From fast-food restaurants to car dealers, from department stores to airlines, businesses of all types talk about the importance of customer service. According to Burt Notarius, owner of Prime Wines & Spirits in Kenmore, NY, it is especially important for beverage retailers.

“Customers aren’t sure what’s in those bottles and they aren’t sure they want it,” he said. “Take gift-buying. Unless we make the customer comfortable enough — giving them the customer service they need to choose a gift — they will turn to something that is not as complex, like candy or jewelry.”

Even if the customer is determined to buy beverage alcohol, customer service is crucial. After all, said Jack Stoakes, chief executive officer of Liquor Mart in Boulder, CO, “Anybody can offer the same products that I do. Customer service is the only thing that sets us apart.”0300srv1


At Prime Wines & Spirits in Kenmore, NY, an Information Center functions in a variety of service-related ways for customers.

Mark Michelson, principal of Michelson & Associates, an Atlanta-based market-research firm, and president of the Mystery Shopping Providers Association, agreed. “All kinds of surveys have shown that customers rank service just behind product availability and location in importance,” he said. “So when there are two competitors across the street from each other, carrying the same products, customer service is the only difference.”



So, what is customer service? It’s one of those things that can best be defined the way Justice Potter Stewart once famously defined obscenity: people know it when they see it. “My basic motto is I treat people they way I like to be treated,” said Brian Hue, vice president and general manager of the two-store Cork ‘N’ Bottle chain based in Covington, KY.

The more difficult question is: How can retailers make sure their customers get good customer service?

By far, the most important part of the equation is the retailer’s employees.

“Knowledgeable personnel who are not pushy are the number-one asset of a store,” declared Dan Manning, vice president of Haskell’s, a Minneapolis-based chain that will soon be opening its sixth location. Gerald Clifford of House of Bacchus in Rochester, NY, agreed, saying, “Good customer service comes from the employees, 100%.”

Unfortunately for retailers, today’s job market is marked by extremely low unemployment rates; the national average is hovering around 4%, although in some areas it is even lower.

This makes it difficult to find good people. And according to a recent front-page article in The New York Times, the worst crunch for workers is in the lower pay ranges for jobs such as — yup — sales clerks.

Many beverage alcohol retailers find themselves offering more pay. Cork ‘N’ Bottle’s Hue estimated that his operation offers about 20% higher wages than its competition. Others offer perks. Liquor Mart, for example, gives its employees bus passes, invitations to its wine-tasting dinners, held in area restaurants, and even movie tickets.

And still, these retailers have a hard time hiring experienced people. The result: many find themselves working hard to improve the employees they can find. “With today’s job market, if you find someone who comes to work regularly, you need to work on them and bring them along,” said Liquor Mart’s Stoakes.

Yet, much of customer service — the happy attitude, the friendliness, the energy and patience required — seems to stem directly from the employee’s personality. Many retailers, including Stoakes, do find themselves shuffling their people around until they find the best position for them. Someone who doesn’t have the best people skills, for instance, might work out best in the stockroom.

Even among his salespeople, Burt Notarius notes which are more outgoing and likely to relish the “meet and greet” aspect of sales versus those, who, though very knowledgeable, prefer to hang back and wait for the customer to ask a question. Someone else, with a talent for detail, might be the best one for handling party planning. He places them on the floor according to their strengths.

Notarius finds himself in a relatively good position when it comes to hiring. Because Prime Wines & Liquors is so well known, people with an interest in working in the beverage industry come to him. Indeed, many wholesalers tell applicants to go to work for Prime in order to learn more. One of Notarius’s managers, who had worked for a beverage chain in Texas, now commutes to Prime all the way from Toronto.

Another had worked as the beverage manager at a country club. A third is a chef who wants to learn more about wine. “Getting people from the restaurant and hospitality business is a good start,” said Notarius. “They’ve got the right customer-service attitude.”

Even still, he said, “it is definitely hard to find people who can talk to customers.” Of the ten people working in the wine area of his store, he finds that three of them are exceptionally talented at customer service. “And there is a talent to this,” he said. “Definitely not everybody can do this, not even someone who wants to and works hard at it.”

Notarius’s ideal wine salesperson is outgoing, knows how to read a customer’s “cues and clues,” and knows how to sell. “They know how to listen, think and speak clearly,” he said. And in wine, where many people have a passion for learning all they can, this means “knowing how NOT to tell all they know.”

When Dan Manning of Haskell’s is interviewing potential employees, he looks for those “who are comfortable during the interview, who look directly at people, who can relate well socially.”

Then, Haskell’s starts the training process, which begins with working in the back room and eventually moves to working on the sales floor under the supervision of an experienced employee.


Many retailers say you can’t train a person to be nice. And at least one retail operation which tried saw its efforts backfire. In 1998, Safeway, the second largest supermarket chain in the U.S., began to more strictly enforce its five-year-old “Superior Service” program, which, among other things, required employees to smile at every customer. The stores were regularly tested by mystery shoppers and those employees who did not do well in the mystery shopper’s 19-point report were sent to special training courses, which according to newspaper accounts, were quickly dubbed “clown school” and “smile school” by employees. Eventually, 12 of the chain’s 150,000 employees filed grievances. Most were women who said that the requirement to smile at every customer led to incidents in which male customers harassed and propositioned them.

Cork ‘N’ Bottle’s Hue doubts that such customer-service training programs work anyway, calling them “hokey and trite.”

“So, you go into Kroeger’s and the employee [of the month] can see themselves on the wall,” he said. “I don’t think people care about things like that.”

He prefers to lead by example and spends a lot of time on the sales floor. “I work with our people personally, demonstrating how I want things done,” he explained. “They see the climate of our stores and catch on.”

Indeed, many retailers find that being on the sales floor is crucial. Not only can they see for themselves what kind of customer service their store is providing, but the presence of a manager is in itself good customer service.

“Customers don’t necessarily talk to me, but they see me and know they can talk to me if they need to,” said Liquor Mart’s Stoakes.

While retailers with a smaller number of stores can keep their finger on the pulse of customer service this way, many chain operators find that they need to bring in “mystery shoppers.” These are people who act like ordinary customers but who, in fact, report back to the retailer on the service they encounter. Some retailers are able to use friends and relatives for this task. Others prefer to use professional shopping services, which charge anywhere from $30 to $200 per shop, depending on the complexity of the task they are given.

“If you’re asking the shopper to fill out a one-page, 20-question assessment, that would be at the lower end,” explained Michelson. “Some mystery shopping companies are able to actually videotape the transaction. That would be at the high-end.”

Michelson advises retailers to plan what they want their shoppers to do carefully. “Focus on actual behavioral issues, things you can change, not satisfaction-oriented issues,” he said. “Don’t ask them to rate the person’s friendliness. Instead, ask things like ‘Were you greeted within 2 minutes?'”

While trying to prescribe exactly how employees must act in order to be friendly may not work, having some rules or guidelines does make it easier to communicate to employees just what you want. Many retailers, for example, tell their employees to greet every customer who enters and, when a customer asks where something is, they tell their employees to take them there, rather than just point. Others have rules about opening additional check-out lanes when a certain number of customers are in line.

Keep in mind, though, that employees need some leeway to deal with a specific situation. Take, for example, the common service of carrying customers’ packages to their cars. “You need to be careful. Some men take offense, like you are implying that they can’t carry something that heavy,” said Stoakes. There have also been incidents in which female employees feel uncomfortable accompanying a male customer to his car.

“There’s a place for written rules,” said Hue, “but you also want your employees to think outside the box. If you’re out of the 1.75 size the customer wants, then you want your employee to think of selling them a liter size and a 750 for the 1.75 price. Now, you’ve treated the customer right and you’ve taken care of the problem.”

And, other retailers note, you have to give your employees the opportunities they need to provide good customer service. A big issue: scheduling enough employees so that they can attend to the needs of customers. “It’s how you divide up their functions,” said Notarius. “Most [retailers] want their employees to be handling both customers and stocking. But you want to have people free to take care of the floor, to meet and greet customers. About five years ago, though, I separated the stock work from sales in the wine department. Now, the people on the floor spend about 80% of their time with customers and do only some minor stocking.”

The operation’s computer system is also an important consideration. Does it allow for fast check-outs? Can employees use it to quickly access information? Does it provide customers with receipts that clearly list the products they purchased and the discounts they’ve received?

Both Notarius and Stoakes have done something else to ensure that customers can get the service they need. They set up customer-service centers in their stores and manned them with their best employees. “These are the people who know how to give refunds or how to make recommendations,” said Stoakes. Both retailers noted that it is important that such a center be very visible. “It tells people where to go when they need help,” said Notarius.

One old saw in the retailing world is that it costs 20 times more money to attract a new customer than it does to keep an old one. Another old saw is that customers who like you will tell all their friends. “And word-of-mouth is the greatest advertising in the world,” said Haskell’s Manning.

In a word, three of the most important things in retail are “Service, service, service.”

Cheryl Ursin is contributing editor to Beverage Dynamics and Cheers. Her writing has also appeared in The New York Times and other publications.

Going the Extra Mile

Here’s a sampling of some of the all-important small details that some retailers provide to ensure extra-special customer service.


“The cost of a mylar silver bag and a bow is minimal,” said Dan Manning of Haskell’s, Minneapolis, MN. “And it makes the customer smile.”


“Our express lane is open at all times,” said Jack Stoakes, of Liquor Mart, Boulder, CO. “Having a closed express lane is a double negative.”


“We have customers who call us on their car phones,” reported Brian Hue, Cork ‘N’ Bottle, Covington, KY. “We can have their purchases ready for them at the check-out as soon as they arrive.”


“We printed up special Haskell’s postcards that say, ‘Thank you for shopping with us.’ We send them out after we’ve set up a party or done a home delivery. It’s amazing how many comments we’ve received about them,” said Manning.


“It’s eliminating the little aggravations,” said Stoakes. “It’s having shopping carts that run right and making sure the aisles are clear so customers can navigate them. If customers come here after having a bad day, we want to take those chips off their shoulders. And it’s amazing the reactions you get when you do.”


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here