Are you coming to the dark side*?
With the proliferation of import/distribution companies in NYC, there are more sales positions and opportunities available than ever, but little clarity on what it takes to put yourself in the best position for success as a salesperson at a good company.
I am hoping you will let me throw you a little inside baseball. Let me ‘leak’ some advice…
Below are some key points to consider when you are interviewing for a sales position in the city. As obvious as they may seem, it is exceedingly rare that anyone thinks this through enough to do them.
And just in case it bears repeating: There are many roads to Rome. What is below is not a one size fits all perspective. The market you are in, the standard practices of the distribution companies and the character and scope of the portfolio you sell will impact the below.
#1 Know the props and players
Ideally, you should walk into an interview knowing the company portfolio well. The history, who is behind it, where it is going. Take the reins and do more than a little research. Who are the props and players and who has which producer? The better you have a handle on the market you are interviewing in will directly impact the choice (and level) of companies you interview with. Essentially, the more you know the import/distribution scene, the higher the echelon of company you can go, and in turn, the better choice in companies to work for you will have. No viable company sleeps on someone that really knows a market.
#1a – curveball question: Why didn’t you buy from us?
If you are a buyer (or were) and never really bought from** the company you are interviewing with, you should be ready to answer why, and you better be convincing if you want the job. Also, have you considered that who you are buying from currently could be your most connected contact for a new job?
#2 The playbook no one thinks of…
Inventory is one of the most misunderstood and least talked about elements of a company in sales positions across the city, and yet, it is a vital ingredient to success.
Think of it like this: the inventory, open availability and producers will be your wine list. If you only have a few cases to sell of that sexy Beaujolais customers ask you for – you need to know that you have other options to take them to when that is gone. You need a spectrum of choice in your figurative bag. If not, you are going to run into problems once you really start selling wine (from an availability/volume point of view) – and these problems can be crippling and create a concrete ceiling. I speak from experience and this dynamic isn’t pretty.
Once talks get real (real enough to feel comfortable), ask to see the full inventory with associated availabilities (limited availability wines and their allocations, wines that sell out in a day, etc.) over several months. Ask what the seasonal flow is like. Do they DI offer their Rosé, for instance, or do they stock Rosé?
I guarantee you that most companies will be shocked that you are asking about inventory because most potential salespeople never think of this. Bottom line: You need to know what the inventory looks like and how it functions to make waves. You must have inventory/supply to sell to succeed.
The companies that are serious about hiring you and aren’t transparent about inventory are giving you a hint about what it will be like to work for them. If there is some concern on their side about transparency with you then tell them that you understand that inventory + accounts + passion + thoughtful work + connection = sales.
If you are missing the inventory piece, it is extremely difficult to find lasting success. And don’t forget that the more you sell, the better for the company.
#2a The small ball game
Imagine that portfolio that everyone says is “on fire” with the owner/partner who is also a salesperson. There is a very good reason that the owner is selling. I bet you that there isn’t a good spectrum of wine to sell with inventory behind it. There are exceptions, of course, but this is generally the rule. And this is not to take away from the strength of these types of portfolios, some of my favorites in the city are these portfolio models and I would bet on a few of them, but that doesn’t mean it would be great for you to work for them today.
#3 Culture Club
I would argue that the culture of a company has just as much to do with the quality of the portfolio as the wines in it. It has a massive impact. But, it is difficult to interpret and understand the culture of a company from the outside. I always advise talking to reps in the market about what it is like to work at the company, both current and former. An importer/distributor with a “good” portfolio may come with owners/managers that are not good to work with. No one says when they are hiring: look, we are shitty to work with, but the wines in our portfolio are great.
Insider tip: if they have a portfolio of note, but a regular turnover in prime sales positions, I would be very aware of what that says about the company culture before interviewing — and if the vibe is right during the interview, I might even ask why they have had the turnover.
It is easy to be hypnotized by the wines in a portfolio and not understand that the culture within the company impacts how it will be to work with those wines.
#4 And…the account goes to…
Always ask what type of accounts will be available to you.
No matter what your level of experience, importer/distributors are generally cagey about which accounts are available, and every once and a while for understandable reasons. Figure out which type of accounts you will have access to as a rep and how the company decides who gets assigned to which account.
And if they say “we have house accounts and dead accounts for you with a lot of potential,” I would ask to see the list. I might even request ahead of time that they note all accounts that have trouble paying or have had recent buyer turnover. Generally, dead accounts are dead for a reason. Pulling blood from a run of dead account stones is a really hard game.
Now, the hard part that is basically unheard of:
#4a The Bait and Switch
Once it has been decided and you are getting an offer that includes accounts, mention casually that you have heard that companies switch runs on new sales reps and ask for some sort of assurance.
Why? I have seen the bait and switch NUMEROUS times at high-level companies. As in – here is your run, and when you show up on the first day it is different than what was promised. If they are committing to you, they should be open to it. But also keep in mind that you will have to feel out this moment, and trust in the outcome – just make sure you feel comfortable with what you are walking into.
“ You need to know what the inventory looks like and how it functions to really make waves.
#5 Understanding commission and expectations
The way reps earn money varies wildly. Some are on a draw, some are 100 percent commission (in which you need to know the average commission), some are on salary with bonus opportunities, and there are variants of all of the above. If you have the inventory and know the accounts you will get – you must have a handle on the commission or payment structure you to project how you can support yourself.
Most companies do give 6-12+ months of salary as support when someone starts. This is “fairly” standard, but can vary as wildly as the pay structures.
Question is: what happens when you are off the support? Can you handle it? Look ahead and be realistic.
The Final Decision
If you have a good handle on the people you are working for, the portfolio and inventory available, the accounts you will have, and the way you will support yourself, you should be able to make an exceptionally good decision on whether to take the job, run quickly away and/or keep looking.
Once you have the job, your world changes quickly…This is where the tough part starts. Getting things rolling as a sales rep is a little more complex.
Part 2. Coming soon.
*the dark side is a common term used to describe beverage sales
**there seems to be some general confusion about what “buying from someone” means. It means you bought regularly, you gave a BTG or two, and always kept them in the game. Why would you want to work for a company that you put in the low, non-existent slot in your rotation as a buyer?