I was recently asked to participate in an article on what it takes to be a successful sales rep.
Naturally, it was edited down to the nub. Wine Journalism today is an open field that is primarily “pitch” first, shape article second. It’s all good, I completely understand.
Below is what I submitted, save the questions and answers regarding the company I work for.
- Q: Tell me a bit about your background prior to getting into wine sales – where did you work? Have you ever worked in a field other than wine?
A: I am a classically trained Opera singer, and I sang a little bit around. When I moved to NYC, I worked at the pasta palace in Times Square called Carmines for 6 years. I also owned a boutique opera agency representing Opera Singers and Conductors before I shifted into wine sales in late 2007.
- Q: Have you carried over any skills learned in previous careers/jobs to this position? Tell me a bit about them.
Calm in chaos
Working in a raucous, high volume theater district restaurant was integral to building a skill set that I draw on today as a sales rep. I had to make rapid decisions in a chaotic environment, hone my intuition about the customers to a where it was lightning fast (I often had 10 seconds or less to get a feel for what would serve them best), work through errors quickly…and all on deadline.
Basically, I use all of these skills daily as a rep.
Voice study helped me tune into nuance.
The energy, core, and overtones of a sound inform the perception of the sound as a whole – but one has to learn to be aware of them. It takes some simple/complicated noticing.
When I am tasting and attempting to understand a wine today, this skill is what I am calling upon. I try to never get tied up in the brushstrokes and miss the painting.
Being an opera agent introduced me to high stakes negotiations. In most cases, I was representing my friends.
Today, no matter how high the stakes in the wine biz, I know I have been there before in a much more difficult dynamic.
- Q: What are a few skills that you feel are important in order to succeed in wine sales? Why are they important?
Empathy + Connection = Dialogue
Being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and connect is a key skill. A great rep is able to think like a buyer and make decisions like a buyer. If you do that well, you will anticipate needs/wants. Empathy opens up the possibility of a trusting connection and dialogue normally follows. Here’s the gold: showing wine doesn’t sell wine, dialogue sells wine.
In the business of selling wine, there are virtually no constants, so having the grit to hang in there and move forward when challenges come up is integral. Your ducks will never be in a row. I have been saying for years that being a sales rep is like playing Jazz – don’t get tied up about the wrong notes, just keep playing. You don’t give up.
The best salespeople are expert listeners. Endeavor to become a better listener and ask better questions. Don’t just run around with wine in a bag pouring juice in glasses and “over-detailing” buyers – listen more, and explain less. Listening well can connect you to a customer in a way a wine never can.
The importance of knowing how your portfolio and the producers within fit into the broader landscape of the market cannot be overstated. More specifically, I mean you need to have an informed perspective of the market competition in addition to your own portfolio. And it isn’t enough to “Good Will Hunting” the competition like you memorized it in a book and you can quote pages or throw out names. You need to have a feel for them that goes beyond the facts. Having a more textured viewpoint gives you opportunities to see where wines from your portfolio belong and how they measure up.
You have to decide what your core beliefs are as a rep. What are you doing this for? The answer may evolve with experience. And if the answer is Commission, I can assure you that you will get smoked in some way or another. It has to be deeper than that.
The reason core beliefs are so important is that they inform every step of what you do. From the dialogue you seek, to the service you give. This is the one constant you can hang your hat on in a volatile and constantly changing market.
Letting go of accounts is a skill that has to be practiced. Sales reps sometimes hoard accounts or stake claims on accounts that they are working with (or working on) without considering that their energy would be better used elsewhere. They forget that they have options. One of the absolute best ways to open your sales world is to shed accounts. Sometimes you have to let the account go, even when the “numbers” or some account dynamic may be telling you to stay.
“ Many reps (and companies!) are paying much more attention to the wine equivalent of asteroids and not planets.
- Q: Is there any one thing that came in unexpectedly handy when you started working as a sales rep?
A: I started paying attention to the super top reps very early on. I studied what they were doing and then put their practices (if they fit for me) through the prism of my style, portfolio, and my customers.
Also, my intuition came in handy. I really followed my gut on a lot of early decisions, even when I was walking in the opposite direction of the crowd.
- Q: Do you have anything else to add?
A: Many reps (and companies!) are paying much more attention to the wine equivalent of asteroids and not planets. Instagram is especially filled with this sort of thing. It is good to be aware of both, but ultimately the wines that actually move the NYC market are rarely the same as the ones as that are ‘grammed over and over again. It is vital to know the difference and be able to translate that into your work if you want long-term success.