In skiing, blazing a trail means making it better for the next adventurer. If you’re the first to a mountain after a night of thick snow in Tahoe City, California, you might be setting a skin track—trekking through untouched terrain with skins on your skis to leave a safer trail in your wake.
Brendan Madigan, who came to Tahoe City for a taste of adventure and never left, learned how to break in snow from the staff at a local outdoor gear shop, Alpenglow Sports. “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,” he said.
The promise of fresh snow drew Brendan to Tahoe City, but it’s the open-hearted hospitality that’s kept him around for 20 years. At Alpenglow, he immediately felt welcome and became committed to making others feel that way too. He joined the store’s staff and worked his way up the ladder until he took over as owner.
No longer a ski bum, Brendan uses his business to set a trail that ushers others safely behind him. Through hiring, training, and a community-focused business model, Brendan has created a culture of enthusiasm and genuinely loving to help customers, whether they’re pros or first-timers. “Alpenglow has always been about the people,” he said. “I’m lucky enough to be the second owner, but I just consider myself a steward of this business.”
In this small, mountain town known for its scenic beauty and outdoor recreation, Alpenglow functions as a de facto community hub and welcoming committee for tourists. “We remind our staff that we get to live here and [adventure] on a daily basis,” Brendan said. “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 with safe and fun places to go is very rewarding.”
If it’s obvious that they’re not interested in helping other people, they’re not hired.Brendan Madigan
As with many small businesses, cultivating a healthy work environment for employees and customers is critical. A good product or service is key, but workplace culture can make or break your business. In the interview process, Brendan looks for candidates who are capable of building meaningful relationships. “I don’t care what their CV is—if it’s obvious that they’re not interested in helping other people, they’re not hired,” he said.
In training, Alpenglow employees learn how to create authentic connections with customers, whether it’s recommending a hiking trail or meeting them at their budget. “I start my training with our staff with a podcast [from] StoryCorps,” he said. “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.”
When Yelp reviewer Sheena H. visited Alpenglow to find a new pair of hiking boots, she experienced this enthusiasm first-hand. In her review, she wrote that she was particularly impressed by how knowledgeable the employee who helped her was and how he gave her tips on which shoes to choose based on the occasion, making her feel safe and equipped for her hike. More importantly, she felt like he was prioritizing her needs, and not just the sale.
“I think what gets really frustrating sometimes as a customer [is that salespeople] want to maybe steer you toward the higher price item instead of actually hearing you out for what you’re looking for,” said Sheena. “I think that’s what was really lovely is that [the salesperson] didn’t try to make me buy something. It was like, what is truly right for your needs now and in the future?”
Sheena’s review hits on exactly what Brendan has demonstrated is so essential to his thriving business: putting the customer’s needs first. “We don’t think of ourselves as salespeople,” he said. “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. And that’s why I think people enjoy working here because it is a little different approach.”
That different approach is also why Brendan uses Alpenglow’s platform to fundraise and connect with others who love the outdoors. As part of its customer-facing business model, the business hosts an annual Alpenglow Sports Winter Speaker Series, a 16-year-old, free event for outdoor enthusiasts of all kinds and experience levels.
“We get five of the biggest names in the adventure space, climbers, skiers, snowboarders—all with a human-powered story, and give a free show to the community,” he said. “[Participants’] sponsors donate prizes, and we pick five local nonprofits, one per show for the season. 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.”
Negative reviews are just opportunities in disguise.Brendan Madigan
Even with all the positive relationships that Alpenglow has maintained thoughtfully over the years, a business can never please everyone. In instances where they can’t provide a smooth interaction, Brendan recognizes the importance of being compassionate when working with customers.
“If we get a bad review, that hurts. Negative reviews are just opportunities in disguise, right?” he said. “We treat [customers] with compassion, 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.’”
These insights have helped Brendan create a business that’s truly customer-centric:
- Make customer interactions the center of your business. Train staff to look beyond the sale and create real relationships that aim to help customers.
- Negative reviews are just opportunities in disguise. Use constructive feedback to learn something. Acknowledge when a consumer feels let down and determine how to make it better.
- Look for opportunities to expand your footprint locally. Determine how you can give back to the community that supports you—through special events, fundraisers, business associations, and more.
Photos of Alpenglow Sports on Yelp; editorial by Emily Moon & Will Degirolamo
These lessons come from an episode of Behind the Review, Yelp & Entrepreneur Media’s weekly podcast. Listen to the episode below to hear directly from Brendan and Sheena, or visit the episode page to read more, subscribe to the show, and explore other episodes.
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