a winery we've visited a number of times. The four of us had discussed which wineries we wanted to visit yesterday; the consensus was four locations, all of which some or all of us had visited in the past. Since we weren't really looking to go out and find a new place, we chose to spend time with wineries we'd enjoyed in the past, from both a wine and personal interaction standpoint. Three of the wineries provided us an experience exactly in line with our expectations; our wine purchases ranged from a half-case to more than a case at each, with good karma and fond memories at each one.

However, the representative at the fourth winery absolutely stepped in it by being a total jerk. As Francis Soyer said in Stripes, "You just made the list". Luckily, the winery to which I'm referring was our second of four for the day, so the great time we had at locations #3 and #4 more than made up for the experience at #2. But, wow, what a downer. In past visits, we've enjoyed spending time with the couple who own the winery, make the wines, market the wines, pour the wines, you name it. Unfortunately, they weren't there yesterday.

Entrepreneurs typically have a tough time handing off control or responsibility to anyone else, believing that no one else will be able to execute in the same fashion as he/she, the founder. At worst, this type of megalomaniacal control leads to a company that ends up being a cult of personality around the founder(s), an approach that rarely works well, save for rare cases like Apple. At best, the company fires on all cylinders, growing well beyond the wildest dreams of the founder(s). Case in point--HP has announced their intent to acquire EDS for nearly $14 billion. How many people who read the stories surrounding this acquisition knew that Ross Perot originally founded EDS back in 1962? Sure, he sold to GM in 1984 (from which EDS spun back out a dozen years later), but wow, what a case of huge growth from one guy's idea. And, perhaps fittingly, EDS is selling to HP, a company itself founded on the ideas of two guys named Bill and Dave. In both cases, EDS and HP have seen highs and lows, peaks and valleys, but they've ultimately succeeded by delivering in-demand products and services in a manner that makes customers satisfied and leads to repeat business.

So, to the point of the story from yesterday...

Be careful who you trust with your baby, whether that baby is a winery, a bakery, a dry cleaner, a technology company, or a baby. Yesterday's encounter not only turned us off, likely forever, on this particular winery, but by extension, they've lost referral business from the four of us, and probably from the other folks at the other wineries who heard our story. I'd like to chalk this up to just an unlucky day for everyone involved, but our experience reinforces the importance of hiring, training, branding, messaging, you name it, top to bottom. One bad employee, or even a good employee having a bad day, can totally ruin the goodwill every company strives to create.

Not only that, but it can make the wine taste bad, too. We typically leave this particular winery with at least a case of wine, but we only bought a single bottle, which was probably one bottle too many, as the wine didn't even taste good yesterday. To my earlier point, we enjoy wine, as a hobby, as the final ingredient in a meal, as a lifestyle. Any small business, particularly a winery, needs to try a little harder than the established big guys. Running a small business necessarily means you're selling yourself, too; hiring someone who destroys the selling you've done and the goodwill you've established ruins the recipe for success.

Net-net: rotten eggs don't do well in small businesses, and they sure as hell don't go well with wine.

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