Friday, July 16, 2010 at 10:15AM
Todd Wernstrom

I’m posting this on the assumption that “civilians,” that is those who are into wine but aren’t in the business, might be interested in a peek behind the curtain. My former editors at Wine News would no doubt disagree, and say leave the industry stuff to the industrialists. No matter. It’s my blog and I’ll post if I want to. (For the record, I’m also very aware that this opening paragraph violates many of the what-not-to-do writing precepts.)

Here goes. I am newly in the business of wine selling. I source small producers in various parts of the wine world, bring their produce to New York City and then try to sell it myself. No sales staff. No managers. Not even a delivery service. Just me.

As such, I’m about as intimately involved in the process as an importer/distributor can possibly be. Having had zero experience in sales before becoming a salesperson, I’ve obviously had much to learn, and I’d like to think that in the eight or so months since I’ve been selling, I have indeed learned a great deal.

Perhaps the single most important thing I’ve learned – and very much accepted – is that none of the things that happen in the selling game should be taken personally. After all, as Michael Corleone learned all too well, it’s business, not personal.

That said, what is incomprehensible to me is not that any of you who are in the business of buying and then reselling wine from people like me don’t all want to buy my stuff. It’s that those of you who don’t just won’t say so.

It’s just that simple. I’m OK with not convincing you that my wines belong in your store or restaurant; I just think that I (we) deserve closure. At least until the next go around.

Yes, I very much appreciate that you are bombarded with requests for your time. And yes, I also know that those of us slinging our wares talk a big game about how “great,” “unique,” “interesting,” “artisanal,” blah, blah, blah our stuff is. (In fairness to those who sell the Yellow Tails of the world, we know that you don’t make such claims.)

And, of course, I know that regardless of how qualified (or overqualified) I may be, it’s not like I deserve an appointment, much less a sale. Got it. Believe me.

There are two unsuccessful sales call scenarios that make me think that you’re looking at things all the wrong way. And I want to help you utilize your valuable time better. I mean it.

To ignore me is to encourage me

When you don’t respond to my inquiries, a few things come to mind. And let me preface this by saying, I don’t mean out-and-out cold calls. I firmly believe that while the more humane practice might be to just say no thanks and be done with me, I understand that this isn’t the way things are done in sales. Of anything. Be it pork belly futures, insurance, wine, whatever. A cold call entitles the cold caller to nothing other than maybe a cold shoulder.

I’m talking about the situation where I’ve actually managed to get to you in person, and have engaged you in some sort of colloquy about your store/restaurant vis-à-vis my portfolio. Information, written or otherwise, has been exchanged, and assurances have been given, without ANY commitment whatsoever on your part, that I should follow up with you at such-and-such time.

So far, so good. Honestly, when I walk into your place and introduce myself, I expect nothing but some measure civility on your part (and even that’s not really assumed). If you show any interest in what it is that I’m doing, all the better for me. Maybe. I still know that there is a ways to go before I’m even granted an appointment to pour a few of my wines. And I can think of only one or two occasions when I felt that your behavior would not have made your parents proud. That’s OK; it’s the cost of doing business.

It’s what happens, or I should say, doesn’t happen, next that makes no sense to me. If you say that I should follow up with you, by phone, e-mail, whatever, you have to know that I will. Right? I mean, I’m in sales, and I can’t sell to you if I don’t do stuff like follow up with you.

And invariably I do. And usually do so again. And often again. And again. And, well, nothing in return. Keep in mind that I’m only doing what you told me I should do. I’m no hardcore, “Glengarry Glen Ross” sales pro, so I do, in fact, take no for an answer. So, when I come in the first time and you tell me to take a hike, I do so. Gracefully.

For you who don’t tell me to just leave you alone, at some point, even I will reach the tipping point. Once I do, I’ll stop sending you e-mails or calling you, but only for a time. I’ll let you deal with all of those complications that made it too difficult for you to simply respond to the voice mails or e-mails with a simple “don’t call us, we’ll call you.” At some point, I’ll try again. Why wouldn’t I? You told me to reach out to you.

The question begs: Why on earth did you ask me to reach out to you if you really didn’t want to be reached? Perhaps you just don’t like saying no. I get that. Who wants to be the naysayer? Maybe you were in my place once, either as a child or as a distributor, and just can’t bear to disappoint those who express interest in you. I get that, too. I mean who hasn’t gone on a mercy date? We all have. And can’t we all agree that they always suck? For everyone.

Or maybe the timing just isn’t right. After all, business can be very fluid. A wine style is in. Then it’s out. Price points. The weather. All sorts of things. I get that. Wouldn’t it make more sense just to say that the weather changed? Or the price point isn’t right? Or even that you just don’t have any money to toss my way? All very legitimate (even if you’re just using them for cover). 

The organ grinder

This next scenario is actually far, far more perplexing (and vexing) to me. This is the one where we’ve clearly, by any objective standard of review, established a rapport. I’m not saying that we’re exchanging god children. Only that we’ve now spent some quality time together, either tasting and chatting, or maybe just chatting more than a few times. And not just about me. A lot about you and what you’re trying to do in your store/restaurant. We all want to believe that we have something unique to add to the business of selling wine. You no less than me, and I try very hard to get into places that see wine as much more than grape juice at a price point. And I know you do, too. We’re fellow travelers.

Let’s say that I’ve gotten past Stage 1 and managed to get an appointment to show you a few wines. Again, that’s a big, big stage, but it guarantees NO commitment on your part whatsoever. I know that, and that’s as it should be. So, we sit (or stand) and I open a few bottles (very few, because I know bottles are foisted upon you constantly). I do some selling: This husband-wife team lives in survivalist country in the Columbia Gorge; in fact, the Michigan Militia goes there to train, that’s how remote it is. Very Borscht Belt, I know.

Anyway, you try the wines and like (or more so) one (or more) of them. We talk about my wines, your place, the wines you’re personally interested in, the business of wine, etc., etc., etc. Again, you’ve not committed yourself to me/my wines. I’m more than OK with that.

What happens next (or, again, doesn’t) is that I never hear from you again after I do the requisite follow up (although, I have to say that after having a lovely back-and-forth tasting experience with you, my follow up is more earnest and more appreciative). And then…nothing. Not “I loved that [those] and want xx bottles of it [them] immediately, if not sooner.” Not “You know, I loved it [them] but need to clear some space; check back in xx weeks.” Or, “Love you, love them, just can’t do it right now.” Or even, “Not now, maybe later.”

Here’s the extreme situation (I will name the buyer and the place if enough readers demand that I do): This is a very prominent wine store. I developed a bit of a relationship with those in the store by spending lots of my own money there; giving them lots of shipping containers that I wanted to get rid of after moving from Miami to the big city (by the way, these containers cost money, so I saved them money by giving them away); they knew (or some of them did) that I was a former wine writer at a national publication, which in and of itself doesn’t matter, but at least merits at least a modicum of professed professional courtesy); and, lastly, that I was going into the business of importing and distributing wine.

So, when I finally got all my Ts crossed and Is dotted, I went in there and did my here’s-my-portfolio-and-this-is-what-I’m-trying-to-do-and-I-really-want-to-work-with-you thing. Through proper channels, of course. I had ZERO expectations. I only hoped that I would be looked at.

The buyer told me to my face that they were too busy to actually taste with me (probably, no definitely, a lie, but I’m OK with that), but if I would pick a few bottles and leave them, he assured me that they would be tasted.

Just so you civilians know, wine costs money for those in the business, whether it’s at wholesale or from the source (my price), but I was willing (happy) to do it in order to foster a relationship and maybe get something on the shelves of this very prestigious wine store.

I dropped off four bottles (one too many, in retrospect) as I was asked to do. (For the record, I wasn’t asked to submit four or two or ten; I was asked to submit whatever I wanted to submit.) I waited about two weeks and then followed up directly with the guy who said that this is what I needed to do. And I followed up. And I followed up. Finally, he assured me that he would get back to me on Monday. He didn’t.

Then he did, and said that they just didn’t have any openings. Not, your wines were OK or your wines sucked. Nothing other than the perception that what did I expect him to say. He actually even raised both his hands in that universal sign of surrender/get the fuck away from me. So I did. And won’t waste my (or his) time ever again.

Fair enough. But seriously, wouldn’t it have been easier for both of us if he had just said so two months earlier? By doing so, not only would he have not felt put upon/harassed/annoyed, he would have had all of the time that it took for him to read (or delete) my e-mails and the face-to-face confrontations to do other things.

I don’t know, maybe I’m a romantic, but it seems to me that even if you don’t look at it as a simple question of do-the-right-thing, the efficiencies of just saying no outweigh any possible avoidance justifications.

Step up to the plate, you buyers of wine. Us sellers will be OK one way or the other. It would just be nice to know which way we’re on.  

Article originally appeared on blog.icebucketselections.com (http://blog.icebucketselections.com/).
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