Kim Kirk of Swilled Dog: “Pick the right people”

Pick the right people. Despite best intentions, a CEO cannot personally deliver exceptional service to all customers. They need to depend on their team and the culture they’ve created. This means everyone in the company needs to take ownership and responsibility for customer service. As part of our series about the five things a business should […]

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Pick the right people. Despite best intentions, a CEO cannot personally deliver exceptional service to all customers. They need to depend on their team and the culture they’ve created. This means everyone in the company needs to take ownership and responsibility for customer service.

As part of our series about the five things a business should do to create a Wow! customer experience, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kim Kirk.

Kim is the Chief Experience Manager at Swilled Dog, the fastest growing craft beverage brand in West Virginia. She is responsible for the overall customer experience and bringing the Swilled Dog brand to life, which includes managing the tasting room, overseeing events and promotions, and assisting with the company’s branding and marketing efforts. Kim’s prior experience working to promote locally owned businesses at a Main Street program is what attracted her to Swilled Dog and one of the reasons this small craft beverage operation is able to boast visitors from nearly every US state.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I grew up in Virginia, in the least populated county east of the Mississippi, where the importance of community was instilled in me at a very early age.

I graduated from James Madison University (BA in Corporate Communication) and West Virginia University (MBA in Integrated Marketing Communications).

I started my career in the non-profit sector which appealed to my interest in philanthropy and community engagement. This became the theme of my career path. Prior to joining Swilled Dog, I worked for a Main Street program as the Marketing Director. In addition to promoting the downtown community, the organization offered marketing support to independently owned businesses in the downtown district. Early on, I learned the importance of customer relationships and communicating your impact. Working alongside these entrepreneurs — seeing them devote their whole lives to their passion, struggle to compete with big box stores, and ultimately succeed or fail due to economic challenges and hardships — is the reason I’m passionate about helping businesses tell their story.

These experiences are what ultimately drew me to Swilled Dog. I wanted to be on the other side of creating the customer experience and telling the story of this company that has a passion for giving back.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

In my early years at the Main Street organization, I planned festivals and events for the downtown community. One of my first events was the city’s Fourth of July Festival. Despite how organized and prepared I felt, the weather wreaked havoc on the event. A major storm delayed live music and activities, borrowed tents were damaged, and a ball from the dunking booth was accidentally thrown into a retail storefront window. I felt that I had failed and was ill-equipped for the job and the unpredictability that comes with planning events. I learned two lessons from that experience: First, that adaptability and the ability to course-correct on a dime is an essential skill, and second, discomfort can go a long way in helping you grow personally and professionally. Fear of the unknown can paralyze you and keep you from exploring new ideas. Pushing through those feelings is what can lead to creative breakthroughs and growth.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

There are so many people that have helped me get where I am. I’m a firm believer that every one of my relationships has influenced who I am. Whether it’s a colleague, customer or friend, every relationship is a chance for me to learn something that can help me grow.

When you spend time with someone — regardless of the length of that time — there is often something to be learned. Sometimes, it can simply be in the words they speak or how they treat you or other people. There are definitely people in my life who stand out and have helped me step out of my comfort zone and encouraged me to think bigger. But, we learn, grow and take inspiration from everyone and everything around us.

Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business?

Loyal customers and profits are the by-products of excellent customer service. Happy customers are more likely to make repeat purchases, share glowing reviews, engage with your business online, recommend your product or service to family and friends and remain loyal for years to come.

The importance of customer loyalty impacts almost every aspect of your business. At the end of the day, customers are the core of your growth, profits and reputation. In today’s highly competitive marketplace, customers have thousands of options. Customer service is a differentiator that demonstrates why they should choose you.

We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?

Providing stellar customer service requires time and training. The most successful companies adopt a customer-centric philosophy and spend time sharing their vision for customer service with their teams. This requires companies to take a top-down approach, to lead by example and invest time in training. This can be challenging for smaller companies, as business owners wear multiple hats, but for those who are committed to keeping customers happy — like Swilled Dog — the results truly do pay dividends.

Omnichannel may be a buzzword, but it’s relevant when you consider that your customers are everywhere and their expectations are as diverse as they are. The cookie cutter approach won’t cut it — particularly in the hospitality segment where companies have to acknowledge that some customers want a fully automated experience while others want personal service and human interaction. The challenge is to meet all of these needs and create what feels like a custom experience in a cost effective way.

Do you think that more competition helps force companies to improve the customer experience they offer? Are there other external pressures that can force a company to improve the customer experience?

This is a great question given the times that we’re currently facing. Competition is healthy and it inspires companies to improve. In the midst of COVID, companies had to get more creative and think more strategically than ever before to survive, never mind thrive. As we emerge from one of the most challenging periods in modern history, being innovative will continue to be necessary as consumer needs, wants and expectations continue to change. Competition will always be the wake-up call that businesses need to continue to evolve and implement new strategies that keep their business fresh and customers coming back.

Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?

Soon after Swilled Dog opened our tasting room in the mountains of West Virginia, a customer reached out. She was hosting a bachelorette trip for her friend who happened to be a huge fan of our cider. Their group wanted to stop by the tasting room on a day that we weren’t normally open. We didn’t even hesitate. I worked through the details with her in advance and greeted her party as they kicked off their weekend trip. It was a custom and exclusive cider experience, and we documented every part of the experience with photos to remember the day.

Did that Wow! experience have any long term ripple effects? Can you share the story?

The group was extremely impressed with the hospitality and atmosphere. They kept commenting on the overall experience and suggested that Swilled Dog would be perfect for Harvest Hosts. I was not familiar with this program, but after researching it, I realized they were right and we joined. What was a random idea, casually tossed out in conversation, has translated into a lot of new customers and sales for our business.

Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience. Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Passion for the product. Creating a WOW customer experience starts with a quality product that you can stand behind. If you’re not in love with your product or service, you can’t expect your customers to be. At the same time, even the most extraordinary customer service won’t make up for a bad product.
  2. Pick the right people. Despite best intentions, a CEO cannot personally deliver exceptional service to all customers. They need to depend on their team and the culture they’ve created. This means everyone in the company needs to take ownership and responsibility for customer service.
  3. Don’t be afraid to take risks and fail. Customer needs and wants are always changing. Innovation is important and consumers want authentic experiences. Dive in, but know that sometimes you can be wrong. Accept it and be willing to change — and change quickly.
  4. Communicate your impact. When businesses give back (money or time), they are creating a positive work environment that benefits employees and enhances their customer relationships. Studies show that social responsibility is important to customers, and even more so to Millennials and younger audiences. Everyone benefits — the brand, employees, customers, your bottom line, and the cause. At Swilled Dog, for example, the face of our brand is Lucy Pickles — a rescue border collie with as much personality as energy. During the first 7 months of her life, Lucy had eight homes, many of them abusive. Her story has become ours now that she is happily ensconced in her forever home. Knowing her plight drove us to commit to support animal causes as a pillar of our business. As a company we annually give a percentage of our sales to charities. It’s an action that our customers can really get behind.
  5. You can’t be everything for everybody. This is a cardinal rule in marketing that takes discipline to follow, or you’ll never establish deep connections with customers and dilute your brand. The first step is to know who you are: finalize your core values and your brand identity, then be clear about who your real customers are and what they want from you. Then strive for loyalty and creating the best experience you can. Research and measurement is critical here.

Are there a few things that can be done so that when a customer or client has a Wow! experience, they inspire others to reach out to you as well?

Ask for the review! Consumers crave information about first-hand experiences when on the fence about making a purchase. Asking for reviews can feel self-serving, but generally people love to share their opinions and these honest conversations can go a long way in building credibility for your company. I mention honesty because even a bad review — if handled correctly — can speak volumes about your business and help you maintain trust and transparency while giving you the opportunity to continue to improve and grow.

My particular expertise is in retail, so I’d like to ask a question about that. Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise retail companies and eCommerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?

Consumers are looking to establish relationships with the brands they support and that is less driven by price than you would think. There is a tremendous opportunity around the “love local” movement. Particularly after the economic chaos caused by COVID, people love to support independently owned businesses that are the lifeblood of their community. Chinese companies can’t compete with the personal service, quality of locally sourced items and the warm and fuzzy feelings that come with knowing that you’re supporting your neighbors.

Consider the local coffee shop where you grab your morning coffee. The barista knows you by name or greets you with a friendly ‘hello.’ Maybe they remember your regular order or simply offer a great selection that allows you to change it up with your mood or needs that day. After you grab your cup of joe, you sink into one of their couches to read the morning news or check your emails. Your love of the atmosphere and this warm connection to the people and place is what makes you keep coming back.

It may be difficult for e-commerce stores to replicate this same in-person experience, but there are plenty of opportunities to infuse many of these same values and feelings into the customer experience. Retail and e-commerce companies can take steps to humanize their business and develop connections with their customers by being transparent and communicating the type of community they’re supporting. Storytelling is key and personalizing the brand and offering a behind-the-scenes look into the people and products that make up the business is easier than ever with technology. User-generated content is what helps customers know they’re buying from other people — not just a corporation. Customers also want to know they’re a part of something bigger when they make a purchase. Brands that lean into the idea that we all have a responsibility to make the world a better place and align their business with an important cause have a competitive advantage.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’m not sure that we need another movement to inspire change. Instead, I think it starts within: learning the things you’re passionate about, finding joy in your work, making time for self care, and exploring ways to be part of something bigger than yourself. When people create happiness for themselves, they’re more equipped to go out into the world and make small gestures that can spark big change.

For many of us, this past year altered our routines. More time at home with my family during the pandemic reminded me to live in the moment and appreciate the small things. I found more time for self care and exercise. I soaked up uninterrupted time with my kids. But I also found myself longing to return to work. It was a chance for me to reflect on my job and the role that it plays in my life. The saying that when you choose a job you love, you will never have to work a day in your life is undeniably true. I would encourage others to look within to cultivate a happiness that can spread to others.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Linkedin Kimberly Kirk & Follow Swilled Dog on IG, FB, and Twitter @swilleddog

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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