Why wine can help solve problems (by finding them)

Most vintners are lousy at selling stuff, says Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg

When I give talks to companies, I often pose the following problem to the audience:

You have been invited to dinner by your boss and, right before you head out, she sends you a text: “Could you bring the wine? We’re having steak.” 

You don’t know anything about wine, but you do know your boss is a huge wine snob, to the point where she considers people terribly uncultured if they cannot at least pick a good bottle for dinner.

Sensing it would be best to hide your ignorance, you rush into a wine store. You only have a few minutes to make the purchase. What do you do to make sure you pick a good bottle?

My audiences tend to offer a variety of strategies:

  • Check online for recommendations
  •  Buy an expensive bottle
  • Go for a French wine, it’s a safer bet
  • Call a friend for advice
  •  Pick one with a fancy-looking castle on the label
  • Hope the sales assistant is free and can help you
  • Or, hey, just show up with a good Scotch instead and hope for the best…

The real point of the exercise, however, is to highlight something that people, curiously enough, seem to take for granted: buying wine is difficult. The vast majority of people, even wine fans, don’t know much about wine – and yet, the vast majority of wine stores are designed in a way that does very little to help non-experts make a quick, informed choice.

It is quite remarkable, really. There is an entire industry that is locked into one way of selling its products – a way, notably, that does not solve a basic problem the majority of its consumers share.

Is there a better way?

Of course there is. The key to business is to find a problem then solve it.

In my neighbourhood in New York City, there is a wine store called BottleRocket. The owner is a rare vintner indeed, in that he has clearly grasped the problem customers face. BottleRocket has the usual sea of shelves of bottles, catering to wine connoisseurs. But it also has a series of big stands with clearly marked signs labelled ‘Fish’, ‘Meat’, ‘Poultry’, ‘Takeout’ and so on. Under each sign, there are three or four bottles to consider, giving customers the flexibility to make their own selection, while allowing them to make a more informed choice. The shop even has stands with signs for more contextual situations, such as ‘Gifts’, ‘Third Date’ and – thank heavens – a selection of bottles for ‘The Boss’.

So, you can see how your company’s problem-finding abilities can lead to significant, and at times, relatively risk-free innovation, because your employees become better at understanding the real pain points of their customers.

This is an extract from a major piece on seeking out problems by Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg in the upcoming edition of Dialogue.