Customer Service - Part II

K&L is so accommodating when it comes to customer concerns that it's hard to imagine much controversy surrounding our policies. If you buy something you don't like and you want your money back we're almost always going to give you a gift card for the full amount. We're willing to bend over backwards to make consumers happy, so how could things really ever go wrong? Nevertheless, dealing with wine and spirits is one of the most sensitive public relations subjects I've ever worked with; it's almost like talking about religion or politics, where everyone has their own strong opinion and can easily take offence to yours. You have to be very careful about remaining sensitive to the feelings of others when dealing with consumer wine issues.

Let me give you an example:

If a customer walks in with a corked bottle of wine, hands it to one of us and says, "This bottle of wine is corked. I'd like a refund," what do you think the right move is?

a) Grab the bottle, open it up, and take a whiff.

b) Ask the customer why they think the bottle is corked.

c) Tell the customer, "I'm sorry, we'll take care of that. Would you like to try another bottle instead?"

If you chose C then consider yourself a customer service expert. Absolutely no good can come from option A or B, regardless of how nice or understanding you are as an employee. If you smell the wine for yourself to verify the customer's story, you're basically questioning their intelligence or their version of the truth. If the bottle of wine is actually corked, then you're obviously going to issue them a refund. If the bottle of wine isn't corked (and whether wines are actually bad or spoiled can be an incredibly controversial subject with wine geeks), then what are you going to do differently? No matter if the bottle is spoiled or not, we're still going to issue the customer a credit, so there's no point in checking. Because if you do check and you think the wine isn't corked, there's a part of us that wants to educate--to explain the situation and tell the customer they might want to avoid wines like this in the future. Not to be mean or snarky, but to sincerely help guide the person towards a better experience. To do that, however, is to play with fire.

Another sensitive issue is personal preference. What if I recommend a bottle to you, the consumer, and you end up hating it? Does that mean that I lied to you to get your money, or does that mean we just have different tastes? Maybe it is good and you just don't like it. Maybe it was spoiled and you didn't realize it. Or maybe it just wasn't for you. It's tough to know sometimes. There are people who understand that we don't always bat 1.000 here on the sales floor, but there are always a few who think the world is generally out to screw them over and that we purposely sold them a lemon. And what about our sales pitch? Did we give you our own personal take on a subject, or did we use a Robert Parker review to add some credibility? Tasting notes can often create a Catch-22. If we use Wine Spectator points or a Whisky Advocate review in the product description, then we're relying on the industry critics and their scores to help sell a bottle. Not everyone approves of that. However, if we take matters into our own hands, write our own tasting notes, and offer our own personal review, how can we be trusted when we're the one selling you the bottle?

More importantly, how do you react when someone calls you out on that? That's where it can be tough as a retailer. I get called out all the time, as do our other wine buyers, from people who don't agree with our opinions on whiskey. At least once a week there will be an email in my inbox from someone who feels it's their duty to tell me what a hack buyer I am and how much they hated one of my recommendations. That's one of the hardest things to get used to when your reputation is your word, but that's part of the deal when you work in this business: you're going to be criticized. Like a certain quarterback who last Sunday maybe should or shouldn't have thrown a fade pass to the endzone with :31 seconds left and two timeouts, when you fail to come through the people who depend on you for part of their happiness can be easily disappointed. It's a lot of pressure if you take your job seriously, which I do. There are a lot of people investing hard-earned money in the hope that we'll guide them in the right direction. It's enough to keep you up at night (which is why I will often drink myself to sleep).

And then, every now and again, you do crack under the weight. You don't feel like letting it bounce off you anymore, so you stand up for yourself and issue a defensive response to the criticism. It's never worth the repercussion, however. Like Kanye West doing his best to ignore an antagonistic paparazzi, you have to remain calm and collected in the face of fury (Kanye is usually calm, right?). The best customer service people are the ones who never let their ego get in the way. And, really, that's what good customer service is: making sure you're taking care of others before you take care of yourself.

At least that's what I think it is.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll