Wine Shops’ Biggest Mistake

On Reddit, there’s an interesting thread by a retail manager seeking advice about what consumers want in a wine shop. There’s a lot of replies focusing on selection, staff training and holding frequent tastings–which all good wine shops should do.

Wine shop photo by Bjørn Erik Pedersen. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

But the biggest mistake that wine shops make, regardless if they’re a boutique indy or big box retailer, is not hiring the right people.

Too often wine shops think they need to hire either:
A.) “Wine People” who are super knowledgeable about wine and love sharing that passion with customers.

B.) Salespeople with smooth selling skills that can sling bottles to anyone.

But what they really need is C.) People who genuinely like LISTENING and helping other people.

What makes or breaks every wine shop (or winery tasting room for that matter) is the abundance or lack of empathic listeners.

Wait! What’s wrong with hiring “wine people”?

Wine people are great. They’re my tribe and this post isn’t a criticism of them. But I’ve spent a lot of years working retail and many more years as a consumer. While I’ve encountered many wine people and salespeople at shops, only around a third of them knew how to engage me enough to open up my wallet and eagerly want to come back to their stores.

Diogenes statue in Sinop photo by Michael F. Schönitzer. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Who’s a good boy? Who’s a good listener?

That’s because wine and salespeople spend far too much time talking than they do listening. It becomes all about sharing their passion and their knowledge about the wine instead of cultivating the customer’s own passion.

As the famous Diogenes quote begins, “We have two ears and only one tongue…”. Even though the tongue is so important to us in the wine industry, sometimes we do need to give it a break.

Yes, it’s great that you’re passionate about wine and want to share that passion with customers.

Yes, it’s wonderful that you can describe all the ways that South African Cap Classique is similar and different from Champagne.

But knowing all the crus of Beaujolais is not going to help you connect to a customer who would probably be happier walking out of your store with a fleshy California Pinot or Spanish Garnacha.

Only empathetic listening–asking more questions instead of telling more details, seeking to understand the customer rather than trying to get the customer to understand the wine–truly “builds relationships.”

And isn’t that the goal of every wine shop? To build enduring and lasting relationships with customers?

An empathic listener is worth more to a wine shop than an MW or MS.

Wine knowledge can be taught. Good wine shops should never scrimp on their staff training programs.

Poster from the CENTRAL COUNCIL FOR HEALTH EDUCATION, Ministry of Health, HMSO in UK. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD-scan (PD-UKGov

Thankfully not how passion for wine is spread.

And while, yes, passion is contagious, it’s not an airborne contagion. It doesn’t get picked up in the mouth spray of words.

Passion needs to be ingested. It needs to be consumed–which requires a deliberate action on the consumer’s part. But that action is only going to be taken after developing genuine trust in the person trying to share that passion pill with you.

And how much do you trust someone that is a poor listener?

A tip for pegging the empathic listener in your wine shop.

Whether you’re doing a hiring interview or staff evaluation, my favorite trick is to do a blind tasting with them. But the key is to tell the person that you are blinding them on one of your absolute favorite wines.

The Wine People will be caught up in the blind tasting part. They’re going to be trying to guess what it is and maybe showing off their knowledge.

The Salespeople will be zeroing in on what they think are the best parts of the wine. That’s because they’re looking for angles and thinking of how they would be selling it.

The Empathic Listener will be focusing on figuring out what you like about the wine and asking questions about it.

The good news is that empathetic listening can be taught. Though I’ll admit it’s not easy. As a wine person myself, it took me a long time on the sales floor to retrain my instincts. I always wanted to go full throttle in sharing all the fantastic details and stories about the wines I was passionate about.

The best tool I’ve found is to keep that Diogenes quote top of mind and regularly repeat it.

“We have two ears and only one tongue in order that we may hear more and speak less.”

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