The Business of Relationships: Lessons from the South Bronx

October 2017
by Mitra Grant

A few weeks ago I attended a day-long seminar covering successful approaches to running a tasting room and wine club. The audience was a wide array of 50-60 industry professionals interested in learning how to grow or improve their current tasting rooms and wine clubs. As I took my seat at the seminar, I was hopeful that I would hear the nugget of wisdom that would unlock the mysteries of this industry I now find myself in.

However, for all the good advice that I quickly tried to write down, I was surprised the one thing that didn’t get a lot of mention or discussion was the only thing I’ve found so far as our winery’s never-fail, tried-and-tested, key to success strategy: the importance of relationships, specifically the importance of building relationships with our consumers.

As someone who grew up in Lodi, Calif., as the daughter of a winemaker and now manages most of the family business, I am both a “native” and a “newcomer” to the wine world. My family’s small estate wine-production facility, The Lucas Winery, was one of the first wineries in Lodi when it began in 1978. We make approximately 2,000 cases per year, primarily Zinfandel and Chardonnay. My father, David Lucas, and my step-mother, Heather Pyle-Lucas, are wine industry veterans and met when both worked at Robert Mondavi Winery. 

As brief background, I spent 15 years of my career as a teacher and administrator at both the high school and middle school levels in the South Bronx. Having helped create and run a successful public school in New York City, I now spend most of my time consulting with other schools and districts interested in trying our strategies in their own schools. I bring this up because what I learned early in my career was that we could only teach students if they actually came to school, and it was much easier to keep them in school than to get them to return once they stopped coming.

What is the never-fail, tried-and-tested key to our success strategy to keeping kids in school? Build relationships with them. This was core to everything we did. We hired teachers who had great rapport with kids, we created systems and structures to involve the whole family and extend services to them. We visited homes during the summer, took school-wide camping trips, and we made sure that every kid in our building knew they had an adult (their “advisor”) who would notice if they were absent, would advocate for them and who cared about their well-being. Our students came to school. They graduated. They went to college.

So, when I stepped back into the family business in 2015, I saw immediately a similar need to invest in relationships. As I tried to understand this new industry, I relied on the only experience I knew. I saw our wine club as a type of school and our wine club members as our students (our most important people).

What did they need to stay in? To attend? To show up? Could it be the same thing that high school students in the South Bronx needed? Are we all really that similar? I believe the answer is yes. Our club members needed a relationship with our business not as customers, but as people. So for the past two years, our focus and priority as a business has been on building relationships with our wine club members.

By every metric our wine club is outperforming the industry norm. Our new membership signups increased last year by 50%, and our net wine club growth was up nearly 10% over last year. More importantly, we are beginning to see a consistent trend in performance. It’s not a fluke. Our wine club is growing. Our members are staying. 

To be clear, we had no idea what we were doing when we began making changes to our current wine club program, and we were hesitant. Like most small wineries, our wine club is a huge part of our business, and we didn’t want to jeopardize it. We turned to some experts for a gut check. We enlisted the help of a marketing and advertising agency, Vault 49, in New York City. Owned by a dear friend, we called in a favor and spent time working with them to rediscover what makes us authentic and unique. This was the first of three steps in focusing on relationships:

1. Build authentic relationships
There has to be real investment on both sides for the relationship to be meaningful and to work. For us, this meant being able to communicate who we are and what we stand for as a business. This meant revisiting our values and how we live them in our day-to-day operations and interactions with customers. It meant taking stock of our brand.

If we believe in preserving the environment and our old-vine, organically farmed vineyards, then it also meant moving from paper bags to reusable bags in the tasting room and keeping staff silverware in the kitchen so no one needed to use plastic utensils. Whatever a winery’s values are, it is a necessary first step to make sure they are known and lived by everyone on the team and most importantly by those who interact with customers.

2. Build a relationship-driven team
We are fortunate to have some of the most amazing people working in our small family business. Most importantly they value relationships–with each other, with our family, with club members and in their own lives. They are people people—and while they all come from very different backgrounds and experiences, they thrive from building relationships and making people happy.

We now hire with this one character trait as a priority. Even more than sales experience we look for people who have rapport and can easily connect with others. And to be clear, we have wine club members who still leave. This turnover is healthy and inevitable as people experience wines. What is important for us, however, is that we treat the end of this relationship in the same healthy way we would with a graduating student. We let them know how much we have appreciated getting to know them, we wish them well and tell them that we would always like to see them again.

3. Size matters, and smaller is better
This seems counter intuitive to a successful wine club, so let me be clear: A small wine club only needs to feel small. A wine club with 10,000 members can still feel small if the member receives concierge-level experience. There are multiple models for how to achieve this, and while the customer management software we use (Vin 65) does not capture everything we need, it is possible fo r every winery to monitor the health of the relationships they have with their members. We have developed systems on our own (think multiple Excel spreadsheets) to capture what Vin 65 does not.

Capturing this data and measuring performance has been essential for testing and implementing our ideas. We also remain open to changing course should we begin to see any negative performance as a result of the changes we’ve made. There are multiple ways to help make a wine club feel small.  Smart, effective systems can help support and pre-serve that feeling. For example, at our winery each wine club member has an advisor, someone on our team who is responsible for their experience as a member. This person is charged with the outreach for that member and building the relationship with him or her. And while we all strive to deliver quality experiences to every member, our team members feel an additional level of investment in their own club members. 

The expectation is that each wine club member has a personal interaction with their advisor either in person or by phone at least twice during the year. We intentionally don’t consider emails, newsletters, Facebook posts, mass mailings, newsletters or other various ways we communicate with our members as “personal.” They’re not. It seems a small goal, but the results have been compelling. One of the first and very subtle but, I believe, very powerful changes we saw after implementing this personal advisor approach was that our customers began calling the winery and asking for our team members by name. They were no longer calling a winery or business; they were calling a person. 

Relationships matter
Relationships are important. While we all know this to be true, relationships can also be built—strategically, thoughtfully and as part of a winery’s business plan. Investing in relationships and making them the pillar of our wine club model has had a deeper and more profound impact than any marketing idea, new brochure, discount or quarterly newsletter. And while these are all valid strategies and techniques, we have found that getting down to what really drives people—whether students in the South Bronx or wine club members of a small, family winery in Lodi—is what we all have in common: the desire to have meaningful and authentic relationships. 

Mitra Grant grew up in her family’s vineyards with her two older brothers and spent her childhood learning to make wine alongside her parents. After leaving California for New York City, where she spent 15 years in education, she has now returned with her husband and two small boys to the family business and the sandy loam soils of Lodi, Calif.

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