by Melissa Piper Nelson

In the rapidly burgeoning wine and craft beverage industry, the question regarding the return on investment (ROI) versus specialized training for tasting room assistants (TRAs) pops up frequently by owners, industry trade associations and market researchers. Where does the diminishing point occur between specialized TRA training and increasing sales and building a larger loyal customer base?

A few years ago when West Coast TRAs were surveyed about the training they received, and specifically the area of knowledge the training encompassed, two factors stood out as deficient – marketing and industry knowledge (Thach, Olsen 2003). Respondents identified winemaking methods and grape growing techniques as where they felt additional training was necessary.

Do customers really care if TRAs know the basics about the industry? Perhaps not for the casual customer who visits for a one-time destination experience. Building a supportive and repeat customer base or wine and craft beverage club membership, however, customers expect tasting and sales assistants to go above and beyond what they are pouring to actually offering significant information about production, pairings and the science behind the scene.

Why is this important? In the West Coast study, the implications were “employees may want to feel more confident when speaking with sophisticated wine consumers who visit. Being able to provide the information that the sophisticated wine consumer solicits hopefully will lead to more sales of premium wines and a better overall image of the winery.” The same can be said for the craft beverage industry as well.

Many boutique and farm wineries, along with local micro-breweries, depend on tasting room experiences for a large percentage of sales. A dedicated and ongoing training process for assistants remains a vital link to both job satisfaction and profit. This is especially true for businesses which identify multiple customer segments from the novice visitor to the return customer who anticipates new and trendy information from which to make purchase selections.

While most TRAs receive on-the-job training about tasting room etiquette, varieties and some industry background, those surveyed felt it important to have additional training to be able to speak about the industry and the business with inquiring customers. Developing such training does require time on the part of the employer or a training consultant, but there are significant benefits.

Each operation must determine what type of training will work best for their own unique operation and customer base. How much industry knowledge and background will help employees relate better to customers will develop through the TRA-customer relationship. Many business consultants agree, however, that training builds confidence, improves employee performance and reduces turnover. This in turn positions the operation as a business leader.

New customer and business research within the wine and craft beverage industry will ultimately give us some guidance on where training and the return on investment converge. What we know now is that customer satisfaction is linked to sales. And if employee training leads to more confidence and the ability to provide a good customer experience, then there is great potential for a positive return on investment.

The West Coast study cites earlier industry research and concluded the following: “The goal should be to create such an enjoyable experience that the customer will want to return, will encourage all of their friends to return, and will become a life-long customer.”