It’s the time of year when First Citizens Bank sponsors its annual Customer Service Award through our local Chamber of Commerce
. South ‘n France is too young to qualify for the competition (one eligibility rule is that your business must be at least three years old and we are only a little over two-and-a-half). But this week, we thought you might enjoy a few tales of how we are already working to build a reputation for legendary customer service. This one is world-class because it involves international negotiations!
Tomorrow we are hosting a private, custom party for a regular corporate client. To show how much we value their continued business, we wanted to do something extra special. While visiting Quebec this summer, Pascal and I discovered a unique port wine. Port wines are typically sweet, fortified dessert wines. True port comes from Portugal (just like true champagne comes from the Champagne region of France), but several other countries produce good port-style wines — most notably Australia, South Africa, Argentina, the United States and Canada. At the farmer’s market in the Old Port of Quebec, Pascal and I met a French-Canadian who is making the world’s only rosé port. We sampled it and bought one small bottle to bring back to North Carolina. We asked the farmer if he had a business card, but he said he was fresh out of them.
Back home, as we prepared our party proposal, we brainstormed ideas that would impress our well-traveled clients who are connoisseurs of wine. “I know”, I suggested, “let's serve that rosé port with our dessert course! I think they’ll really enjoy tasting a wine that can only be found in one small rural region of the world!” Pascal liked the idea, so we included this special port tasting, compliments of South ‘n France, in our party proposal. Our clients accepted our proposal with delight and a marked interest in trying our unique offering.
“How difficult could it be to track down a few bottles of port wine from a French-Canadian farmer?” I must have been thinking at the time. Or perhaps I wasn’t thinking at all because it turns out that it’s very difficult! I started with a rural address on the bottle and an internet search. After an extensive search, I managed to track down a phone number and an email address. I phoned (leaving a message in French) and wrote an email (in French too), explaining to the farmer that we had tried his wine and now wanted to share it with important clients. Could he please contact us so we could order a few bottles to be shipped to North Carolina? “Non”, he replied, via email, “Ce n’est pas possible.”
We could not accept “It’s not possible” for an answer, so I had to find out why. Turns out there were several problems with my wonderful idea: this small, rural port producer does not have distribution rights in the United States (and certainly not in North Carolina); due to customs regulations he cannot ship across the border; and for any shipping within Canada, he only sends a case (12 bottles) at a time, C.O.D. This left us with two options: fly back to Quebec to buy more at the farmer’s market; find a creative solution; or disappoint our client (which, for us, was not an option).
I worked on getting creative. There was a loophole; it is possible for tourists to bring up to 1.14 liters of wine across the border if they stay for 48 hours or more. “All” I had to do was find a friend or relative who was planning a vacation that involved time spent on both sides of the border. Many phone calls and emails later, I found someone who would be vacationing between Canada and Cape Cod, Massachusetts. I then called relatives who live on the Canadian border to see if I could ship a case of wine to them, C.O.D., a couple of bottles of which would be picked up by my wine runners. They agreed. But our timing was very precarious: I confirmed all of this on a Monday and my wine runners were going to be in Canada that very Friday. I couldn’t possibly get an international money order to the farmer (who, of course, doesn’t take credit cards) before he shipped the wine. It needed to go out that day! I called the French-Canadian monsieur again and pleaded my case. I begged him to ship the wine in good faith with the promise that the money order was already on its way. “S’il vous plait”, I implored, “our clients are very important to us, and we cannot disappoint them!” He was very kind and agreed to accommodate the crazy-obsessed French-speaking American.
It cost us a few weeks of worry, an inflated phone bill for the flurry of phone calls to Canada, two international money orders, the 3 bottles of rosé port that we needed, 9 extra bottles of port that we didn’t need, FedEx shipping, and a debt of gratitude to our wine runners, our relatives, and a very accommodating, romantic wine-maker in Quebec. But knowing that we’ve fulfilled a promise to our clients? You guessed it; that’s priceless!