Laura Vickers spends a day with one of The Society's van drivers to find out more about this key part of The Society's service to members
It's only 6.30am but the day is already well underway for a Wine Society driver. It's dark outside, and most of the country is still asleep, but Dave Stephenson - a driver for the Society for over six years - is halfway through loading the day's deliveries.
And it's not just a matter of heaving case after case of wine into the back of his trusty Society van: Dave is consulting his 'drop sheet' (the paperwork that tells him what he is delivering, and in what order - using a route calculated by computer) to ensure he loads the last deliveries at the back and keeps the earlier deliveries in easy reach at the front. This saves time and prevents cases being forgotten.
Dave and the other drivers are meticulous - surprisingly so for a novice like me, standing bleary-eyed and still half asleep in the middle of the hectic yard, and watching the sky grow slowly lighter. If a case is missing, they'll search the other drivers' pallets in case of a mis-sort, and even get the warehouse to fetch a new case if they can.
No substitute for driver experience
We're on the road by seven (though I'm told some drivers leave as early as 5am!), but leave another driver - Dave Syrett - still loading his van. A software glitch means the delivery route calculated by the computer isn't as efficient as it could be, so instead Dave is using his 26 years' experience delivering for The Society to reorganise the route himself. There's nothing like driver savvy to overcome technical teething problems.
As we battle through rush hour traffic to south London and begin our deliveries, I learn that Dave started his working life as an electronic engineer. He's been using this scientific expertise to help less computer-friendly drivers - as well as the management - to iron out kinks in delivery software which has recently had an upgrade.
And it becomes clear throughout the day that he has an impressive analytical mind - one with which I fail miserably to keep up, even remotely - that means he can re-plan deliveries when traffic or all manner of other disruptions throw a spanner in the works.
It's a good job, really: 'I didn't really get an induction when I started this job as I had to jump in at the deep end when a driver went off sick. On my first day I just got given the keys to the van and my delivery sheets - and I was off!' As well as an incredible sense of direction, the delivery team needs to work completely independently, under pressure and - in Dave's case - with enough nerve to deal with London drivers!
Going the extra mile
Dave and the team each make up to 35 drops a day - normally delivering 60 to 90 cases of wine - and at Christmas this goes up to over 100. Although this is fewer than drivers for bigger courier companies, The Society drivers cover a much bigger area, keep within specific delivery windows for our members' convenience and spend more time trying to ensure each delivery successfully reaches the member. This sometimes includes transporting large numbers of cases up several flights of stairs, or helpfully carrying the cases down into the cellar.
The lower number of drops also allows for an astonishing attention to detail. Even though our membership is growing faster than ever before - meaning there are often four or five brand new addresses on Dave's route - he makes an effort to memorise as many helpful details about each one as possible.
London buildings are tricky to navigate, but Dave knows the best way to access even the best-hidden apartment complexes and office blocks - and that's not all. 'I keep a file of things like gate codes and alternative delivery addresses, if they work or have family living nearby, so even if the delivery instructions are missing I can make sure their wine gets to them on the day it's supposed to.'
His sharp memory means most of the time he doesn't even need the file, and I was shocked by how easily he remembered even the most obscure hiding places for members' wines when they weren't at home. It's never a 'leave it on the doorstep' job - he goes out of his way to conceal cases behind bushes, with other members he knows live on the same road, under tarpaulins when the weather is bad or in bins and recycling boxes. Don't worry - he even knows the bin days of the addresses on his route, so cases won't get crushed in the bin lorry by mistake…
Drivers greatly appreciated by the members
In the instances where members are at home, it's very clear they hold a lot of affection for Dave, and not one fails to smile and exchange a few words with him. The regular ones welcome him almost as a friend, and Dave is happy to chat, even remembering to ask one member how they were settling in after their recent house move. 'It's been known for us to stop for the occasional cuppa,' he says, 'and some drivers even bring biscuits to give to members' dogs!'
We finish the deliveries at 3.30pm and begin the long drive home. On the way I ask Dave how often he gets to see the other drivers. The answer is surprisingly infrequently: 'I normally only see four or five of the guys while I'm loading the van in the morning, and we all get back at different times.' It can be a lonely job. 'But October 24th is our annual Drivers' Day - all The Society's drivers travel from as far as Edinburgh, Bristol and Durham to meet up. We discuss what we could do to improve the service we offer, and then we all have a meal. It's a rare chance for us to socialise with each other, and a nice way to say thank you for working hard.'
When I get home just after five, I'm exhausted - and I wasn't the one driving or carrying the heavy cases! Not Dave, however - he and his wife Tessa spend their evenings going for long runs and exploring all manner of hobbies together, from photography to dance classes. That is, after he's collected tomorrow's delivery notes, and called his members to let them know what time he'll be arriving…
It's a phrase that has been overused when it comes to customer (or member) service, but both literally and figuratively, Society drivers really do go the extra mile.
Laura Vickers previously worked as a wine adviser in our Member Services' team and is now a freelance writer and active blogger
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