Getting People to Listen

I spent last night, a Friday, by myself in North Dallas. I ate dinner alone at 5pm so I could make it to a movie (Pitch Perfect, which was hilarious and awesome, so at least I had that). Afterwards, I went to bed at 9pm. The amount of travel I have been doing lately has really worn me out, and I’m just now past my half-way point. By the time Thanksgiving rolls around, I will have been in the car with at least 30 people and will have interacted with hundreds of customers and sales reps. I know it’s not an excuse (to the 5 people who actually read this), but I’ve been busy and tired and haven’t kept up with my blog (I also try not to write about people I currently work with, so even though I have had some whoppers in the last couple months, I have refrained from telling them out of respect to my colleagues).

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Pretty much sums up my Friday night. All I need now is a bunch of cats.

SIDE NOTE: I actually hate when people constantly talk about how busy they are—you ask someone, “How’s it going?” and the canned response seems always to be, “SO BUSY!” To quote a recent article in the NYT, “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.” (and for the record, when someone asks me how I am, my canned answer is “Living the dream…” which I probably should change up as well since the response is sounding a little tired).

In any case, traveling to tons of markets, interacting with so many people but telling the same stories about the same wines can get stale—not just for me, but for my colleagues. One of my biggest challenges has been to make the wines and the stories that go along with them interesting and fresh.

About a year ago, I was on a ride-with, at an account showing wines for the small, family winery I represent. During the pitch, I talked about a few of the wines as they were poured, including, at least to my mind, a wine of ours that has one of the greatest wine label stories in the business. We got to the next wine and the buyer suddenly had to get up to go help a customer. As he left, the rep turned to me and said, “So what’s the story with the crazy label?” I laughed at the joke—the one thing I hear about this label is that once you hear the story, you can’t forget it. The rep stared back at me blankly and confusedly said, “No, really! I want to know! What’s the story?”

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Wow this wine is delish! What’s the story again? My eyes are glassy?

I couldn’t believe it. I had just sat there for a good 10 minutes talking about the lineup, and to my knowledge, even though the rep had been present, had been tasting wine with me and the buyer, had not heard a single word I had said, including the incredible story of that label.

I felt utterly deflated. I mean, I am guilty of the glassy-eyed nod and stare (listening to people talk about sports, or my husband’s recounting of his myriad crossfit routines come to mind as two instances I pretty much immediately stop paying attention), but I thought I was telling a great story (guess I was wrong!), and I had wasted at least 10 minutes of breath only to be asked to repeat the entire thing. To the same person.

So, to make sure that same situation never happens again,  there are three things I try to do whenever I make a sales call or ride around with a sales rep:

  1. Cut to the chasea buyer is in his or her position because, ostensibly, they understand what kind of wine will work for their place of business. When you pour wine for them, don’t bother telling them how it tastes. Give them relevant information and keep your point simple and compelling. The number one complaint I hear from distributor sales reps is about the supplier who drags on forever with boring stories. Here’s a great article from the Harvard Business review about creating a compelling, simple message.
  2. Listen and ask questionsWhen you truly listen to someone – when you offer them your undivided attention (you put down your phone, stop texting and looking at Facebook), ask them questions and show that you’re tracking what they’re saying,  shows that person respect and openness.  People who feel respected and listened to will automatically want to hear what you have to say.
  3. Stop talkingif people are distracted, looking at their phone, or getting that glazed look in their eyes, stop talking and ask them a question. Clearly your communication isn’t landing and it’s time to try a new tack.
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I do not recommend this technique for getting people to listen to you.

How do you make sure you’re heard?

My Weirdest Ride-With. Ever.

I got a lot of positive feedback on my last post, and a few non-industry friends asked me to share their favorite story about a funny experience I had on a ride-with. The wine industry is full of tons of interesting, intelligent and wonderful people; I am lucky enough to call some of them my friends. The flipside is that it is also full of some really strange characters, and I had the (mis)fortune of working with one on what is (legendary among my friends), my weirdest ride-with of all time. Suffice it to say that I will never disclose who this was with, and I will never, ever write about anyone I work with presently (or even the fairly distant past). But this was many years ago, and I am not sure if this person is still even in the wine business. Without giving too much away, it was in a secondary market–there were one or two really big “A” accounts in this particular town, but I’d never been before because it was kind of a trek to get there. After a lot of pressuring from my distributor, and a desire on my part to establish a relationship with one big account in particular, I made the commitment to work with the rep who called on that particular area and booked my tickets.

When I landed, I had about 15 frantic text messages, voicemails and emails from the rep asking where I was. My flight was perfectly on time, and I had a sinking feeling in my stomach that the day was not going to turn out as well as I had hoped. Up until this point, we’d only communicated via email, and had arranged that he would pick me up at the airport and get me to the city with that big account (which was an hour or two away). I called him immediately and let him know that I was waiting outside. I explained what I looked like and what I was wearing (this is one of the weirdest conversations to have with reps you don’t know yet–it feels like a creepy blind date), and while I was talking, I became distracted by the unmuffled sound of a taped up, teal beater groaning its way around the airport pickup lane.

My stomach sank even lower when I realized that the beater car was to be my chariot for the rest of the day. I couldn’t actually open my door–it had to be opened from the inside by the driver, but when the door finally swung towards me, I was enveloped by a cloud of yellow labrador hair. The seats were pretty much upholstered with dog hair (instantly making me regret my all black sweater/pants combo). I shook the rep’s clammy hand and flinchingly got into the passenger seat, where I was greeted with slobber and panting by his dog (that he unironically called his “girlfriend”–he even teared up about it–but I decided not to press that one any further). I tried to make chit chat as we started our drive, but all conversation points led to a dead end, so instead we just listened to AM sports radio and I leaned hard against the door and stared out the window, half fearing for my life (the dashboard was lit up like a christmas tree) and half out of sheer frustration because I now had a huge pool of slime/hot condensed breath and dog hair coating my neck (don’t get me wrong–I love dogs and now have two, but this was unbearable).

After about 45 minutes, we were out in the middle of nowhere and I was happy because I thought we’d be close to our destination. Just as I started to breathe a sigh of relief, I saw that we were slowing down and turning onto a gravel road. My heart jumped into my throat (was he going to take me into the woods and kill me?!) and I squeaked, “Wait, is this where we are supposed to be going?!”

The rep gave me an exasperated sigh and told me that in fact, we were going to drop his dog/girlfriend off with his family because he didn’t feel safe having her in the car with him–highway driving and vehicles were patently unsafe, if anything were to happen to her he’d never forgive himself (What. The. F*&!? At this point, I started to lose it). I told him I’d wait in the car (and regain my composure by calling my loved ones and thanking them for all the good times), but he sighed again and told me that no, I couldn’t wait in the car because we were about to have breakfast with his family.

I was horrified–I mean, what was happening? Was this for real? But what could I do? I got out of the car and finally made it into the house after being accosted by about 8 dogs and 19 cats. As I passed through walls covered with 1970s, wood-framed family photographs and a decor scheme that looked as if a country craft fair had thrown up all over the house, I walked into the kitchen and was confronted with his entire family, in their pajamas, eating breakfast around their dining room table. I kept waiting for Ashton to jump out and be like, “You just got PUNK’D!”

This seriously would have been a welcome sight...

His (really quite kind and affable) father asked me how I liked my eggs, and if I wanted coffee, and then I was shuffled to a seat next to his grandmother, who proceeded to keep touching my pants and sweater (but eventually stopped after someone told her, “no, no, granny, don’t touch the nice lady!”). The rest of the meal was a nightmarish blur filled with questions seemingly related to my relationship status (I’m not altogether convinced that the family knew I was a colleague and not a girlfriend), but somehow I managed to choke down my meal and stood up as soon as I’d finished, quite anxious to leave.

As we headed out, his mom kindly gave us a lunchbox generously filled with roast beef and tuna sandwiches, and a huge pile of ironed shirts (he proudly told me she still did his laundry and ironing), and we hit the road. I learned in the car that we would in fact be staying over night in the satellite market (at a Motel 6) and I nearly had a panic attack thinking about the drive back and the fact that I had nearly 24 hours more before my nightmare was over. We finally made it to our destination, where we saw a couple of accounts, sold zero point zero wine, and eventually ended up at the one good restaurant in town; the rep ended up pissing off the buyer and got his company kicked out of the account for good. The ride back was in silence (except for the AM talk radio) while the rep silently seethed about the buyer for expelling him from sales to his restaurant.

I am not sure how I could have prevented this series of events, other than insisting I get my own car, but thankfully, nothing even close has happened in the years since that very strange 24 hours. And luckily, these days, if anything gets weird, I have millions of emails, phonecalls and if all else fails, the internet and Facebook to keep me distracted. And of course, it makes a great story on how sometimes, the wine business can be anything but glamorous (although it provides endless hours of entertainment, even if only in hindsight).