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).
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!