A decade ago when boutique and farm wineries were first opening across the country, tasting rooms were considered part of the public relations and promotional end of the business. They were a place where you waited for, or concluded a winery tour, and maybe purchased wine glasses, tee-shirts and other accessories. Point of purchase sales remained low; however, until as researchers point out, gaining the attention of high volume buying customers and distributors made tasting room sales an important revenue-generating avenue.
Providing good customer service has grown along with the industry, and research is showing the parallels of service and sales. In a recent Pennsylvania wine industry blog, Penn State’s Dr. Kathy Kelley noted a 2016 (Byrd et al.) North Carolina winery tasting room study where visitors commented on what prompted their visit and how important on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = very unimportant and 5 = very important,) winery and regional attributes were in the decision to visit a wine region. “Eighty-six percent of the survey participants rated “good customer service” a 4.39 and “winery staff knowledgeable about wine” a 4.36, both of which were between important and very important categories. Those who rated good customer service as important also responded that they were likely to revisit and recommend the winery/vineyard to others.
Defining exactly what constitutes good customer service is more difficult to achieve. Each winery or brewery encompasses unique operational and destination factors that should be incorporated into the tasting room experience. On the whole, however, research shows that customers respond to pleasant surroundings, a relaxed, non-rushed atmosphere, helpful staff and individualized attention. Tasting room visitors queried in a Cornell University study pinpointed ambience and service contributing to overall customer satisfaction.
In turn, the level of customer satisfaction, noted another study “influences the decision to buy, the amount of dollars spent and the number of bottles purchased in a shopping occasion.” (Shapiro and Gomez, 2014).
As tasting rooms take on increased revenue-generating status, especially at wineries, cideries and micro-breweries, training staff both in customer service and product knowledge remains critical. Experts note that while tasting room assistants may be friendly and knowledgeable, they may not ask for the sale, “Instead they ‘hope’ the customer will buy because they had a nice experience.” (Root 1996, Cartiere 2001, Winter 2001).
Other research shows assistants succeed when trained to identify the needs of individual customers and customize the message and service to a visitor’s knowledge and interest in the product. Some visitors are interested in very technical information about the beverage making operation, while others enjoy the destination and tasting experience in itself. Each customer group has purchasing potential, but the message and type of service may differ. Employee training in all aspects of the tasting room operation, goods and services available and local tourism and destination information also counts as a good return on investment.
Training generally starts with understanding the overall operation at the place of employment, including meeting with production and sales staff. Visits to other operations offer new perspectives and can elicit ideas for tasting room improvements, merchandise to promote and working with groups and high-volume buyers. Experts also recommend pairing new employees with more experienced tasting room assistants who will act as mentors.
A California study encapsulated training in perhaps the most succinct way by reporting one research finding, “One of the traditional pieces of advice in the training industry is to hire the right type of employees in the first place to provide customer service.” (Sunco 2001). In other words, find and train employees who like to meet and greet visitors and talk with them (not to them) about the product and the business.
The question may be how much training leads to better customer service and in turn, if customer service truly influences increased sales. This linkage has been identified as one of many future research studies needed in the burgeoning small-scale beverage industry. The California study does report, “More savvy wineries of all sizes are recognizing that special, personalized service within the tasting room…can provide vast improvements to overall profitability.” (Demsky 2001).
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