The Sommelier Journal April 30 2011 Catherine Fallis, MS
Service goes a long way, even for sales representatives.
As wine director for a prestigious fine-dining establishment in the heart of San Francisco’s Financial District, I enjoyed better service from my wine, liquor, water, and beer reps than many of my peers. The larger distributors had trucks that delivered several times per week at convenient times for me to check everything in. I was called upon not only by sales reps, but by their bosses, corporate executives, and even owners, as well as visiting winemakers from around the globe.
Still, the level of service offered by most of these companies was decidedly lower than what we offered at the restaurant. I was puzzled. Why would a winery owner come in at 8 p.m. on a busy Saturday night with eight bottles of wine and demand not only the best stemware, but so much of my time? Why would a rep dressed in jeans walk through the front door of this formal establishment at 5:30 p.m. on a Friday night and squeeze through a packed bar crowd with a case of wine?
In both of these instances, the intentions were good. The vintner was supporting the restaurant by dining there, and the rep was rushing to get a botched order into my hands as soon as possible. But for me, both situations added stress to an already incredibly high-stress (though ultimately rewarding) job.
If you really want to sell wine to restaurants, here are a few tips for improving your service.
Know your customer on as many levels as possible: Beyond the obvious personality, style, and level of formality (or informality), try to walk a mile in the sommelier’s shoes and really understand his or her day-to-day life, and you’ll have a much clearer channel of communication. Floor sommeliers are working in people-intensive environments and rely heavily on fellow team members to make it all happen.
Identify the customer’s needs: Do your homework. If you are new to a company that has been servicing the account for some time, ask for past sales records and account history. Get to know its year-round programming. Ask the buyer for a trends summation—what has historically worked for the restaurant in general categories. If it’s a fish house that sells a lot of Pinot Noir, pitch Pinot Noir often. If the buyer is new and you’ve worked the account for a long time, discreetly offer a sales report of your company’s products so the new person can see what the previous buyer bought from you. Do not sell the same wines to competing restaurants; tailor your pitches to their specific requirements. If they win, you win.
Look, listen, and learn: Visit your account often, but in the most unobtrusive manner possible. Go to the bar, sit there for a couple of hours, and observe. Read the wine list, the wine-by-the-glass list, the food menu, and the dessert menu. Order food if your budget allows; if it doesn’t, go in with another supplier who has an expense account, like the vodka rep—they only want to schmooze the bartenders, so they can’t harm your position. Absolutely do not bring sample bottles during your research phase. And do not ask for the sommeliers—let them come to you, depending on how busy they are, or whether they “feel like dealing with another vendor right now.”
Know when to stay away: During the last quarter, stay out. Programming for the last quarter is done in the summer months. If you’re selling Champagne, make your holiday pitch in July or August at the latest. You wouldn’t believe the number of bubbly pitches I would get at the height of the holiday madness. Unfortunately, the end of your last quarter is when your warehouses are overloaded and when the really good closeouts are available. But who needs deals for the low-volume months of January, February, and March, and then around tax time?