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?

Asking the Right Interview Questions

I went through a huge breakup when I was in my early 20s (HA! I can say that now, because I’m officially in my 30s as of a couple weeks ago) and so I decided I needed to leave Seattle and start somewhere fresh. Somehow, almost immediately, I was interviewing with a quickly growing, ultra-trendy importer for a Midwest regional manager position, and before I knew it I was meeting with the new national sales director, who told me as I sat down that the job was “mine to lose.”

In retrospect, I can hardly believe I got the job. I had never tried any of the wines I was looking to sell (mostly because the region didn’t produce wines that I was particularly interested in or fond of), I didn’t really do much research on the company except for a peremptory glance at the website, and in all honesty, I was totally under-qualified for the job. The truth was that I thought I might actually get back together with aforementioned ex-boyfriend, so I was kind of trying to self-sabotage.

…I’ll tell you now, I keep it on and on

On the day of the interview, we met at a hipster coffee bar in Seattle and right away I could tell that the interview was going to be weird. Among the cool, bespectacled coffee drinkers sat my future boss, who was crammed into a vintage wooden chair, red-faced and sweating profusely underneath his too-tight Brooks Brother’s collar. He wore pleated khakis and tasseled loafers and looked so unbelievably out of place I started to feel uncomfortable for him. We went through a few pleasantries, and eventually got into the interview questions. He started with some of the most basic questions, like, “What wines of ours have you tried?” And when I answered that I had tried none, he almost spit his coffee out on me. A couple more questions and awkward answers followed, and then, the classic: “Are you good at sales?”

Am I good at sales? Do I look like I’m good at sales? I’m GREAT at sales.

I responded in the affirmative (obviously). And then he asked me something I will never forget. He glanced around our table, which seemed dwarfed by his large, overstuffed appearance, and grabbed a couple sugar packets. “Sell me these.” I was taken aback, “What, now? I thought we were talking about selling wine?” He smirked and said, “Well, if you’re good at sales, you should be able to sell anything!” I quickly got my mental sh*t together and BS’ed my way through a really random, totally lackluster sales pitch on the pros of purchasing raw sugar. I have no clue why, but he thought my presentation was hilarious, and a few days later I was shocked to receive an offer from the company.

What’s it gonna take for me to get you into this packet of sugar?

Looking back on it now, I see a few mistakes that he made (and tons more that I made myself), that, if I were in his position, I probably wouldn’t have hired me.

The first and most glaring is that he came into the interview with a huge confirmation bias. He had obviously heard glowing things about me from my acquaintances (who naturally had told him those things because they wanted to help me out) and he let those positive statements inform his opinion of me without rationally and critically analyzing my interview responses. When I appeared not to know an answer, or didn’t give an answer that seemed sufficient for him, he helped me along by offering threads for me to pick up on so that I would give him what he wanted to hear.

Secondly I think he asked some very softball-type questions that really didn’t tell him much about who I was or what I wanted to do with the company: the “where do you see yourself in five years” type questions. Many people will have canned or made-up answers for these kinds of questions and you won’t get the full story.

So what questions should you ask?

When interviewing someone for a potential sales job, try to ask situational questions, and if possible, bring in another person who has not looked at the candidate’s resume to get a second opinion (studies have consistently shown that when people are provided information about a potential job candidate, they will find that whatever information they were given was “true” after the interview—hence a confirmation bias). Besides the basic questions to establish whether or not a candidate is worth interviewing in the first place, throw in a couple more interesting questions that can show a candidate’s ability to think critically. Finally, if it’s at all possible, get a writing sample; so much of the communication that we do in the wine business is via email and I think the ability to write well can be crucial to success in sales.

 Here are some examples of good interview questions. The answers are often surprising.

First, the basic questions:

  • Which wines of ours have you tried and what were your impressions? (You would be shocked to hear how many people show up for an interview and can’t answer this question. If someone can’t take the time to go out and try a couple of your wines before the interview, what is the point of hiring them? Seriously, this one blows me away.)
  • What kinds of wine do you like to drink? What are some of your favorite restaurants and wineries? (Hint: if they mention that they’re picky or are not really into fine dining, they probably would not be a good fit. Eating in restaurants is a huge part of what we do. I once heard Richard Betts say that he considers wine “a condiment,” a statement I loved—wine is best consumed with food. If the candidate says his favorite restaurant is the Outback Steakhouse, he probably isn’t someone who should be working at a small, independent winery.)
  •  Make a pitch: describe us, explaining why the wines must be on the wine list of cutting edge, farm to table restaurant, then adjust the pitch for a conservative chain steak house. (this is a good question to potentially get as a writing sample; but if you ask it in person, it shows whether a candidate has done his/her research, and also shows a basic ability to think on one’s feet.)

 And then the hard questions:

  • Have you ever been given a project with very little direction on how to complete it? What did you do? (I think this question pretty much sums up what being a wine sales rep is all about. Anyone worth their salt should be able to easily answer this question.)
  •  When you are given 10 things to do, and you only have time to do 3, how do you choose the 3? (pretty much the story of my life in the wine business.)
  •  Tell me about the last time you broke the rules.
  • Describe the most difficult person you ever worked with. How did you deal with them? How would you deal with a customer that is consistenly difficult and tough to manage?

And once you narrow the field, here are some questions I think are good to get in writing, to see if the candidate is a good culture fit:

Name five chefs and five wineries you admire and why?

Name one or two wine writers you admire and why?

Describe your most memorable wine experience and, if they are exclusive, your most memorable food experience.

How about if you’re the one BEING interviewed?

Finally, if you are interviewing for a position at a winery, do your research! Read as much as you can about the winery, and for god’s sake, try the wines! It’s worth going out and spending $50-$100 on a couple of bottles so you can speak proficiently about their wines at the interview. Finally, remember that you are interviewing (most likely) with people who have built their business from blood, sweat and tears, and their success was probably hard earned. You should try to show your excitement about the prospect of working with them (hopefully you are, but for some reason many people don’t show it). Show them that you know your stuff, and make it clear that you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and get some hard work done. Lastly, show up early. I shouldn’t have to explain that one.

The Distracted Buyer

Last week, I was in Chicago and Minneapolis for a few days of ride-withs and a sales meeting. My family lives in Chicago, so I stayed with them (as I always do when I’m in town). I have probably visited them ten times in the last couple years. Somehow, though, my parents still can’t quite conceive of what it is that I spend my days doing when I am in town for work.  Nearly every time I visit, I will explain that I am working with a rep all day, say goodbye for the day after breakfast, and sure enough, at about 11:15, I will get a text from one of them asking, “Interested in meeting up for lunch today?”

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Wait, I thought we were gonna meet at Blackbird for lunch? What’s a ride with??? Now I’m really sad!

I decided this trip that I should probably outline what exactly goes on during a ride-with so that there is no further confusion on their end. In case you’re new to the business (or you’re my parents), I will give a quick primer. The wine business is a three-tiered industry: You have wineries, who make the product; they sell to distributors, who purchase wine from many different wineries to create a portfolio of wines (that often encompasses many different styles, regions and price-points); the distributors then employ a team of sales reps, who are each assigned to a set list of accounts (either restaurants, retail or both), who must make a living selling their portfolio of wine to said accounts.

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A totally average infographic of the three-tier system

A ride-with/ride-along/work-with is an industry term to describe a day where a winery (sometimes called a “supplier rep”) spends a proscribed amount of time (typically from about 9/10 in the morning till about 6 in the evening) riding in the passenger seat of a distributor sales rep’s car, visiting their list of accounts, usually with set appointments at stops where the wines would be appropriate (though this doesn’t always happen). I have written about this before, here, and here.

Now that we’ve established this basic concept, let’s talk about one of the most common pitfalls of the ride-with: the distracted buyer. I was in an account recently and during my visit, I could hardly get a word in edgewise. Between the phone ringing, the buyer checking his text message/email pings, deliveries going in and out, and the rep randomly regaling him with totally debaucherous tales from the previous weekend (completely distracting the buyer from my sales presentation) I felt reduced to little more than an annoying mosquito buzzing in the ear of the buyer.

Look, I get that everyone is busy. Successfully running a business (whether it’s your own or someone else’s) is hard work. Add to that a constant stream of reps and suppliers coming through all day (sometimes with the most ridiculous talking points—the other day I heard a woman “sell” her wine by saying, with no trace of irony, “well, this beauty is 84% Cab, and 20% Merlot, 65% new FRENCH oak. I mean, it goes great with fish, what a great summer sipper! Plus, the winery is next to insert name of famous California winery here.”). Buyers are bound to be a little distracted.

But it’s also my job to get my message across to the person in the buying position. I read a book recently called, The Charisma Myth, to help me in my quest to be the best sales person I can be (I love my job, my company and my career and want to stay with my current company for as long as they’ll have me, so I am always working on improving my skills). I like to think of charisma as interchangeable with the ability to sell—when you get people’s attention and get them to buy what you’re selling, whether it’s ideas or wine, that’s charisma.

The author talks about how charisma is not an innate “gift,” but rather something that can be learned. A few of the key takeaway points I gathered from the book that have really helped me when I’m on sales calls are below. I’m totally not the kind of person that recommends self-help sales manuals, and I often read such books with intense scrutiny, but this is definitely one of the most interesting and useful reads I’ve seen in my career as a rep for independent wineries.

  • Studies done at the media lab at MIT examined how critical body language is to one’s effectiveness, and they were able to predict, with 87% accuracy, the outcome of a sales call by looking at facial expressions and analyzing to voice fluctuations (they did much of this with the sound turned OFF). Turns out we can’t “fake” charismatic body language. Inner thoughts will show up in micro-facial expressions, and even if they’re as short as 17-32 milliseconds, people will be able to detect them.
  • You can’t control your body language—you literally have to think positive thoughts which will be reflected in your outward demeanor.
  • You must have three core elements to be truly successful in a sales pitch: presence, warmth and power.
    • Presence: pay attention to what’s going on in the moment—people around you will feel respected and valued
    • Power: knowing your product well, and having a sense of authority about it (and you yourself believing that you know and have authority on the subject) will come across in your words and body language
    • Warmth: expressing yourself with kindness

When a distracted buyer appears to be only half listening, try to remember the points listed above and see if you can’t turn the situation around to one that’s in your favor. So far, I am seeing some good results. I’d be interested to hear from other people who have read the book and had similar (or different) experiences.

Now I just have to get my parents to remember what a ride-with is and I’ll be set!

How Do I Get Your Job?

I just spent the last few days in a large Midwestern market traveling throughout the state working with reps. I am lucky enough to work with, in my humble opinion, one of the best distributors in that region, and was paired each day with really fun, engaging and interesting reps that I absolutely LOVE working with (this past trip I worked with some of the funniest women I have ever met, and had to pinch myself at the end of the trip wondering how it was possible to laugh that much while at work).

As I have written about before, traveling can be expensive, so as a rep for a family-owned, independent winery, getting the most out of your trip is a MUST. This visit represents the epitome of “getting your money’s worth.” Each time I have visited this particular market, I have well-planned days visiting accounts that all have good potential to do business with my wines. Additionally, at the end of every day, I have great events at fantastic accounts where I get the opportunity to speak to a crowd of 30-50 people about why wines from the Pacific Northwest are so special.  Granted, my days are long: they usually start around 6 or 7 with emails and don’t finish up until about 10, but every day is packed with things that make my visit totally worthwhile.

I wrote last time about how, after a long week of travel, discussing my job with strangers can be draining. But in the context of a wine tasting, dinner or consumer event, I absolutely love it. Everyone is there because they have at least a passing interest in wine, and not only do I get to share my wine, but I get to learn about the lives from people all over the country (plus in the Midwest, people are usually incredibly friendly).

Of course, someone invariably asks, “How do I get a job like yours?” I always smile and laugh because the road to becoming a wine sales rep never is straight and narrow.

So how does one get a job doing sales “on the supplier side” (working for a winery)?

The Restaurant/Retail–>Distributor Sales–>Regional Sales–>National Sales Route

The most common path I have seen is this: most people start out working at a wine shop or waiting tables at a young age—in college or right out of it. They discover that wine sales increases their ticket and tip averages, so they begin to learn more about it. They then become consumed by the utterly engrossing and totally dynamic world of wine, and many times become the person who controls the wine list/wine buying at the restaurant or shop. They befriend many of their distributor sales reps, who help them find a distributor sales job. They usually rise to the top of the crop, and build very good relationships with winery personnel, which then leads to a regional (sometimes national) position with the winery.

The Tasting Room–>Direct Sales Manager–>Regional/National Sales Route

This is how I got my start in the wine business (I also worked as a waitress at a local wine bar, which is how I got my job in the tasting room in the first place).  I have met a few people who have worked in winery tasting rooms who wanted to grow within the organization. They start working at the winery tasting room, eventually grow into a management role at the retail level for the winery (oftentimes, small wineries will hire one person to manage both Direct-to-consumer sales and national sales). As the winery grows, the DTC and National sales role will split and the person who was handling both may choose the national route.

The Family Route

Some of my best friends in the wine business have parents who own wineries. They usually waited tables or worked in retail (either at the family winery tasting room, or at an unaffiliated retail shop—or both) before their parents allowed them to spread their wings and hit some smaller markets, and then finally transitioned them into a national sales position. This seems to actually be the hardest way to get a job selling wine because parents are often harder on their own kids than they would be on a non-family hire. I feel for my friends who have to deal with the wrath of mom and dad after a particularly bad month of sales…

The Career-Change Route

I have met a couple people who have been interested in wine their entire adult lives and know just as much (or more) than some people  who have been in the wine industry forever. Usually, they become more than just “regulars” at a very good wine shop in their area—they become almost a part of the team (some of them kind of remind me of the guys in High Fidelity that just keep showing up to the shop every day to work, even though they don’t get paid).  Through those connections at their local wine shop, they are able to get introductions to distributor or winery personnel and subsequently find employment through either channel.

So even though selling wine means long hours, never being able to turn off your phone or email (even on vacation), handling massive amounts of rejection and probably more work than you imagined, it’s the greatest job ever. I always tell all my family friends with kids about to graduate college that it’s the best career choice I ever made. The wine industry is vibrant, dynamic and it’s growing. So if you’ve been considering it, I highly recommend giving it a shot. At the very least you will learn a ton and meet lots of wonderful and interesting people along the way. 

How did you get your job in wine sales?

The Airplane Conversation: Discussing Wine Sales with Non-Industry People

A few days ago, I took my Macbook to the Apple store because I had gotten a gray screen that just wouldn’t boot any time I tried starting my computer. A peremptory Google search told me I should be scared—that it was the “gray screen of death.” Sure enough, the Google search proved true; I lost everything on my entire hard drive, including about 6 blog entries that I have been mulling over for the last few weeks. I guess this would be a good moment to tell you I deserve a big, fat, “I told you so,” and to warn you that you should always back up your files!

One of the reasons for my absence here is that I have been traveling a lot this spring and while I have been thinking about writing, I just haven’t had the energy to update.

With all the traveling, I have been engaging in quite a bit of the airplane seatmate banter.  Here is a transcript of the general conversation:

How much wine do you spit out? NOOOOO!

Flight attendant has come around and asked me to please turn off my kindle for the second time. I quickly turn it off, ashamed, and turn my face to the window. The guy next to me, a non-descript 40-something in a Brooks Brother’s button down and gray slacks leans over so he can look out my window at our ascent.

FELLOW PASSENGER: SO, HEADING HOME TO DALLAS, OR GOING FOR FUN?

ME: NOPE—JUST HEADING OUT FOR WORK. I silently hope he doesn’t want to keep talking—we only have a few more minutes to go before I can get back into my thoroughly engrossing book about the history of Cholera. Ok, don’t want to be rude. YOU?

FELLOW PASSENGER: I’M IN THE SAME BOAT—HEADING THROUGH DALLAS TO IOWA CITY FOR A CONFERENCE. INJECTION MOLDED PARTS FOR FARM EQUIPMENT. SHOULD BE REALLY INTERESTING!

ME: NICE! Inwardly shudder. My book beckons.

FELLOW PASSENGER: SO WHAT DO YOU DO?

ME, vaguely: SALES.

FELLOW PASSENGER: ME TOO! FARM EQUIPMENT. WELL, PARTS REALLY. HOW ABOUT YOU?

ME: OH, I JUST SELL (mumbles) WINE.

FELLOW PASSENGER: REALLY? COOL! SO DO YOU WORK FOR A VINEYARD IN NAPA?

ME: NOPE—THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST. (Please let that be it.)

FELLOW PASSENGER: YOU SELL TO COSTCO? I THOUGHT IT WAS TOO RAINY IN SEATTLE TO MAKE WINE?

We then have a side conversation about basic geography of the northwest, the difference between Oregon and Washington winemaking, and work out whether or not he is familiar with the wine I sell. He (depending on the type of guy he is) will either ask me if I have heard of Silver Oak, or drop in a line about how he and his wife visited a vineyard in Napa that is very exclusive, but that they were able to purchase three bottles of said wine and are still holding onto one of them, just waiting for the right moment to try it. Conversely, he may try to convince me of the quality and value in boxed wine, Two-Buck Chuck, or some other sub $4 wine. In extremely rare instances, he will not try to stump me or teach me anything, and will either know something about wine, or be very inquisitive in a friendly and humble way. This last instance almost never happens.

Now that we’ve established some basics, the conversation continues. We are well into our flight by this time and I sigh because my book is looking like a mirage in the distant future.

Can anyone here tell me–what does a winery sales rep REALLY do?

FELLOW PASSENGER: SO, DO YOU LIKE, GO AROUND TO RESTAURANTS AND GROCERY STORES ALL DAY DRINKING WINE? He looks at me to gauge whether or not I am a complete alcoholic and perhaps to check if I am, in fact, drunk at this moment (although it is 6 in the morning). IF I HAD YOUR JOB I WOULD BE DRUNK ALL THE TIME!

ME: WELL, (getting back on track) MY JOB IS SOMETHING LIKE THAT, ALTHOUGH IT’S A BIT MORE COMPLICATED. AND I USUALLY NEVER DRINK THE WINE I SELL—I JUST SPIT IT OUT AFTER TASTING—TO MAKE SURE IT’S GOOD.

I then get to hear about how he thinks it’s a waste to spit out wine (generally because he’s of the feeling that “all wine tastes good to him”), and then I have to explain why we have to be, essentially “professional wine wasters.” This usually does not go over well and he appears distressed and unsettled. Usually at this time, he becomes so agitated by the idea of me wasting wine that he can’t wrap his head around what I do for a living. I have spent years trying to figure out a one liner to explain what I do, but for the life of me I really can’t think of anything good. After this point, he becomes exasperated and can’t be bothered to spend much more time chatting with someone so wasteful, and I am allowed to go back to my book.

So what does a winery sales rep do, anyway? It really is hard to sum up. I suppose that is what makes the job so interesting. Every day is different, which is why I love it so much. It requires the ability to analyze and synthesize data, to communicate effectively and have the willingness and desire to be social and develop long-lasting business relationships. The job is so multifaceted it’s hard to even begin to describe it, but in a nutshell, this is my best stab so far: A winery sales rep is a kind of educational and sales ambassador. Their job is to manage distributors and accounts by providing comprehensive information about their wines, expectations for sales, and assist in meeting goals by visiting markets to see accounts (restaurants and retail alike) and be an extension of the winery whenever they are in the field working. How’s that for a vague answer?

What do you tell people when you meet them about your job?

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!

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.

A pretty close approximation to the car I rode in...

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.

This decor, times a million bajillon

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).