Rick Martinez remembers the early days of Seņor Sangria, back when he was doing business not one customer at a time, but one batch at a time.
“If there were any issues with the taste, we'd go back and make it right,” he said.
That was back in 2009, when his office was just as much the back of his car as his location in Maplewood. When he was still trying to see if he could make a buck on the recipe all his friends and family liked so much at weekend parties.
“I had to go in stores one retailer, one consumer at a time and make them feel like they're the only one,” he said. “If they said no, I'd come back in a month and ask them again to give us a shot.”
Five years later — with his product in roughly 1,000 retail stores in New Jersey and scattered in roughly 1,000 more spots in Maryland, Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut — Martinez no longer has to run his business that way.
But he still does.
Martinez feels the success of Señor Sangria comes as much from his customer service as the quality of product. For Martinez, it comes with the territory of being a small business.
“It's how we differentiate ourselves from the competition,” he said. “We want to show our retailers that we care.”
Customer service is key to all businesses. It may be most important to small businesses, which have little margin for error.
At least that's the message Deborah Smarth, the chief operating officer of the New Jersey Small Business Development Centers, delivers to companies.
“A small business can carve out its special niche in providing great customer service,” she said.
The key, Smarth said, is to make customer service a part of the company's brand.
“Great customer service is used as a marketing tool for the small business itself,” she said.
And, experts say, customer service is more than just delivering a product on time —and with a smile.
Martinez feels the little things — actions that help the client — make all the difference.
“We find ourselves often chipping in to help support our retailers with charity events,” he said.
“Many times we find out about these events at the last minute, but we love them, so we always find a way to rearrange our schedules to make our way to these events.”
Events that help the store and his company.
“We'll get emails from folks after an event saying, 'I tried your sangria and love it,' ” he said. “Those kinds of emails keep us excited and moving forward.”
Yes, moving forward — and getting bigger. It's the goal of every small business owner.
But growth often comes with giving up control. And giving up the customer service that compnay has built itsbrand on.
It's the reason Martinez and his wife Maria (who maintains a full-time job away from the company, but is heavily involved, even coming up with the catchy Señor Sangria name) have resisted the urge to get his product into larger retailers or wholesale chains.
If he gets into a big chain, Martinez fears, the only thing that matters will be his ability to deliver his product in large quantities.
Ben Weiss found that out.
Weiss, whose Trenton-based beverage company, Bai, has taken off in the marketplace this year, was nearly done before he started.
He got his drink on the shelves of Costco — then got thrown off because he couldn't keep up with their demands.
“They have such high standards,” Weiss said a few months back — after getting his product back on the shelves. “It's a pain in the neck to deal with them, but because of dealing with them, you become a better company.”
Weiss, ultimately, liked the connection.
“I think we're a better company because of the standards Costco employs,” he said.
Martinez isn't ready to make that leap.
He is eager to grow, but at his own rate. He has hoped to expand his staff — currently two full-timers and a handful of part-time salesman — by two to four people in the next two to three years.
Business is good. And growing.
Martinez expects revenues to hit $3 million in 2014. But for him, getting Señor Sangria in front of more potential customers still is a literal thing.
“We've found ourselves driving one to two hours to visit a retailer to show our face,” he said. “We know that face time with a retailer goes a very long way, especially when you are a small company.”
It sure did at Mac & Lindy's Fine Wine and Spirits in Vernon Township.
The company did a wine tasting at the store a few weeks ago that was as good as any manager Sean Megnin had seen in his seven years at the store.
“They were really personable, knew the product, talked about different ways you can use it; they put on a good show,” Megnin said. “We sold 70 bottles in five hours, which is incredible.
“It was one of the most successful tastings we've ever had. And it keeps selling.”
For Martinez, success stories like these are more proof that he's going about his business the right way.
He knows Señor Sangria costs a bit more than the competition — it's the all- natural ingredients, he says — but he feels its taste makes it worth it.
And he knows customers may only taste it if they can sample it.
“We'll win the battle through tastings and customer service,” he said. “It takes longer, but we're building deeper roots.”
One batch at a time.
Lori Bergeron is a freelance writer based in Morris Plains.
WHY CUSTOMER SERVICE MATTERS TO SMALL BUSINESS
Deborah Smarth, the chief operating officer and associate state director for the New Jersey Small Business Development Centers, offers three ways small businesses benefit from great customer service:
A small business can carve out its special niche in providing great customer service, thereby enhancing its client/customer relationships and distinguishing itself among other businesses in the industry.
Nothing helps grow (or conversely crush) your business than word-of-mouth comments and social media. When the existing customers provide testimonials, it attracts new customers.
Learning to manage your expectations through customer satisfaction is key, but it’s also important to learn how to provide a response to customers and communicate regularly.
SO WHAT ABOUT SEÑORITA MARGARITA?
It seems like the next logical step.
Rick Martinez has filled a need — providing a quality bottled sangria with a catchy name (it’s tough to be more clever than Señor Sangria).
So why not go after the margarita market, too?
Here’s where being a small business can make things difficult.
“As a smaller biz, we don’t have the capital to spend,” Martinez said.
Martinez’s next priority is to improve his margins and have a better grasp of other markets.
The Maplewood company has expanded beyond the borders of New Jersey. A greater geographical growth may make more sense than expanding the product line.
Besides, growing slowly allows Martinez to maintain complete control of the operation, something he said he’s not ready to give up anytime soon.