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The Grapes of Wrath

In recent visits to two Santa Barbara wineries, we experienced varied but interesting interactions attributable (or not) to learning and development. In both instances, we were customers—but unfortunately for both businesses, we are also learning practitioners. 

Naturally, these wineries depend highly on customer discretionary income. This means that the clientele have choices on where and how to spend their money. They can choose a to visit and spend money at a winery or choose a variety of other discretionary income activities.

Customers with discretionary income expect attention to detail. They want to be treated with individuality and to be informed. Their intentions aren’t only to taste wines but to also purchase one or more bottles. And these wines aren’t your typical $10 bottles from the corner liquor store. 

Once seated, we were ready to order but had questions for our 20-something server Kayla. She explained that she had just started at her job and would do her best to answer. Regretfully, this was not the first impression we expected from a high-end winery. Once our selections were made, Kayla began pouring. Again, our friends had questions about the wine and again, Kayla was unable to answer appropriately. 

Our server’s lack of attention, experience, and knowledge left us unsatisfied, and we regretted having spent money at this winery. Naturally, our experience left us unfulfilled and promising never to return. Worse, our California friends vowed to never recommend this winery to others. 

Let’s do a quick calculation for the immediate business impact (or what learning and development professionals refer to as Level 4) resulting from Kayla’s poor performance (or what L&D refers to as Level 3):

• The winery earned approximately $100 from the four of us from our visit.
• Unfortunately, for Kayla, her tip was lighter than 10 percent. 
• Furthermore, the owners never greeted us to see how our disposable income was doing.
• Not one of us purchased a bottle of wine; average price $80 times 4 customers = $320 potential foregone revenue.
Let’s look at the possible long-term business impact. While we’re unable to accurately forecast what may or may not occur, why would any business chance it? 

• Word of mouth of the poor experience. A recent study states that 54 percent of customers share bad experiences with more than five people. And that’s only one degree of separation. Based on this, four of us will speak to 20 or more people. Multiplied by the $20 tasting per person and that amounts to more than $400 of lost sales. 
• This doesn’t include the lost potential bottle sales amounting to more than $1,600. 
• Finally, the intangible and incalculable cost to the winery’s reputation. 


Subsequently, our friends took us to a second winery that exceeded our expectations. During our visit, the conversation has us comparing the second winery’s exceptional service to the first. And not only did we all purchase tastings, three of us purchased one bottle each, for a total sale of close to $500 from the four of us and a commitment to revisit.

How learning can connect to business

It continues to amazes us how learning practitioners fail to recognize how their efforts contribute to business results. Furthermore, it’s unfathomable how practitioners also continue to complicate their learning solutions. Learning practitioners are good at designing excellent learning initiatives. Where they repeatedly fail is recognizing why their learning effort is required in the first place. 

Here are three simple but essential ways to focus and develop robust learning solutions that will contribute to business results: 

Be a customer.
The first winery could have avoided our poor experience if they had helped Kayla to better serve customers. Knowing why the customer comes to the winery in the first place, what they expect during their visit, and what they expect when leaving will focus learning efforts in the right skills, not all of the skills. The second winery developed employees to focus on customer expectations. 

Be the decision-maker.
Business leaders expect to make profit. But profit-making requires generating sales while appropriately allocating scarce resources. Recognizing Kayla’s inexperience, the first winery should had supported her with an experienced wine expert or, at least, a mentor. This appropriate use of resources would have made our visit a positive experience, possibly generating more sales. Again, the second winery did this very well.

Be a participant. Did anyone ask Kayla what she expected to learn about the winery and their wines? Did the first winery assess her current level of knowledge during or after the hiring phase? Did the design of the learning effort emphasize what Kayla and her peers needed to learn, rather than simply cramming everything she should learn? Only the winery can accurately answer these questions. But learning practitioners often focus on developing the learning rather than on the needs of participants. 

Learning and development must acknowledge and accept that it’s an internal business function within a business and not a special child to be treated differently. With this comes business accountability. Delivering learning value to business means connecting to customer needs, reconciling business expectations, and respecting what employees need in their roles to make a business difference. 

Learning isn’t about cost recovery or profitability. Learning’s business role is about leveraging existing resources to improve employee performance. Do this and you’ll achieve job application and ultimately business results. No more, no less. 
© 2017 ATD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.

About the Author
Ajay Pangarkar is is a co-founder of and, and co-author of The Trainer’s Balanced Scorecard: A Complete Resource for Linking Learning to Organizational Strategy. He is a Chartered Professional Accountant (CPA), Certified Management Accountant (CMA), and a Certified Training and Development Professional (CTDP).
About the Author
Performance management expert Teresa Kirkwood is co-founder of and With Ajay M. Pangarkar, she is co-author of The Trainer’s Balanced Scorecard: A Complete Resource for Linking Learning to Organizational Strategy.
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