Prioritizing Relationships Over Sales
Sometimes service can feel forced. At Alpenglow Sports, owner Brendan says, “If you don’t love to help people, you’re not hired.” And that culture creates a customer-forward approach to the atmosphere in the shop. Reviewer Sheena wanted to support a local business and get some gear for a trip. The knowledge and expertise shared by the staff instilled confidence in her, and she appreciated that the guidance wasn’t toward the most expensive product but the product that suited her needs.
On the Yelp Blog: Read more about Brendan’s approach to hiring and why he doesn’t think of his staff as salespeople—plus see what parts of his business he calls “opportunities in disguise.”
EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Every episode I pick one review on Yelp and talk to the entrepreneur and the reviewer about the story and business lessons behind their interaction.
Let’s see what’s behind this week’s review.
SHEENA: I was going to Zion in a couple of weeks and I realized that my hiking boots were broken and I needed some new ones. And I was like, well, what better time to get new hiking boots is in a business and an area that really needs the commerce and everything happening there. So we went there, the gentleman who helped us was really kind, everybody was really kind.
EMILY: That’s Sheena. Telling me about Alpenglow Sports, a shop in Tahoe City, California. They specialize in equipment for outdoor recreation, from Nordic skiing to rock climbing.
Having originally stopped by to find a new pair of hiking boots, Alpenglow’s exceptional service stood out to Sheena. Let’s hear what she had to say in her review.
SHEENA: Had a great experience dropping in on this little gem. I had been needing some new hiking boots and the staff here was great. Gave great advice, was attentive to my requirements and ultimately helped me find the best solution for me. Everyone was delightful, thank you!
EMILY: I love how this review gets straight to the point, and perfectly encapsulates the personality of Alpenglow. Tahoe City, where the shop is located, is largely visitor-based, drawn in by the mountain and surfing prospects of the area. With roots in this town that have historically revolved around recreation, Alpenglow has a unique, friendly charm to it.
Brendan, the shop’s owner, can articulate it best.
BRENDAN: We occupy the ground level of a building that was built in the 1940s. One of the oldest buildings in Tahoe city, and, accordingly, it’s a building that has been many different things, from a brothel to a grocery store to different retail shops, a drug store in the past.
And as it has a rich history and, you know, you can tell that just by looking at the building, it’s not a modern building. It’s very rustic and, fitting, in the sense of existing in the mountains. But when you walk in it’s the classic mountain feel of wood floors and wood walls and unique old fixtures for both skis and apparel. And, we like to think that the building has its own soul from all the people, good people who have worked at Alpenglow for nearly as long as I’ve been alive.
EMILY: Although he grew up on the East Coast, Brendan’s desire to experience a nomadic outdoor lifestyle led him to Tahoe City. It’s clear that his personal connection and love for the region translates well into how he conducts his business.
BRENDAN: I had always wanted to experience that, you know, ski bum or dirt bag, dream, whatever you want to call it. When I was in my early to mid twenties and really, you know, I think that’s what kids should be doing. Unless you’re going to be a doctor or a lawyer or something professional, it’s hard to know who you really are when you’re that young. I always wanted to move west and experience that lifestyle, even if it was just for one winter. The reality now is it’s been almost 20 and, uh, I came and never left.
EMILY: While living this dream of his, Brendan stumbled upon Alpenglow, which was at the time under different management. What initially caught his attention, though, was the same friendliness and compassion that left a deep impression on Sheena.
BRENDAN: I was drawn to the store because of the culture. When I came inside of the store before I worked here, everyone was welcoming and helpful and, at a time when I didn’t know anything about the area or these sports, they were very open and welcoming. You know, progressively, I had to work, you know, like you can only ski bum for so long.
So I started working a little more – part-time to full-time and then, you know, I became a buyer and then became a manager. And then ultimately the timing just aligned where my boss, who was a mentor in my life, was ready to retire. And, you know, he felt strongly about passing it onto someone like myself and, you know, we pulled out all the stops to make it work.
EMILY: Brendan came to Tahoe to experience that carefree West Coast lifestyle, but as the years passed and Alpenglow became a more and more ingrained part of his life, it felt natural for him to take over ownership when his mentor retired. And ownership is a whole other beast. It comes with a lot of responsibilities, and stressors, but Brendan was up to the task, and he learned and evolved along the way.
BRENDAN: There’s a lot of reward in personal growth and challenge. And, you know, like I say, building something that benefits other people, both your staff, and your community. The numbers, which admittedly I’m not the greatest at; I’ve had to get my self-taught MBA and self-taught marketing degree, but that’s the joy of small business. It’s true entrepreneurship and it’s sink or swim. So you figure out or you fail, and the stakes are high every year, regardless of your first year in business or your 40th.
EMILY: For small businesses, it’s important to cultivate a healthy work environment for both employees and customers. Sure, having a good product is key, but a great culture can make or break your business. What Alpenglow does so well is building relationships, and as a business owner, Brendan is determined to continue fostering that same consumer-focused culture that drew him there in the first place.
BRENDAN: Alpenglow has always been about the people. You know, I’m lucky enough to be the second owner, but I just consider myself a steward of this business that, when I moved here as a ski bum from the east coast, fresh out of college, there were people here that took me under their wing and showed what it meant to get to the trailhead at five in the morning and put the skin track in for the rest of the community.
That permeates everything that I do. I always tell people that this place has had amazing people. I would say it’s unique. Of course I’m biased, but, to have a store be around for this long, with this kind of reputation, it speaks to the quality of people that are attracted to working here.
EMILY: Brendan’s mindset carries through to every aspect of the business, including hiring. When it comes to potential employees, being able to build meaningful relationships is key, and this quality is what keeps Alpenglow’s company culture consistent.
BRENDAN: If I ask someone in the interview process what’s their description of helping someone if they don’t get it right, I don’t care what their CV is. And you know, if they’re a guide or have tons of experience. Like if it’s obvious that they’re not interested in helping other people, they’re not hired.
That’s not a perfect science either, but you know, then it comes back to my staff – two of which I’ve worked together with for my entire tenure here. So they were hired at both, were hired around the same time. And the three of us have grown into this kind of management trio over almost 20 years.
So I’m tremendously lucky that between the three of us, we’ve been able to facilitate a company culture that shows everyone that we are here to help people because if we don’t, well, what are we really doing this for?
EMILY: Brendan also gave me some insight into how he trains his staff.
BRENDAN: I start my training with our staff with a podcast. It’s a Ted Talk, radio hour, but the topic is Ted Isay. He created Storycorps, which is a popular NPR interview kind of show where you might sit down with your grandmother and ask her some very pointed questions and dig a little deeper into who she is as a person and that kind of thing.
But in any case, the intro of this podcast talks about building bridges of understanding between people from vastly different backgrounds and experiences. That’s what we like to do every day. Like I said, We don’t think of ourselves as salespeople. We want to connect with people on a human level. We do want to know what they’re experiencing in their life and their adventures. That’s why we have a low turnover rate in our staff. And that’s why I think people enjoy working here because it is a little different approach.
EMILY: Investing in the well being and training of employees has clearly paid off for Brendan’s team. When Sheena visited Alpenglow to find a new pair of boots, she was particularly impressed by how knowledgeable the employee who helped her was, and how he gave her tips on what shoes to choose based on the occasion. More importantly, she felt like he was prioritizing her needs, and not just the sale. Sometimes, little details like these are what create a stronger relationship between the business and consumer.
SHEENA: I think what gets really frustrating sometimes, okay. As a customer, I wouldn’t say this is always my experience with small businesses. It’s any business, you know, they want to maybe steer you towards the higher price item instead of like, actually hearing you out for what you’re looking for, and I think that’s what was really lovely is that he didn’t try to make me buy something. It was like, what is truly right for your needs now, and in the future.
EMILY: We’re going to take a quick break, but when we come back we’ll hear from Brendan on how Alpenglow connects with the larger Tahoe community.
EMILY: And we’re back! Alpenglow is all about creating a special retail experience for customers. But beyond that, its unique geographic location allows the business to serve a more educational role in the community.
BRENDAN: We exist in a recreational destination that’s known around the world. But really when it comes to our business approach, we like to say that we have a community facing business models. So, you know, whether it’s someone who’s come here for 40 to 50 years of their life as a second homeowner, or someone who’s visiting from Florida, The reality is everyone comes to a mountain town for scenic beauty and, and most likely to recreate, regardless of seasons.
So, you know, we remind our staff that we get to live here and do that on a daily basis. And when someone walks through our door and wants to share in that, that’s a great honor for us. We think of ourselves as educators and facilitators, not salespeople. Getting people fitted and of conditions and safe and fun places to go, you know, is very rewarding.
EMILY: Something I love about Alpenglow is its involvement in the community. Rather than focusing just on improving the shop, Brendan uses his business’s platform to fundraise and connect with others who share the same interest in outdoor recreation. His outreach efforts reach everyone from local ski enthusiasts to out-of-state visitors, and aim to uplift the community by giving back to local nonprofits.
BRENDAN: I’d say the best example of our business model is something that we call the Alpenglow sports winter speaker series. Now it’s a 16 year old event. We get five of the biggest names in the adventure space, climbers, skiers, snowboarders, all with kind of a human powered story and these are big names, Lynn Hill, Jeremy Jones, Tommy Caldwell, and you know, we have them give a free show to the community and their sponsors donate prizes and we pick five local non-profits, one per show for the season.
The crowd, whether it’s a ski bum, like I was back in 2003, living in their car can come and enjoy it, and win a pair of skis. Or, you know, a one percenter, a bay area tech CEO, can come and again, celebrate that shared passion of adventure and adventure storytelling. And, you can feel the energy in the room.
It’s unique, it’s special. And, that is our best single best event. In terms of the experience and the give back, everyone gets inspired and motivated and then we raise a boat ton of money for some local nonprofits, which makes our community and people’s lives better.
EMILY: Even with all the positive relationships that Alpenglow has cultivated over the years, a business can never please everyone. Here’s Brendan sharing his outlook on reviews, and the importance of being compassionate when interacting with customers.
BRENDAN: When I see an Alpenglow sticker on a car that I don’t recognize, it makes me a little emotional. If we get a bad review, that hurts too, you know. But look, negative reviews are just opportunities in disguise, right? So if you, reach out to that person, and say, Hey, If we blew it, let’s make it right. We’re happy to admit a fault and we’re not perfect.
And someone could be having a bad day, just like, you know, someone comes in the shop and might be gruff or short or whatever. But if we treat them with compassion, they might you know, you don’t know, their parent could have cancer or something.
So, the same goes for negative reviews. Like if you reach out to that person and say, Hey, can we talk about this offline? We’re happy to make it right for you. And if we blew it our bad, but give us another chance. And it’s just an opportunity in disguise. Like I don’t think you can read reviews that are negative and lose your mind, And then you can’t get, you know, too high when you get a great review. It just, it kind of comes with the territory.
EMILY: Sheena, who has worked in the restaurant industry, has seen both sides of the customer service interaction. While it’s understandable for reviewers to comment on their best and worst experiences, it’s also important for both sides to step back and grant some leeway.
SHEENA: I think for other reviewers, if they have a bad experience, you know, I would encourage them to say first, like open your eyes and your ears about what’s going on around you in that business. And understand the struggles or try to. Like whatever you’re seeing and hearing. And it’s not about you, it’s not all about you. A lot of times, you know, I think that a lot of people sometimes enter a restaurant for example, and I mean, I’ve been snapped at, I’ve been told all these things, well, you’re here to serve me. It’s like, well, yes, but I mean, human beings as well.
EMILY: To close off, here’s Brendan again, sharing more of his perspective on reviews.
BRENDAN: Reviews tend to either be five star, one star, right? Like that’s no secret. But it’s nice as well, because it does make a little bit of accountability in your life. Where we wouldn’t be on, we wouldn’t not be on point, if there weren’t Yelp reviews or whatever, or ratings in general. But it does make you extra motivated to be stoked because like, I don’t know who helped, Sheena, but someone did, and someone did a good job and that’s the result.
And I think you just have to, you know, try your best every day and train your staff well, and try to run a good company. And, and usually it works out.