Winery Tasting Room Woes

Trained mystery shoppers find flaws to improve satisfaction and sales

by Paul Franson
wise mystery shopper
WISE Academy has a large base from which to pull mystery shoppers--it has educated nearly 1,000 students in its 15 courses.
Napa, Calif.—Demand from wineries has inspired 3-year-old WISE Academy to offer a new service—mystery shopping.

The educational group (the acronym stands for Wine Industry Sales Education) decided to offer the service as an outgrowth of one of its most popular programs, a course for potential or current tasting room personnel.

WISE co-founder and chair Lesley Berglund said that the academy has educated almost 1,000 students in its 15 courses, from tasting room staff to general management. The most popular class is for tasting room staff: Part of their three-day curriculum, after initial classes, is conducting “mystery shopping” visits to three random tasting rooms.

“They have to lie,” said Berglund, who has extensive direct-to-consumer experience. “They can’t say they’re local, or that they work in the wine business. And they pay full price for tastings.”

After their visits, students fill out a detailed scorecard that ranks the tasting room on criteria taught in their WISE classes.

WISE has accumulated about 1,000 of these reports. In talking to wineries about sending employees to WISE classes, Berglund sometimes shares results with the management from tasting rooms in past reports.

She said that in addition to being an effective sale tools for the academy, the reports generated a request for ongoing research, and WISE responded by creating the new service.

About 20 wineries have signed up for regular mystery visits—typically six per quarter, but more for wineries that want to make sure all staff is covered, and to counteract the inevitable off day. Other wineries are waiting for visits.

WISE uses certified tasting room professionals who’ve been trained for the visits. Since so many pass through the program, there’s no worry about sending the same testers in twice.

The program is based on the WISE Academy Mystery Shopping Scorecard, which ensures consistency of feedback over time and is also effective for individual coaching.

To capitalize on this program, a winery confirms that WISE is evaluating the things it deems important: brand story, guest experience, sales success, rapport building, service standards, etc.

The shoppers prepare detailed rankings, and WISE also provides perspective for winery management, outlining functional issues as well as behavioral problems.

Due to its extensive database, WISE can also benchmark tasting rooms against similar operations.

Upping tasting room performance
Obviously, WISE can offer ways to improve: Berglund insisted it’s not always just sending staff to WISE training. “Flow can be a problem, or the operation may not have order forms. Perhaps the staff really thinks its job is to pour wine and entertain visitors, not ask for the order.”

The mantra of WISE training for tasting room staff is to

• Sell wine
• Sell wine club memberships
• Capture contact data

The academy also insists on measuring results.

Sometimes the message to staff is a difficult one, and WISE also tries to help the winery constructively present negative data.

In some cases, it undertakes custom staff training on site, or even doing mystery shopping at other wineries. “The staff is usually more conducive to suggestions once they’ve had the experience of being mystery shoppers themselves,” Berglund said.

WISE charges $1,500 for six winery visits. It recommends four quarterly mystery shops per location, year-round, and monthly during harvest (August-October). The best practice is to get six data points in two weeks to ensure mystery visits to different associates at various days and times.

Wineries can also have specific competitors mystery-shopped for an additional fee.

Consultants around the Napa Valley also have offered less structured mystery shopping, and some wineries have used firms that specialize in mystery shopping at hotels and restaurants. Berglund claimed to offer more detail in the WISE diagnoses, perspective and possible cure.

“It’s very rewarding to see some wineries really move the needle on sales and culture as a result of WISE’s work,” Berglund said.

WISE Academy is now active in Napa and Sonoma counties, and it will begin offering classes and services in Paso Robles in a few months.

Get more information at wineindustrysaleseducation.com or (877) 740-WISE (9473).

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