Earlier this year, the number of wineries in the United States passed 8,000. When the news hit, Napa Valley tech entrepreneur Paul Mabray took to Facebook to remind his followers that "in a world of infinite wine choices, the only differentiator is service.”
This quote has long been Mabray's mantra. And it's the guiding philosophy behind VinTank, the company he launched in 2009. "If your phone rings, you answer. If someone sends you an email, you reply. But with social media, there's so much noise that some people simply ignore it," Mabray explained one recent afternoon in Yountville, California.
For Mabray, this is crazy. Every communication deserves a response. So together with programming wizard James Jory, he designed a platform to "hear" every conversation about wine on social media, and for wineries to "listen" to conversations about their brands.
Through VinTank, wineries can monitor Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and wine apps like Delectable for mentions of their brands. They can see if a consumer has checked in to their winery via Foursquare or Facebook, published a Tweet from their property, or posted a photo to Instagram. Wineries can see if their brand has been mentioned on a message board or by a blogger. This all takes place on one platform, accessible via a desktop web browser or a mobile app. And wineries can interact, in real time, with their customers.
"We isolate communication to, with, and about a winery," Mabray explained. "We see VinTank as mission control for customer interaction."
The ability to connect with customers all over the world has obvious appeal. But context matters, too. So VinTank enables wineries to gain insight into who their customers are, what they’re talking about, and what interests them. It stitches together social profiles so a winery can follow its customers on various channels. That context is revolutionizing customer service.
To demonstrate the power of connecting directly with consumers, Mabray often praises the work of Cornerstone Cellars, a small Napa Valley winery. Cornerstone produces about 10,000 cases of wine each year and employs just seven people. The CEO, Craig Camp, understands that successful engagement demands a consistent, ongoing dialogue.
Suppose a steakhouse patron in Kansas City praises a wine from Cornerstone on Twitter. There's a good chance that Camp will thank that consumer, even extending an invitation to visit his tasting room. Or suppose a couple gets engaged over dinner while vacationing in Napa and shares the news on Facebook. If a member of that couple has been profiled by VinTank and checks in at Cornerstone via Foursquare the next morning, the tasting room staff might break out a bottle of sparkling wine. This wouldn't just enhance the couple's visit — it could result in a long-term relationship for Cornerstone.
Thanks to VinTank, Cornerstone also uses a technology called "geo-fencing" to monitor nearby conversations on social media. So if a group of friends is dining across the street from Cornerstone's tasting room, Camp might invite them over.
Knowledge like this might seem creepy. But Mabray is convinced that it's the future of customer service. He isn't alone. In Age of Context, a recent book from technology journalists Robert Scoble and Shel Israel, Silicon Valley veteran Marc Andreessen suggests that in 20 years, "it will be bizarre if you walk into a store and the store doesn’t know who you are." Scoble and Israel predict that day will come even sooner.
When Facebook was founded in a Harvard dorm in 2004, few would have predicted that in just ten years, most of us would be connected to the social networking service 24 hours per day. Add in e-mail, Twitter, and the like, and it's no wonder why we now expect personal relationships with (as well as instant replies from) every brand we encounter.
Mabray is offering the future of customer service. So next time you visit a winery, don't be surprised if the staff knows why you're there.
David White is the founder and editor of Terroirist.com, which was named "Best Overall Wine Blog" at the 2013 Wine Blog Awards. His columns are housed at Grape Collective.