Laura Vickers goes behind the scenes in the Member Services department at Stevenage & reveals that there's so much more to the job than simply answering calls and placing orders.
'We're everything to everybody!'
This was the cheerful answer given by Emma Lingwood-Humber - who joined the Member Services team in 2008 - when I asked her about the department. After spending just a few minutes listening in to her calls on a busy Thursday morning, I could completely see what she means.
No two days the same
Within the large, open-plan office, there are two phone teams, a support team for enquiries, an export team and a delivery management team with a co-ordinator at the head of each mini team.
But the role of a Member Services Adviser is so much more than answering phone calls and e-mails or taking orders. When The Society was founded in 1874, its cornerstone was to provide the highest quality service (as well as wines), and upholding this aim requires knowing every element of how The Society works, and ensuring each one continues to benefit Society members.
Not only does this involve assisting every other department in the company - from liaising with our drivers and Distribution team on delivery enquiries, to dealing with payment issues on behalf of the Accounts team, and even being the first point of contact for PR and media enquiries - but it also means constantly evolving our services to keep up both with members' changing lifestyles and new technology.
It is more often than not the Member Services team that notices when something isn't quite working for members, and their feedback constantly informs the Executive Team's decisions and planning, meaning the views of members are always reflected in the changes we make.
Nurturing a passion for wine
Member Services' involvement with other departments also includes the Buying team: a number of advisers now attend weekly meetings with Buyers to taste wines that have been returned with suspected quality issues (such as cork taint or oxidisation).
These informative sessions not only teach helpful wine knowledge that can be used for the daily wine advice enquiries Member Services receive, they also broaden the advisers' skills in ways which will assist them in gaining formal trade qualifications (such as the WSET - Wine & Spirit Education Trust exams), or even allow them to progress to other roles within The Society in future. One previous attendee, Joe Mandrell, is now a Trainee Buyer.
This enthusiastic wine advice team deals with everything from food matches, weddings and anniversary gifts, to helping members manage which wines are ready to withdraw from Members' Reserves and recommending wines to lay down for years to come.
'It's never boring,' says wine adviser Hugo Fountain, who has been working in Member Services since 2012, 'and it's important to be adaptable and approach each enquiry differently. Sometimes we get very technical questions - I was recently asked to find out the average age of the vines used to make a specific Sauternes - but we work closely with the Buyers to make sure we can give an accurate response.'
The entire Member Services team is also invited to regular product knowledge sessions held by the Buyers, where advisers can taste and learn about everything from organic wines to those highlighted in our regional offers and what wines will match their Christmas dinner. Each lesson helps the team to advise members with confidence and broadens their experience so that they can pass on this knowledge to members.
An individual approach
Wine tastings are an obvious perk of the job, but what makes member services advisers commute more than 40 miles from as far as Chelmsford, and happily remain in the department for over 25 years?
For many, it's because the co-ordinators who look after each team understand that each adviser gets something different out of their job, and they help them to achieve their individual ambitions.
Some advisers want more responsibility or a management role, others want to achieve their WSET Diploma and use their enthusiasm for wine more frequently, and some want to help teach their colleagues by running their own product knowledge sessions or developing the department training programme. There are options for all of them.
'Everyone is encouraged to go as far as they can,' says co-ordinator Peter James, who himself started as a member services adviser in 2002, 'and regular Performance Development Reviews help each adviser to set his or her own goals for achievements outside their normal duties.'
Obviously the priority remains being there to help members - the department gets 600 to 700 calls each day, and aims to answer at least 83% of them within 20 seconds - but in Peter's experience, focusing on the needs of the staff as well as the members is worth it.
'It's a balancing act, but everyone wins in the end. Members find themselves dealing with happy, fulfilled staff - and people stay for years, which means they're experienced and really know what they're doing.'
All questions answered
When answering calls, not a day goes by without facing a question you've never been asked before.
And while I sat with Emma, listening in to her calls, it amazed me how many obscure facts about The Society she could quote off the top of her head when members rang. The exact opening hours of the Montreuil showroom on a Saturday? No problem. The date of the next tasting at Stevenage? Easy. How to transfer a share to someone else upon a member's death? Not only did Emma know instantly, she assisted the caller with sensitivity, too.
But sometimes, inevitably, things can go wrong. If it's on a big scale, like an IT glitch or widespread bad weather, the team gets hundreds more enquiries than normal, and it's all hands on deck. Emma tells me the team remains calm: 'It's like we're one big family. If there's a mini-crisis, then we're all in it together, so we don't get too stressed. We're always kept updated by our co-ordinators, so we know we're doing everything we can, even in a difficult situation.'
This support from the team leaders also means that one-off problems - such as a delivery going wrong - don't daunt the advisers. Even if tempers flare, advisers know they will have support with more than just finding a quick solution. 'Our most recent training session was called "Wow-factor plus one",' Emma tells me. 'We're aiming not just to be helpful, but also to go one step further to make members happy.'
Work hard, play hard
The office environment certainly lends itself to this aim. This buzzing, vibrant community of colleagues are always thinking up fun new ways to fill any spare minute - from dressing-up days to cake competitions.
'Most recently, we've had the Office Summer Olympics, where we all compete in a variety of silly activities' Emma explains. 'You should have been here yesterday - the latest event was a chilli-eating contest. Two of the lads had eight!'
There's certainly never a dull moment in Member Services - whether at work or play - and even the temporary staff employed for the Christmas rush are eager to join in.
There's plenty in store for this department, with continual tweaks and development of its services as The Society continues to grow and evolve. Thankfully, while the department might be constantly changing, at its heart, it remains the same.
Laura Vickers previously worked as a wine adviser in our Member Services' team and is now a freelance writer and active blogger
> Find out about a day in the life of a Society buyer
> Find out more about our team of nine buyers