Sunday, July 23, 2023

Confessions of a Salesperson: Lessons from a Bygone Era

Recently, I stopped in to see an old friend and erstwhile client, an Italian restaurateur. We had a glass of Gavi together and caught up. He told me this anecdote:

“This wholesale rep showed up with (a very large and new Italian supplier) longtime supplier rep friend. We’ve known each other 30+ years. We’re chatting and having fun. We have a relationship. The wholesale rep, who is new, apparently didn’t like our cutting up. So, the rep reported me and the supplier to their superior. Said we were being unprofessional. This wholesale rep, who has yet to sell me on themself and their company, is turning me and their very important rep in? Who the heck does that?”

It seemed the salesperson had not yet visited this account. The (new) large importer rep took them into the account, to use their long-time relationship with the account to ease them into it. Pretty typical with this kind of account, and with the rotating door we have come to see in today’s large wholesaler world. I’ve been there, and with this account I’ve been there more than once. Not quite a hazing, but let’s just call it an airing of grievances. Things like, “Why cannot I get this wine delivered on the days I want, not the days some bean counter has decided is best for their company?” or, “What about my credit I have been asking about for nine months now?” or, “The last salesperson I saw came in six months ago, what happened to them?” and so on. It’s what we did, listen to the customer and try and make it right.

The salesperson felt uncomfortable with the initiation, thought it to be a dressing down. So, the salesperson “reported” the incident to their manager. From what I gathered, there were no overt racial or sexual overtones or innuendoes. Just a strong dose of customer dissatisfaction coming from the customer, aimed at the salesperson, who is representing the company.

Is the customer always right? At one time, they were considered to be. These days, not always. One outspoken chef in town even goes so far as to say it this way: “The customer is not always right, workers have dignity and sometimes doing the right thing means losing a potential sale.”

If you are a proprietor, you can make these rules. If you work for someone who might not see it that way, all bets are off. One thing is for sure: The customer is always the customer. And if you’re in a service industry, then serve ye must. And that should never be forgotten or be given lower priority than one’s sentiment. Or at least that’s the way it was written up, c'era una volta, in the Old Testament of Things.

I related this story to a recently retired friend who ran a global multi-billion dollar architectural engineering company, and said this: “Oh yes, we raised all these kids to get an award, even if it was just a participation award. An award for showing up! And now, in the working world, they show up and think they’ve done their job!”

I believe that for in every generation starting out in the working world, there are degrees of uncertainty and general unknowingness that everyone must overcome with time and experience. The school of hard knocks. And today it intersects with a hyper-sensitivity to all things sexual and racial, such that what might have been normal a generation or two ago is now considered an aberration, even unethical or immoral. Behold the new Victorian Age. Irony aside, there are deeper levels of sensitivity today in the working environment. But there is also the need to get the work done - those thorny notions of sales and service. “To serve.” How this gets parsed out in 2023 and beyond will be the work of the younger generations. For those of us who are now passive observers, it appears as a perplexity. How does one thread the needle of political correctness with the demands of the sales goals, as laid down by the mangers and suppliers, keeping the juice (and the sales) flowing outward, while maintaining one’s dignity and self-respect?

When I was in that position, I had to put up with things I didn’t acquiesce to. I got hit on, sometimes by large muscular barmen (I called on gay bars, shortly in the beginning) and occasionally by cis women. I deflected. I had to. I needed the job. I was a single dad. There was no room to lose any customer. I had to raise a child and so I had to temper my feelings. Now look, it wasn’t hell. I am a straight, white, Caucasian male. So, I am not part of any repressed group. Quite the opposite, if one reads the news. No, my group is out of control in many ways. But the world is going along with much of it. Anyway, not to get off the subject.

I had to put my customer ahead of everything, in the business world. One of my best customers was addicted to porn. Sometimes he would have me run one of his errands, which was to drop off his weekly stash of VHS porn back at the store where he got it, on my way home. What would I say, no? Report him to my manager? And lose the account, the commission and a stream of income that might affect preserving custody? Hell no! I wasn’t looking at the porn, I was returning some poor loser’s skin flix, who made $10 and hour and didn’t want his fiancée to know about it.

One of my supermarket accounts was a difficult place, the manager was a serious alcoholic and he had a temper. I needed to win in that account and I was working for a small boutique wholesaler. The big distrib's merchandisers would roll in on Friday and take all the wines I’d sold in off the shelf and wheel the cart into the back room. Then the wines wouldn’t sell over the normally busy weekend, and the manager could not re-order from me on Monday. And then they could push out more Bartles & Jaymes or Hearty Burgundy. But I would go in on Saturday and put everything back in place.

I’d put up shelf talkers. They’d draw pictures of penises on them. It got so bad at one Safeway, that one fellow and I stepped outside, fists raised. Until someone got in between us and made us calm down. It was war. Screw my feelings. I was trying to make sure my Cotes de Bergerac or Wehlener Sonnenuhr or Trebbiano d’Abruzzo kept their shelf space. It was wine I had sold in to the account. It was no longer mine. But it was my duty to help the account sell it through, regardless of the intentions of my competition.

All this to say it was a very different atmosphere when I was a young salesperson. But those were the way the lines were drawn on the battlefield then. Take it or leave it.

Now, it is very different. But as I said, the customer is still the customer.

This customer in the initial anecdote above, the one who got “reported,” was buying esoteric Italian wines when the rest of the world had little or no interest in them. He would buy rare Piedmont producer’s wines, and exotic Tuscan wines. But he also bought things like Fiano di Avellino and Vernaccia di San Gimignano, and pressed these wines onto the tables of his otherwise bewildered diners. They didn’t know the difference between a Soave and a Chardonnay. But he persisted, and continued to fly the flag of Italian wine, in good and in bad times. He was, and is, an Ambassador with a capital “A,” and an uninstructed sales rep should have known that before going in unaware. Ostensibly the long-time friend and large supplier who accompanied the salesperson was there to offer context and continuity. That was uber important. The other factor would have been for that salesperson to have been a bit more acute in the taking notes department. But it seems they might have had a check list of potential violations at the ready. Like I said, the work environment now is all so much more hyper-sensitive, and mostly for good reason. But while the customer is still the customer, a salesperson is still a salesperson.

Final thoughts: It could also have been the salesperson felt left out. They saw the good relationship the supplier had with the customer and chalked it up to another “good ‘ol boy” kind of club, even though it wasn’t exclusively all “boys.” And feeling left out can make one feel estranged, especially in a new setting. The salesperson’s supervisor could have walked them through that part of their sales journey.

Bottom line? Some people are just not cut out for the hard-scrabble world sales can be. If that is the case, a salesperson should probably find another line of work, posthaste. No need for anyone to be miserable when chasing after their daily bread (and wine).



© written and photographed by Alfonso Cevola limited rights reserved On the Wine Trail in Italy

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