On Selling Wine

In a recent Meininger Wine Business article, Robert Joseph asks, ‘What makes a good wine salesperson?’ I don’t know how good a salesperson I was but I stuck at it for 23 years, selling millions of bottles, which qualifies me to comment.

Robert’s indisputable opener that ‘almost everything needs to be sold by someone’ reminds me of a seventies French ad campaign aimed at boosting the image of road transport. The slogan was, ‘Si vous l’avez, un camion vous l’a apporté’ i.e. ‘If you have it, a lorry brought it to you.’ It was so brilliantly simple and memorable that it was relaunched in May of this year.

Selling is an essential yet underrated economic function. One of my teachers at business school explained that the poor perception of salespeople stemmed from the contrast between peddlers and peasants in French medieval society. Peddlers went from village to village, sometimes flogging inferior goods. As they couldn’t be found when their victims realised they had been duped, they were seen as immoral hustlers. Peasants, being sedentary, were more accountable and therefore respectable.

This atavistic prejudice was evidenced in a comment by one of my mother’s well-heeled friends when I started working as a saleswoman for Procter & Gamble straight after graduation. ‘Was it really worth sending Anne to an expensive international business school for her to end up as a nappies rep?’ she asked. She then went on to bemoan the fact that her own daughter, equipped with a BA in history, couldn’t find a job. The irony!

Things are slightly better in Anglo-Saxon societies, yet sales jobs such as estate agents and car salesmen are some of the most denigrated there as well. Even Robert uses the slightly derogatory term ‘silver-tongued’ to describe car salesmen in his article.

This bias is even worse when you deal with a desirable product such as wine. I’ve often been asked, mostly by French people admittedly, ‘Are you a winemaker or a wine critic?’ when telling them I worked in wine. The disappointment was palpable when I answered that, no, I just sold the stuff. I suppose my answer was seen as evidence that I knew little if anything about the enviable topic of wine and would therefore have nothing useful to contribute to the conversation.

More recently, I was asked if there would be a chapter in my novel ‘where wine features more prominently and the main character travels around the world.’ I answered, ‘No, Chris doesn’t travel around the world. She goes from one office to another, and from one meeting to another. What I am describing is the underbelly of the wine business, the commercial side more than the glamourous winemaker or PR side.’

It made me think though. Maybe agent rejections were not so much because wine is too niche but because I chose to describe the unglamourous side of it, the one I am most familiar with?   

The best explanation I can think of for the poor image of sales jobs is that they are still perceived to need no skills but ‘an ego and a pair of shoes’ as Dan Jago alleges he was told when starting on his own wine career.

I agree with the comment in Robert’s article that you need a likeable personality to succeed in sales. It helps to be smiley, gregarious, curious about people and easy to engage with. Some of the best wine salespeople I have seen in action, Alex Canetti, David Cartwright or Chris Davies of Grands Chais fame, to name a few, all fit that template. It doesn’t mean their lives are perfect or that they are in a good mood all the time, they’re just better at pretending they are.  

Robert writes, in an extract from a Harvard Business Review article by David Mayer and Herbert M Greenberg, ‘Sales ability is fundamental, more so than the product being sold.’

Selling skills do exist and are essential to the success of the best salespeople. There was a dramatic shift in the calibre of wine salespeople in the UK when New World companies, and notably Gallo, entered the market. Like most large American corporations they knew the importance of training their people in selling techniques. They reaped their rewards accordingly.

Higher and higher ranking Gallo salespeople visited Angela Muir MW’s Fulham store in quick succession when she refused to list their wines the first time round. She never did but they persisted in a way that was positively un-British and unlike anything else in the wine business at the time.

The training I benefited from in that much derided first job at P&G was superb. I was drilled in various techniques and routines which helped me immeasurably when I entered the then much more relaxed and amateurish world of wine. I genuinely believe I wouldn’t have lasted long in my new wine career if I hadn’t been bolstered by what P&G taught me.

Because yes, Robert is right, sales training was then and maybe still is – I am not qualified to judge anymore – thin on the ground. When I asked my first wine employer for a training course I was told the only one available was for learning to drive a forklift truck. I politely declined.

Two things from my P&G days are seared in my mind. ‘Everything you do is a sale,’ we were told, ‘from applying for a job to convincing a friend to go to the cinema with you.’ That was illuminating in that it allowed us to flex our selling muscles at all times, and not just at work.

The other one was the ‘persuasive selling method’ which I still use as it has become second nature:

  1. Give a short summary of the situation, ideally picking up on comments the other party made previously
  2. Outline your proposal in one sentence
  3. Detail the mechanism of your proposal
  4. Reinforce its advantages
  5. Suggest something easy to do, ideally offering an alternative.

Hard selling skills however are not quite enough to succeed in wine and this is where I disagree with Robert. I had little product knowledge when I started in the wine business. I’d managed a Nicolas shop for two months one summer and that was it. I baulked at taking WSET exams for years as I was convinced I would fail: I didn’t know much, had little time to study and my English was below par.

It was my boss at Waverley Vintners who twisted my arm, arguing that not having the Diploma would ultimately prove career limiting. I complied with feet of lead.

The WSET Diploma turned out to be a great career boost. Whereas my former customers at P&G had little to no interest in the products I was selling, the buyers I was meeting in the wine world knew what they were talking about. I had to develop a quizzical facial expression, head tilted sideways, slight frown and pursed lips to cope with technical questions I didn’t understand. My lack of product knowledge, however, limited my credibility. Covering up for it was an ordeal and often distracted me from what should have been my sole focus: selling.

After the Diploma, and no, Ian Harris hasn’t paid me for this piece, it was as if I’d taken off thick goggles and could see the landscape for what it was. I knew what I was supposed to know and when it was OK to ask questions. I got much better at my job.

Wine is a complex product whether we like it or not. If you choose to sell wine rather than nappies, you need to up your game in order to speak the same language and be on the same level as the people you sell to. Commonality is crucial in selling: having the same interests or pretending to. Indeed P&G used to incentivise its mixed and mostly graduate sales force to watch football matches to provide us with ready-made conversation openers with our mostly older male customers.

Clients buy into your expertise as much as into your range. Buyers take a gamble when they list a new product or range or take a chance on a new supplier. A mistake can be career ending. Buyers are more likely to give you business if you exude competence.  This is why gamekeepers turned poachers, Melissa Draycott, Lindsay Talas or Dominique Vrigneau are successful. They know their stuff and they provide a global service to their customers.

Wine is different from other products. Go on Robert, shoot me now!

Robert Joseph’s article is here: https://www.wine-business-international.com/wine/marketing-wine-tourism/often-overlooked-way-make-money-wine

Picture Credit Ellie Pym

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