Handling Rejection

This past weekend, I spent a food and wine-soaked few days living it up in San Francisco with one of my favorite girlfriends (who also happens to be a distributor sales rep).  I love traveling with people who are into food and wine because a) we usually get hooked up with hard-to-get reservations (job-brag: we had brunch reservations at Zuni, 8pm Friday night dinner reservations at State Bird, and 8pm Saturday dinner reservations at SPQR—not easy to come by for any of those, so thank you industry hookups!), b) we get to geek out about food, wine and our jobs with relative impunity (instead of the normal eyerolls and sighs we get from non-industry dining companions).

I think these were shots of Mezcal. Which always leads to inspiring conversation...

Besides having an amazing time (and meeting one of the coolest new friends I’ve made in a long time), I shared in some really great, thought provoking discussions about food, wine and issues industry people face, every day in the “trenches.” The one that resonated most with everyone (at dinner that night, our four-top included a somm, a former-somm-turned supplier rep, a top distributor rep, and me), is the constant amount of rejection we get selling wine.

I brought up two stories that were for me, some of the most awkward and uncomfortable in my time in the wine business.

Once, on a ride-with while I was working for an importer, I walked into an off-premise account with a rep. It was the first stop of the day and the account, I was informed, was one of the better accounts in the market for volume, so we would hopefully sell a ton of wine. We ponied up to the tasting bar, and I introduced myself and told him what company I worked for. The buyer looked at me like I’d just crapped in his cornflakes. He turned around immediately and yelled to the rep, “Get the F*CK out of my store.  I don’t need any more of that f*&%ing sh*t! GET OUT!” I was mortified. At the time, the wines I was selling were very highly regarded and usually people were quite happy to taste with me (not to mention the fact that we were in the south, and most buyers I had experienced up to that point in this particular market were courteous and respectful). I was completely shocked. I immediately high-tailed it for the door and waited out of sight in the parking lot,  (awkwardly by the rep’s locked car) for the rep to pack up the wine bag and come out. It later emerged that the buyer had mistaken my company for another importer, and he thought that he was being swindled by the other guys. He conflated the two and actually never bought more of either company’s wine.

The second-most awkward rejection I got was when I was riding with a sales rep who was horribly and woefully unprepared because, as it turns out, his boss had fed him completely incorrect information about inventory, pricing and availability (evidently all the particulars I had given him, including requests of what to show on the ride-with, had been totally ignored). After the first stop, I had to call the guy to inquire about all the mistakes and instead of an explanation, I got an earful. He told me he had “put up with enough of my bullsh*t,” and that he was done (for the record, both my boss at the time and I agreed that I had not, in fact, done anything wrong). I was baffled. ”Excuse me? I don’t get it. What does that even mean?” To which he responded, “I am firing you. I don’t want your brands anymore. Now get out of my market.” That left me shell-shocked enough to not even worry about how uncomfortable the 20-minute ride back to my hotel was.

These are a couple of extreme examples of the kind of rejection that happens every day in the wine business. So how do we deal with more normal, daily rejection? Many years ago, I briefly dated a big-distributor corporate wine-sales hack (look, it was a dark period in my life and I’m not really proud of it)—he totally drank their kool-aid, and used to endlessly talk about their multi-layered sales plan—essentially, it could have been titled “Avoiding sales rejection, or: how to force unwanted cases down an account’s throat.” That approach seemed abhorrent to me so below I outline the three basic tenets of the old-school distributor approach, and my response (which so far, besides the examples given above, seem to work pretty well for me).

 Old-school: Have your talking points lined up and deliver “the ultimate pitch!”

New-school: forget the pitch—start a conversation.

Old-school: ABC—always be closing (and oddly, the “big-distributor” guy also said that in reference to picking up women—he would smirk and laugh to himself every time he and his fratty friends would mention it. Welcome to Douchebagistan.)

New-school: Are you and the account a good fit, eg. Does your wine go with their food, their clientele’s tastes, their overall program? You want your wine to be a success at wherever you place it. You don’t want it to sit and eventually be closed out.

Old-school: Don’t take rejection personally; it’s a normal part of selling.

New-school: The only cause for rejection is the pressure to sell. Otherwise, it’s a conversation that can be continued at another time if a sale doesn’t happen right away. Whether it’s a distributor who isn’t ready to take on another brand, a restaurant who doesn’t have room for a new glasspour, or a retailer who doesn’t have the budget or shelfspace to place a new wine, at some point, their situations will change and you can pick up the conversation again at a later time and date.

Bottom line: Understanding your customer (and having a good relationship with them) ultimately leads to success in sales. In the odd chance that true rejection happens, it’s always great to have industry friends to talk with about it!

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13 thoughts on “Handling Rejection

  1. Great topic. I’m in wine production, so the rejections that I receive are usually delivered by the critics. “That wine was better than an 82, right?” But you sales people have it much harder.

    • Steve, we couldn’t do our job without you guys! I spend quite a lot of time with folks in our cellar and I think our friendships and the fact that I see them working so hard every day helps motivate me, and has provided me a lot of insight and knowledge about our winemaking. Without them I’d just be selling widgets…

  2. Only two rejection stories ,you must indeed be new school.Might I be so bold as to offer some other some old school insight.1.Always carry a wine key .2.Develop your sales connections by truly getting to know your reps and your customers.3. Follow up ….on everything .meaning meaning making sure orders are fulfilled problems dealt with quickly and promises kept.4.Don’t promise what you can’t deliver.5.Being a Som doesn’t mean you know anything about wine sales and that many of your customers can teach you if put your” wine ego” aside.6.That sometimes the “old school” guys and gals do have much to teach you and that being “experienced” in your field doesn’t necessary make you a hack.
    7.you will never charm, cajole or convince anyone that a wine you are selling is a silk purse when your customer has the good taste to know it’s a sows ear..8.That Putting your palate and it’s development first and foremost will .over time, gain your good customers respect and trust.Especially when you then make honest calls regarding price point, quality ,value ro a particular account.9.that different accounts require different approaches you must quickly recognize the level of a customers sophistication and be willing to educate when necessary .never in a condescending attitude.10.Last but not least do not pre judge a customer by their looks or the size of their store IE.An account I once visited had a bodega looking front.I asked the rep “why are we coming here.”We then proceeded to the back of the store where around a corner in a separate area was one of the most comprehensive wine selections I’ve ever seen.Not only did the owner know his wines it turns out he was one of the dist.best accounts.As opposed to the slick urban restaurant with the young Somm who made us feel like we were intruding upon his precious time and BTW ,who’s boss was ninety days past due on his account.

    • Haha Stewart–if I wrote down all my rejection stories I wouldn’t be able to leave my keypad for a long time; I would still be sitting down typing them out! You make very valid points and I definitely agree that much can be learned from people with lots of experience. My boss has been in the business over 20 years and I learn from him daily. He’s a mentor and an inspiration! When I say old school, I mean it as a kind of short-hand for “corporate” wine sales, rather than knowledge developed over time (which is invaluable). Thanks for your comments and please come back and visit the blog any time!

  3. wow, those are pretty awful stories. what’s the saying, “what doesn’t kill you…” . This is another reason for small wineries to go DIRECT TO CLIENT. Very very very rarely, do we have unhappy, rude clients walk through our TR doors. In fact in the 8 years doing this, I can’t remember more than 2 incidences. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Honest rejection, no matter how bizarre the manner of delivery, is one thing. At least there’s some attempt at communication, even if it’s misguided. The true denizens of Douchebagistan (love that, btw) are the ones who welcome you with open arms, taste it all, love it all, and never return a phone call from you ever again. No matter how many times you call or how many messages you leave. The Douchebagistan royalty are the ones who pull that stuff and then, after you’ve made a little name for yourself by dint of your own efforts, call and ask you to come by, never acknowledging their former rudeness (even though it’s clear that they recognize you).

  5. Excellent! I am new to the blog (thank you, Erik McLaughlin). A. It is really reassuring to read this kind of stuff and feel validated for the techniques and style I use when selling. Getting to know the account professionally and personally is so much better suited to me than being a used car salesman-esque figure trying to unload a commodity before 6:00 pm on a Friday afternoon so I can keep my job!

    Quick horror story to share – on a market visit a number of years ago, the distributor rep and I pull up to a successful shop. He turns off his car, turns to me and reveals that we may, in fact, be kicked out before we are able to even say hello and that he hadn’t even been in the shop for over a month since the last time he was chucked out. Well, we didn’t get kicked out, thankfully, but did wait for an over an hour to see the buyer only to have about 7 minutes of frigidity with him. What’s worse, he was preparing for a massive pinot consumer tasting – one of those annual things. Being a well-regarded pinot producer from OR, I was left scratching my head as to A. Why we were there with the potential of being tossed out in the first place, and B. Why was I not scheduled to be pouring that evening?!? It can really be a drag when reps just try to fill the day with BS on a work-with. A lot of them really don’t care that you spend a lot of time and money to travel and support their efforts. Sigh.

  6. Pingback: How Do I Get Your Job? | Buy My Wine!

  7. Pingback: The Power of Rejection | The Written Blit

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