Selling wine: who’s doing a good job … and who isn’t … in SoCal market

Selling wine: who’s doing a good job … and who isn’t … in SoCal market – Southern California; wine selling and ideal sales representative qualities

Dan Wilson

The science of selling has advanced by leaps and bounds in recent years, but customer comments indicate that little of this progress has penetrated the wine industry. “Less than half the people who call on me are as wine knowledgeable as I think they ought to be,” Ron Marshall told Wines & Vines. He is co-owner and wine buyer at Mr. Stox restaurant in Anaheim. Mr. Stox is a Wine Spectator Grand Award winner and has been since 1983.

“Part of the problem is basic management,” said Marshall. He added, “The trend-line in sales professionalism is flat or declining. There are a tremendous amount of them out there that don’t know their own book. Young’s and Southern Wine & Spirits are still running their companies like liquor houses. I see Young’s making an attempt to improve and getting some pretty good people.” Marshall commented that the same sales people who leave one company surface elsewhere, yet he says he is seldom asked by prospective employers to provide feedback on their candidates. “Wine Warehouse does a better job of hiring than most. Irv Wnuck is a sharp guy,” Marshall said.

Marshall also is optimistic about brokers. “I think it is a good time for brokers,” he observed. He believes the consolidation of distributors has created more opportunity for these small operators.

David Breitstein, owner of the Duke of Bourbon in Canoga Park, lists the three most important characteristics he wants in a sales person: informed, courteous, sensitive. Like Marshall, Breitstein is confident of his abilities to select wines, and he wants service, not a sales pitch. He is looking for creativity, not high pressure. “The idea is to find the right wine for my store,” declares Breitstein. He recently put a winery program in place that he expects to generate a minimum of $50,000 in sales during the second half of 1994.

Breitstein says he wants “sensitive communication.” He told of a sales representative who faxed interesting information, then followed up with a phone call and a dinner invitation that included exceptional wines. He then sent a letter summarizing the dinner table conversation. Breitstein was impressed with the thoroughness and diligence the representative displayed and placed an order for the wines he tasted.

“They’re not very organized at all,” according to Steve Baba, manager of the Southern California branch of the Wine Club, when asked about the typical wine sales person who calls on his store. Not surprisingly, his number-one suggestion for improving presentations was more and better preparation before the call. “Most of these people don’t know what they are representing. I have to help them more than the other way around,” he said.

Baba wants an accurate price list, a clear presentation of discounts, and wines to taste that are the proper temperature. He laments that many sales people bake the wines in the car before bringing them in to taste. Baba says that in general the bigger houses do a more consistent job. “Southern still needs a lot more work,” he volunteered. He attributes this to what he sees as a spirits-dominated culture at that company.

All three buyers emphasized that they want abundant, detailed information about the wine and the winery after they commit to purchasing the product.

“You have got to be well-prepared,” Steve Wallace stated. He is owner of the trendy Wally’s on Westwood Boulevard in West Los Angeles. He said that people who travel great distances must make appointments with merchants. “It’s a disservice to the product when they just drop by to see us. It is a negative going in,” he said.

Wallace recommends that sales people assemble as much information from the press regarding their wines as possible and present it in a professional manner. He notes that the industry is driven by the press and sales people should be prepared to make maximum use of writers and their comments.

Wallace also wants vendors to mark samples as such. Though this is required by law, many merchants say exceptions are frequent, if not the rule. “It is to the advantage of the vendor to stamp that bottle,” Wallace said. Un-stamped bottles “fall through the cracks” and are sold or taken home, he fears.

The trend line in professionalism among wine sales people is ascending, according to Wallace.” It has been near the bottom compared to other industries,” he stated. He says one of the worst things he has seen vendors do is make the sales pitch to the wrong person. There is no point pitching the guy who was hired just to dust the bottles, mused Wallace. On the other hand he praised a vendor who brought in lunch and presented his wines along with the food. Wallace, like other merchants we talked to, is reluctant to have his staff leave the store for elaborate presentations because they often consume too much time.

The company behind the sales representative

None of these merchants, by their declaration, expect sales people to speak for the reliability or efficiency of the company they represent. Whatever degree of accuracy in delivery and billing might prevail is not deemed relevant to the sales presentation regardless of the impact of these issues on the cost of doing business.

Bill Parker, Vice President National/Accounts Division at Wine Warehouse, says he includes accuracy and reliability as selling points, but says, “I don’t put that in writing.” He says he also emphasizes the non-union status of the company because he believes non-union delivery people are more accommodating to the customer’s needs. He also stresses to customers his belief that Wine Warehouse is more wine-oriented than Southern and Young’s.

Parker recommends keeping the written portion of sales presentations short. If they are too long the intended reader simply telephones to ask what is in it, according to Parker. He remarked that the level of expertise among buyers has declined overall in the hotel industry as major chains cut back on staff and provide a less rewarding environment for their most experienced people. “Marriott, Hyatt, Sheraton have had a lot of turnover. They provide less support and training, and headquarters dictates more. Many of the pros leave for other food industry jobs,” Parker commented.

Lou Balducci, Southern California Sales Manager for Southern Wine & Spirits, explained that sales people at that company have access to computers that contain templates for sales presentations. Their touch-screen system generates personalized proposals for accounts with a cover letter, and the system is easy-to use. Balducci says that the core of a strong presentation is to have the facts and figures together. The sales person periods to be ready with the advertising schedule, display availability, and knowledge of trends in the market place, he says.

Balducci also emphasized training: “The first thing a company has to do is train its sales force. We do that very effectively,” he declared. As to accuracy and efficiency as components of a sales presentation, Balducci stated, “In the real world it should play a big part in it.” He said there is no effort to tally errors for record keeping purposes and statistical quality control at Southern as far as he knows.

What the books say

Traditional sales techniques, which are still being taught to rank-and-file sales people, are profoundly wrong, according to modern experts in the field.

“Key account selling must take place at a customer’s top tier of business managers. The top-tier is immune to vendor tactics. It is unresponsive to feature and benefit comparisons. It stares glassy-eyed at laundry lists of ingredients, components, formulas, systems, process variations, or warranties. It ignores price as a reason to buy, resists the bait of a trial close, and does not take kindly to having its objections overcome.” These words are by Mack Hanan in Key Account Selling.

Hanan declares that in order to sell to top customers, you have to think like they do. Old-fashioned sales techniques are vendor-oriented. Breitstein commented that most sales people “are more concerned with their volume than with our success.”

Richard Whiteley titles Chapter 6 of The Customer Driven Company, Moving from Talk to Action, “Measure, Measure, Measure.” He recommends that companies measure service and customer satisfaction. He cites a company that determines how fast counter service must be by videotaping customers waiting in line and observing their expressions change as their mood shifts to impatience. Wine companies, in contrast, barely mention, and don’t declare in writing, what a customer can expect in terms of service.

“The competitive advantage can never be in hardware. The competitive advantage is in the people, the systems, how the work is laid out,” write Lloyd Dobyns and Clare Crawford-Mason. Their book, Quality or Else, The Revolution in World Business, begins with this statement: “Quality is a system, and it is the one system that can solve America’s economic problems.” Quality, according to our sources at the customer level, is lacking in the wine industry’s efforts to sell its products.

Karl Albrecht’s The Only Thing That Matters, Bringing the Power of Your Customer into the Center of Your Business, includes the story of a group of sales people who sold hotel space to convention planners. The sales people assumed price would rank in first place on their customers’ list of priorities. Customers ranked price fifth out of ten items. The number one item as defined by the customers did not appear on the sales peoples’ list at all. The thing the customer wanted most, the thing sales people missed, was: “no hassles.”

COPYRIGHT 1994 Hiaring Company

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