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Death of a salesman

Published:  23 July, 2008

The lifeblood of any industry - especially one where the product is made overseas - is those who sell its products. As a role, sales may not have the glamour of the marketer or the importance of the buyer, but good salespeople are arguably the most coveted (and hardest to retain) employees in any business, in any sector.

The much-discussed and debated changes that have taken place in the UK wine trade over the past few decades have affected the role of the salesman (or woman), and the way they sell wine, as much as any other facet of the business we call home. It would be fair to say - with a respectful tip of the hat to Arthur Miller's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1949 play - that, except in a few niche businesses, the traditional wine-trade salesman (add your own clichs here) is dead.

Successful modern' wine-trade sales reps - be they a national account manager', London area manager' or private-client sales executive' - are highly skilled operators who are increasingly specialised and sector-distinct. So what skills are sales directors looking for in their employees? How do these differ from sector to sector? What difficulties does the modern salesman face? And how does the industry feel the role will change in coming years?

The art of negotiation

According to the wine trade's recruitment consultants, major changes have been seen in the skills set required by their clients in a member of their sales force. Commercial acumen and negotiating skills are now de rigueur in leading salesmen, especially those involved in the grocery sector. As Martyn

Walshe of recruitment consultant Martyn Walshe Associates says: Commercial acumen is essential when you are dealing with buyers who can dissect a penny.' Or as Christian Hughes, who recently opened a UK office of Australian wine-trade headhunting firm Mondo Search, explains: The multiple grocers have changed the landscape of the wine market dramatically. Candidates with FMCG backgrounds who demonstrate proven category management and account-planning skills plus extensive experience in negotiations and presentations are now actively targeted. Supermarkets require more specialist skills than traditional relationship sales.'

Of course, this trend all depends on the sector you work

in. Andrew Hawes, MD of Mentzendorff, which has a 50/50

split between sales to multiples and other sectors, says that, although the development of the supermarket wine sector

means prices and promotional deals are very fluid, it's a much more autonomous environment for the salesman This isn't

true in the independent sector where you have a price list and predetermined discounts.'

Does this mean, then, that those who work selling to the independent sector and the HoReCa sector are increasingly second-class citizens of trade sales forces? Not according to Philip Harris, sales manager at Spanish specialist Laymont & Shaw, who argues that the skills base of the traditional' wine-trade salesman is just as large and, importantly, he is far more passionate. When selling to a multiple, I would argue that you are only as good as your last promotion, whereas in the independent sector you can build up a trust for you and your products. I still feel product knowledge is vitally important; you have to know the wines you sell.'

Harris does admit, however, that the difference between selling to a multiple and an independent is growing daily There are some roles that I just wouldn't be suited for. I've spent my life selling great wines to the independent sector, and it's something I'm very passionate about.'

Selling to the top-end on-trade (particularly in London) is also an area where niche skills and knowledge are vitally important - and one where competition for the top salesman is as competitive as at the national account level. David Pilkington of recruitment consultants Pilkington Webster says finding work for someone adept at selling to prestige accounts is far from difficult. If someone has great contacts in the London area and knows all the managers at five-star London hotels and all the top sommeliers, then most companies would bite your hand off to have them and are willing to pay them very well, too,' says Pilkington. Walshe adds that it is probably easier to get a job in off-trade sales at the wholesale level than in the on-trade, where it's difficult to succeed if you are an idiot'.

For Peter Spencer, SVP UK sales for Constellation Europe, selling in all sectors of the industry requires a larger skills base than in the past. One thing you'll find', he says, is that on-trade buyers are becoming increasingly sophisticated in what they ask for, with negotiating skills that would grace the grocery market, so our on-trade sales force needs to reflect that. It's a challenging market out there for many operators, and we need to provide them with ideas that can increase footfall and maximise the profit for wine. And on the national account side, the idea that all you need to be is a skilled negotiator is also wrong. I'm very keen that all my national account managers have a good grounding in logistics, marketing and commercial issues. Increasingly, the multiples want us to do the work they used to do in-house, so a national account manager has to be skilled in numerous areas. Product knowledge comes into its own when you have a team that specialises in premium areas. Our Cellar Door team has to know what direction the grass around the vineyard is pointing in July and things like that.'

The right stuff

So, how are these all-singing, all-dancing salesmen to be found? Not so easily, it seems. As Hawes says, We would all like to hire an MW with superb commercial acumen and a sparkling personality, but they don't really exist.'

The wine trade has seen an influx of people from outside the wine trade proper in recent years - in sales, marketing and

buying - particularly in senior positions, although arguably not

to the extent that some would have you believe. According to Pilkington, around two thirds of all positions that become vacant are filled though networking and recommendations, which generally means from within the trade. Of those jobs advertised, the vast majority are (probably) also filled from within the wine trade (although no figures are available to confirm this).

Christian Hughes, however, says that the nebulous career

paths and apparent poor level of training given to most staff

in the wine industry mean the wine trade should look further beyond its boundaries to find sales staff. The level of training

and investment in staff within the wine industry is low when compared to other FMCG sectors,' he says. This exacerbates

the need to recruit national account managers and category controllers from outside the industry.'

A number of managing and sales directors were surveyed for

this article, and it seems that the men from the promised land' of FMCG don't always deliver in the ways that some feel they do. You have to be open to where you take staff from, since product knowledge can be taught relatively quickly. But, saying that, we have taken people from an FMCG environment, and the switch isn't as easy as some would have you believe. It's hard for some people to get to grips with the agricultural nature of the business from a supply side: vintage variation, changes in supply and things like that. Some from a pure FMCG can find it frustrating and get pissed off quite quickly,' says Hawes.

Bob Bailey, sales director at Stratford's Wine Agencies, is himself an outsider (he came from IT sales three years ago), and he believes it depends on what your new role entails. I was asked to put in place additional reporting structures, but I can see that the wine trade would be quite intimidating if you were thrown in at the deep end without any product knowledge. I always had a strong interest in wine, so it wasn't so difficult for me. But you have to remember that sales is sales is sales. If you've got enthusiasm and passion, you can sell. The old adage about building relationships is just as important as it ever was.'

One thing that seemingly everyone agrees is that the guys at

the top of their profession, the alpha' salesmen, are scarce. Everyone is looking for someone who has an excellent relationship with the grocers, has a good reputation and track record and comes with excellent product knowledge. These

people know what they're worth, and they will come to us if

their company doesn't,' says Pilkington.

In a trade where junior positions are hard to find, particularly in small and medium-sized companies - we tend to look for the finished article,' says Hawes - what is the best way in for aspiring salesmen and women? Is the old route from the shop floors of Oddbins and Majestic still as relevant? Walshe feels that it can be a very, very good route to enter the trade, and I usually advise someone who wants to enter it to do it'. However, it is also becoming difficult to move on past that level without real commercial experience'. Pilkington makes similar points: I get a lot of people who liked wine at university, decided to enter the trade and ended up working in retail. They soon realise that it's a pretty hard ceiling, and so they come to us. I tell them that for every 1,000 people working in retail, you get 100 working in sales, five in PR and marketing and just one buyer. If they want to be buyers, which most of them do, I tell them they are better off where they are.'

Several employers are also sceptical about the traditional route. I don't have a lot of confidence in the retail route,' says Hawes. Dealing with customers who want to spend money is different from knocking on doors and asking people to take your product.'

Spencer is more positive about moving up through retail (as the larger companies generally are, according to Walshe). I don't feel that the retail route is becoming less relevant. When I was at Matthew Clark a couple of years ago, I recruited some fabulous people from Oddbins and Majestic.'

According to Michael Cox, UK director of Wines of Chile and former managing director of distributor Yalumba, the traditional dependence of the trade on the retail route may have had a detrimental effect on the quality of those the trade has been able to recruit. If you are a real go-getting type and want to enter the wine trade, particularly in a sales role, and you find out you have to work a couple of years in a shop first, that may scare you off; so you go and do something else instead.'

Unfortunately, another factor making it harder to enter the sales teams of a wine company is that, in general, they are shrinking. According to Cox, sales teams are certainly smaller than they used to be: both because of commercial pressures, since salespeople per se are expensive; and also because the majority of the wine business is in fewer and fewer hands.' This is a position backed up by both Walshe (the trade has shrunk as sales have increased') and Pilkington (there is no doubt that sales teams are contracting, and a lot of good people are leaving the industry because there are fewer jobs in certain areas than there used to be').

On a more positive note, there are still attractions of working

in the wine trade (not least the actual product), despite the extra pressures on those working within it, particularly in sales. As Walshe says, The excellent thing about the wine trade is you get people attracted with a very high level of education. They really want to work with wine. If you sit down with them and explain what their options are and how much they are likely to earn, then they get disillusioned. A lot of them, however, still want to give it a go. You don't get that in many other industries.'