What are key ingredients to being a customer-led firm? Passion and ambition, says Virgin Wines CEO

In September 2015, we came across a Forbes interview with Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, whereby communication coach Carmine Gallo discussed a conversation he had with Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. Gallo explained that Schultz believed despite selling coffee as a product, it wasn’t the type of business the company was in.

He turned the statement into a question for Branson by asking what business Virgin was in. Branson replied: “The experience business. Anybody can sell a cup of coffee. Anyone can buy an airplane and we all buy planes from the same manufacturers. If you fly on a Virgin plane… you know you’re going to have a completely different experience.”

Admittedly, he does know his stuff – Virgin has been known for its customer service. And this particular focus on customer service is a crucial factor for any business operating under the Virgin banner – with Virgin Wines being no different.

Initially established by Branson in 2000, Virgin Wines became a subsidiary of Direct Wines in 2005 – still under the Virgin name. founder of Warehouse Wines, Jay Wright, came on board in 2008 and five years later led a successful management buy-out of the business, after securing a £16m private equity deal.

His arrival began a significant period of restructuring, which included merging the Warehouse Wines brand with that of Virgin Wines. The deal, Wright said, had given the business more freedom.

He explained: “Virgin Wines is an entrepreneurial environment so it suits being a standalone business. When you are out to upset the status quo, it’s better to be on your own than in a group.”

When we asked him about the company’s culture, he explained that fun, passion, energy and innovation were all tantamount to the firm’s success. “We have an informal atmosphere and we have a lot of fun, but we care passionately about what we do,” Wright said. “We’re all a very social bunch; we party a lot together as well as work together.”

After all, happy employees generally translate into happy customers. And once you hire the right people and give them the best training, let them use their imagination and creativity to solve problems. He suggested that to achieve consistently terrific customer service, you needed hire wonderful people who believe in your company’s goals.

This is something continuously echoed by Branson himself. “Success in business is all about people, people, people,” Branson said. “Whatever industry a company is in, its employees are its biggest competitive advantage.”

Moreover, Wright is convinced that the Virgin core values embody what the team is like and that it is in their DNA to go that extra mile for a customer.

Since taking the helm at the UK arm of the online retailer, Wright has focused on expanding the company’s face-to-face interaction with its customers. Wright said he would “focus on acquiring 100,000 new customers per year,” of which he expected 45,000 to come in the run-up to Christmas. And he intends to attain them all by crafting relationships.

Virgin Wines has 34 wine advisors who have personal relationships with 34,000 customers. The company also hosts over 25 wine tasting events around the UK which brings customers, winemakers and Virgin Wines’ staff together in a single location to sample wines, give feedback and have a great time in true Virgin Wines fashion.

Wright said: “What separates us from competitors and is the key to our success is our unique sourcing method. Imagine if you, as a customer, were given the opportunity to be a winemaker – to have a say in the winemaking process – that’s what Virgin Wines does. We give customers direct access to our winemakers and we give winemakers access to insightful customer ratings; it is how we can guarantee a range our customers will love and continue to explore. Everything we do is based on focussing on the needs of our consumers.”

Among it’s quality star customer service team and events, the company has a few schemes up its sleeves. It re-launched WineBank in 2011, which lets customers invest cash in return for cheaper, exclusive wines. Wright explained that uptake of WineBank has grown 20 per cent in the last year to 50,000 customers. Customers pay a chosen amount into their WineBank account at the beginning of each month and they get the added reward of £1 for every £5 invested.

Similarly, Sendagift.co.uk sold 10,000 gifts of wine and spirits in its first nine months. According to Wright, “the service is the Interflora of the wine world.”

Its proposition provides packaged wine and spirits gifts delivered free with a personalised message the next day. And based on its success, Virgin Wines will be looking to grow its gifting customer base by 50 per cent, and triple the retailer’s turnover to £1m by July 2016.

Related Article: Vanquish Wine

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