Sunday, September 10, 2023

A Very Difficult Buyer

Social media has become the sound of a Band-Aid being ripped off with abandon. Last week, a friend of mine who has a wine shop in California posted a funny picture of a car that had landed on a roof, for a friend and colleague. Just something funny. That friend had a “friend” on Facebook, who commented about the poster. “A very difficult buyer.” And then proceeded, in later comments to remark that said buyer also had other enduring qualities of a toxic nature. This from someone in the wine trade, a supplier rep, commenting in a public forum, about a buyer, and not in a positive or affirming way.

The buyer took it on the chin, in good nature. He’s been through everything. What’s he going to do? Sue the disparager? Report them to their company? Not buy wine from them? I reckon he could do any or all, but the onus really isn’t on him. It’s on the person who initiated the vilification. That’s the person that looks like a bonehead in front of their community. Who would ever want to buy wine from a person who states in an unfiltered and unfettered manner, their dislike for a buyer? It’s like they’re putting a giant target on their back, saying, “Go ahead, give me your best shot!”

It's emblematic of a person at a certain stage of their life who hasn’t come to a full reckoning with the standards of their occupation. Or, as we used to say, professional comportment.

I stood before many difficult buyers in my career, and often I just had to keep my mouth shut and absorb the impact of someone who might be peculiar or pessimistic.

One buyer I called on, he wanted me to be his friend. Come to his house, listen to him carp about his job and his meager salary. Listen to him talk about how his fiancée didn’t like to give him oral gratification. Even take his porn videos back to the store (“It’s on your way home.”) so his fiancée wouldn’t find them in his possession.

Another buyer was an older white male. And he was angry, all the time. One time he threatened to kick me out of his chain (many stores) if I didn’t give him a better deal. Made me come pick up the invoice check instead of mailing it like most normal folks would do. You want to talk difficult? I know difficult.

What my friend in California wants, and this is something he tells me often, is for people to be predictable and professional.

Things like:

·       “Maintain a regular appointment schedule. If you are supposed to come on Tuesday at 10 AM, show up. If you can’t be there, call. Everyone has phones these days.”

·       “If you have a deal on something, give it to the me. If a restaurant gets a better deal on six bottles of Champagne than I do on a case, think about how that seems to me.”

·       “Be sure you have your sales notebook. Be sure you have a pricelist. Be sure you have something with which to write down the order. Be sure you have a corkscrew.”

You want to talk about being difficult? Here goes:

·       “One rep said he'd pay a visit in a week.  A month later, we had not heard from him. I finally dropped him a note and he told me he was no longer calling on this territory. I told him our last communication was that he'd be here in a week and a month later we had not heard from him nor had anyone from that distributorship contacted us to say there had been changes in their representation. Sensing I was a bit agitated and having read this web page, he told me he didn't want to be made to ‘feel like a criminal or like he'd done something wrong.’

"‘Well, put yourself in the position of the accounts you were calling on.  You abandoned those accounts by not sending out a note saying there were changes in the territory and that you would no longer be calling on them.  Maybe thanking them for their business would be a good idea.  But in my case, you told me you'd be here in a week and here it is a month later and I've not heard from you.  You've had the idea someone else would call on your old accounts and they've likely not heard from anyone, either.  So you look like a slacker.’"

Difficult? Maybe a little. Demanding? A bit. Toxic? I don’t think so.

The “difficult” buyer, remember, is looking for items for his clients, who also might be a little difficult. He lives in a fairly affluent part of California, in a dense urban area, where there is a lot of competition and which is very expensive to operate a business. He needs to make every result count. He needs to stay in business. He wants his customers to come back. He wants a satisfied and happy clientele. If that’s “difficult” then give him a blue ribbon for being so. I know, if I were a customer, I’d thank him for being vigilant in pursuit of my continued pleasure in wine. Screw difficult. And quite frankly, screw the salesperson who has that kind of entitled attitude that gives them permission to cast judgement on said buyer. Get the order. Make the customer happy. Come back. Do it again. And again. That’s the game. That’s the wine business.

Oh yeah, I know there are souls out there who might have gotten this far in reading this post to flutter their eyelashes and chalk it up as another old old-timer who has just lost touch with the pulse of the “new” wine business. Ok, yeah, see how far that gets one in the “greater” wine business. The basics don’t change that extremely. Sales 101. My friend has offered constructive advice on his website, for years, trying to help the up-and-coming sales rep how the business fundamentally works.

Shifting gears, what is really a sea change in the wine business, these days, is the disruption caused by extreme consolidation in the wholesale distribution scheme. Sales people change monthly, I see it with my own eyes. The big companies don’t work with an inventory printout anymore. The salespeople have push items. Most of them aren’t on commission anymore, they are “rewarded” by performance on those push products. The warehouse is filled with items that are parked there because the large distribs have 5-10 large suppliers whom they must keep happy (and they are contractually bound) and those little suppliers languish in corners of those behemoth warehouses. And little mom-and-pop stores, like the ones I frequent, for whom those little suppliers are their lifeblood (and vice versa) have roadblocks galore. They find their way out via close-out lists with ensuing loss of profit (don’t worry, the big companies aren’t losing anything). It makes a great deal for the consumer (Hey, right now I’m drinking a fantastic and fresh Friulian Sauvignon Blanc that I bought for $3.99) but it essentially stops the producer in their tracks. It isn’t sustainable. And so it goes, over and over.

So, a buyer like my friend sees all that and tries to make sense of it? And then some large or semi-large buyer calls him names because he won’t buy their crappy Australian Shiraz that can be found at the big box stores, every day, for $5.99?

I ask you, dear reader, what’s a “difficult” buyer to do? 


© written and photographed (except for the cover art and the business card photo) by Alfonso Cevola limited rights reserved On the Wine Trail in Italy
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