The Work With

22 08 2008

The Work With

The wine sales industry has many strange idiosyncrasies and weird business practices.  It cannot be likened to any other industry and typical business protocol does not apply.

For example, when a sales representative calls on an account, a restaurateur or retailer, to attempt to make an appointment, schedule a lunch, invite them to a special dinner with a leading vintner (gratis of course), there is absolutely no obligation for that call to be returned.

In the event that an appointment is made there is actually no real obligation to “make good” on that meeting by attending.  There is no real reason that the buyer needs to be on time.  During the meeting the buyer will continually be interrupted by deliveries and the like.  Sometimes instead of an appointment “the cattle call” is implemented where the buyer has the representatives wait in an informal line while they deal with other business, they are seen first come first served, but sometimes breaks are taken for lunch, etc. and there is no guarantee that the rep will get their 10 minutes with the buyer at all that day.

The wine sales job takes hours of time, follow-up, driving in circles making repeat calls, stalking, spending tons of time and money eating and drinking at the establishment, whatever it takes to cultivate a copacetic working relationship, or even the mere normal decorum of any other professional business transaction.

There is another weird anomaly in the wine business called “The Work With”  You may also hear it referred to as “The Drive With”, or in its negative context as “The Milk Run”.  If you hear about “The Blitz” that signifies multiple “Work Withs.”  The reason for the existence of “The Work With” stems from US laws created when rescinding Prohibition, all wines must be sold from a producer to a wholesaler to an account (retail or restaurant) in what is called the Three Tier System.  Generally, these wholesalers are relatively few in number, and despite consolidation the producers are more numerous.  Even large producers and brands can get lost in the portfolio of a large distributor and need extra attention, so they send in their staff to enforce a focus on their brands by doing, you got it, Work Withs.

I think folks on both sides of the Work With would agree that a Ride With is one of the most awkward social interactions possible.

Imagine… a random person that you’ve never met and possibly have never even spoken to, arrives in their own car at your hotel in a strange city to take you around the town.  Didn’t your mother ever tell you never to get in cars with strangers?  This is worse than a blind date.  You get in and take off on the road with who knows who.   It could be a spunky young woman, a sixty year old man, sales reps run the gamut of all walks of life.  There are generally the obligatory comments about the state of the vehicle, “I’m just borrowing this truck from my husband who’s a contractor, don’t worry about the huge crack in the windshield, that happened this morning.”  “Don’t put your stuff on the back seat, my son spilled his milk all over there last week and it is a bit gross.”  I am so sorry, my dog was in here and he just sheds everywhere.

Now wholesale reps, please bear with me, there are plenty of you who are absolutely normal, organized and productive, but generally you are the ones that move up to management quickly and don’t need to go on Work Withs.  That’s why I have never ridden with you.

Generally the conversation starts with small talk, “Hi, I’m Julie, thank you so much for your time.  We have a really full day.”  Or, “Hi, I’m Fred.  I have to apologize, you see there’s a winemaker in town, most buyers are super busy doing inventory and my cat was sick last week so I have been having a hell of a time finding appointments, but I figure we can pop into a few places, it should be a great day.”  Then they rattle off a slew of accounts that are planned visits (most of which will never actually show up or will shush you away because they don’t want to taste.)

You talk about their kids, your kids, or your lack of kids, your pets, where you’ve lived, etc.  It is excruciating.  Imagine your worst blind date ever, because this is not going anywhere.  Occasionally you’ll find a really great match-up that you click with immediately, which can be fun.  This happened to me when after three horrible Work Withs I got in the car with the rep and said, “Look, no offense to you personally, but I just cannot take one more minute of small talk, so if you don’t have anything interesting to say can we just get through this day without it.”  She and I immediately got along and had tons to talk about.  This is a rare occurrence.

You’ll sit together at lunch, which is usually easier as you can talk about food, the weather, etc.  Hopefully they will pull out their computer and put in some orders to take up some time.  But then all too soon it’s back to the car.  You hop in and out with heavy bags laden with wines to show to the buyers.  When you enter the door of the account you immediately become close buddies, friends even, which is hilarious.

But the best is when you get someone really dysfunctional.  For example, as you’re driving along you realize that you are playing the role of “driver’s ed instructor”, slamming your foot down at every intersection as they are gabbing on their Blackberry.  Very close to reaching for the wheel as they careen towards the median while browsing through their account list (in 10 point font), stretching to find a place for you to go for your next visit.  Turning to tell you their life story while staring at you.

You can attempt the tried and true tactics of faking phone calls, texting, mad emailing, even writing Thank You notes while in the car, but to no avail.  You’re trapped.

You will inevitably hear about their most secret indiscretions, “This is between us but…”  You must understand that most salespeople lead an otherwise solitary existence, working from home, alone most of the day, dining alone, visiting accounts alone, so this is their (and your) chance to break out.  Ironically most of these folks are otherwise very social people.  At any rate, while you’re careening toward the median they’ll be discussing their recent affair with the brand manager of a certain winery and how they got married but he disappeared for a few weeks so she gave away his samples and the relationship surprisingly ended on a bad note.

The driving deteriorates once you start heading out to “hit a few accounts” after the rep has exhausted the possibility of tasting with any more buyers.  You have a few cocktails at bars while she tells you about her recent bout with E. coli.  He may have his dogs in the car.  You may go to get an oil change, pick up dry cleaning, go to the bank or hang out in his back yard while he checks his email.

Hopefully the day will end early when she goes to pick up her kids at 4:30, you’ll wait in the car with her until 5:15 and then she will drop you at your next account to take a cab to your hotel.  Or even worse it may end around 11pm when after a long dinner and many wines later you enjoy the tenuous drive home.

But that’s the nature of the wine sales business, so if you think you can handle it, even enjoy it, go right ahead.  I can’t wait to see you after your first Work With.

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28 responses

24 08 2008
Greg Lindgren

I’ve never been much of a buyer, but I will try to be even nicer to visiting reps who get past my appointment filter (ie. kid).

25 08 2008
Steve Burgess

Greg, you always made our appointments… Thank you… Rebecca, I could add a number of stories about some of the crap my managers did on work- withs that were the most shocking of all! But, I’ll leave it to your imagination!

25 08 2008
hans purohit

chaps-

that’s not how it works in my world. we start with bloody’s, then on to 2 btl lunches and then beers when we’re done. then we can get down to selling juice, but only then am i even in the mood. plus, i don’t get going until 7pm, we sell more wine after midnight then ever before.

26 08 2008
Richelle

This is all so true… I live this everyday! 🙂

26 08 2008
Clay H

A Funny post that sums it up. Having worked as both “supplier” and “distributor” I can relate to your overview. It reminds me of something my first sales supe (a great guy w/ a great sense of humor) told me when I was learning the ropes:
<>
Many of these painfu, awkward & unproductive ride withs could be replaced with a fedexed box of samples & a few corkscrews…Cheaper, too! :>)

26 08 2008
Clay H

my sales supe quote seems to have disappeared. it should read “the 2 biggest lies in our business are when the supplier says, “I’m here to help”, and the distributor replies, “Glad to have you!”

26 08 2008
NicoRiesling

I hate “work with”, there must be a better way to do business. Two weeks ago I was asking the rep in the car: “You hate those workwith, don’t you?”, he answered “this is a total waste of my time”, I answered “same here”. We then went along with our miserable day. Of course, some are good, but they are the rare exception. I think that 10% of them are great, 20% OK, 50% poor, 20% darn useless.
If you are a restaurateur or a retailer, please be nice to the poor winemaker that goes around on such a day, it’s really not our fault; we are just trying to sell you some of the wine we made.

26 08 2008
JP Hailey

As a Veteran Sales Rep I’ve had more than my share of ‘work withs” and believe me, the dysfunctionality works both ways…I will say this with confidence; The right Screenwriter get’s their hands around this awkward business practice, it will easily become the funniest wine film of all time.

26 08 2008
MJ

Dysfunctional might be a kind word to describe some of the experiences that I have had over almost 20 years in the business and the ride-with always brings the best (or worst) stories. The absolute worst is when a rep picks you up for your day and says that he/she only found out that they were going to work with you the day before, even though you had set this up many weeks or months ago. They know next to nothing about your wines, where they are from, or what the story is behind the winery, or even the pricing of the wines. They come armed with a few bad xerox copies of old reviews if you are lucky, and so you learn to always bring materials with you when you travel. They also forgot to have the samples ready, so you have to go to their warehouse with them and wait an excrucating 45 minutes for someone to retreive them and then they just stick them in a box, no wine bag, no proper temperature and likely not even the wines from your portfolio that you really need to showcase. They have forgotten to even tell their accounts that you are working with them today, so as you enter stores and restaurants, it is already obvious that they have no time or desire to speak with you or to taste your wines. They often are annoyed that you are there at times. The rep may also tell you that they have other business to take care of, so they may spend 10 of their 15 minutes in the account doing everything but talking about or helping to present your wines. Worse still, I have had numerous work-withs where the sales reps brought along samples of a competing brand to taste with accounts. The worst part of all of this is that you have just traveled hundreds or thousands of miles, spent on airfare or drove for hours in a car, invested in a hotel room for multiple nights, and are generally obligated to buy the sales rep lunch and if it goes into the evening, dinner too. You have no chance nor opportunity to recoup your investment in any way, shape of form. Truth be told, you have just allowed someone to waste an entire day of your life. That is the maddening part, because you could be doing something else productive entirely. As it is, when you are on the road, the early morning and late at night in the hotel room is when you are obligated to check your emails and get your regular day’s work done too. Although no longer as common in the past, there are many times when a rep has wanted to end the evening at a strip club (which, of course is also their account, so really, they think that this is a completely normal addition to the day). I won’t even go into the times when paired with an extremely heavy smoker and spending your entire day stuck inside a dank smelling nicotine-mobile, or the fear when you realize on the drive home from a wine dinner that the rep didn’t quite follow the “never drink everything in your glass – moderation by example” rule and you are quite possibly putting your life into the hands of a potential over the limit driver. I also know many people on a work-with who have been in a car with a rep who has had an accident while on the road. In fact, I was in Chicago last week and it had happened to a winery representative the day before (in this case not the distributor rep’s fault, but it still amounted to a minor case of whiplash to go along with the ride-with). Over-crowded airports, food on the run, sleepness nights and time away from family and friends. It is not glamorous, yet…when you hook up with a great sales rep, someone who plans out their days, someone with whom it is obvious shares great rapport with their accounts, someone with a personality, someone with a passion for wine, then those are the days when it is all worthwhile. When you get the rep interesteted in your wines, the story of the wines, and they know that they can count on you for support, well then you have hit the jackpot. In fairnesss to reps, because I was one at 3 different wholesale houses, your life sucks too, when you have to get out of your daily routine and work with a wine supplier who is either boorish, prententious, ‘know-it all’, insulting to your customers or who just plain represents crappy wines. There are also too many stories of female reps who have had to work with wine suppliers who demonstrated various forms of sexual harrassment. It is not always a very comfortable match for either the wholesaler representative or the the supplier representative…so you just put your head down and march on. As I always say during the most difficult times on the road, there are only 24 hours in a day, no one can add another hour to your worst day, and soon it will be over and a new day begin. Hey Rebecca, I’ll see you in the next city or in the security line at the next aiport, or god forbid at the strip club! Cheers!

26 08 2008
chris nick

Right on the money … funny stuff, but – in fairness to distributor folks & buyers :
It is often times the supplier reps who are flakes, creeps, weirdos, people with issues, superiority complexes, inferiority complexes, delusional about the quality of their wines, harbour delusions of grandeur with regard to the relevance of their brand in the market, have no understanding of the market they are visiting & have done no homework, do not pick up the tab at lunch/dinner ( they should ), fart in your car ( true story ), expect to be chauffeured to & from the airport/hotel ( take a taxi people – please … ), do not spit & drink their way through the day, talk down to buyers & sales reps ( this really helps sell wine ), do not know how to eloquently & concisely communicate their brand intrinsics to sales reps & customers, etc..,

27 08 2008
Ken O'Hara

Hilarious blog! As a wholesaler in Seattle I can offer you a peek into the ‘other’ side of these strange acquaintences as I prepare for another eventful “ride-with” season… The visiting importer who would rather skip out on a day of scheduled account visits to go shopping at Macys, the French “U.S.” account manager who on her last two days of a three week whirlwind visit to the states shows up exhausted, listless and apathetic along to accounts, the national sales manager for an importer who insults a restaurant buyer’s taste by disparaging their selection of glass pours and gets us both thrown out of the account, the winemakers who cannot handle criticism when dealt by buyers, the importer who had me pull over so they could watch two bums fight, and oh yes all the back seat driving! I’ll always remember your blog and smile when I wake early to wash my truck, with the cracked windshield and bent bumper, to pick up yet another European US account manager, winemaker or importer from their same hotel, with the same small talk and take them to all the “best” accounts! Good Luck!

27 08 2008
Sydney

Hello,
I’m a wine sales representative for a distributor and while I think there is a lot of truth in the things you write I do think you are being quite negative about the “Work With” situation. One of the parts of my job that I really enjoy is getting to meet new people especially if they are directly from the winery and have hands on experience with the winemakers and vineyards or even better if they are the winemaker themselves. And while you consider the “forced” small talk to be a hindered annoyance I enjoy getting to know these people not to mention they normally have fascinating stories. While I know that many of the people who ride with me to my accounts are on a “Tour” and have been doing the same thing with different sales reps for days and days and are probably pretty tired of having to talk about their families and repeat the stories about the wineries over and over, honestly that is part of THEIR job and they should look for a different one if getting to know each sales representative and their accounts is too much of a burden.
As a sales representative I am very aware of the circumstance of the strangers who are going to be in my car and I try my very best to make sure that my car is clean and that it is safe enough for both of us to be riding around in it. That may not be true for every sales rep, obviously not or you wouldn’t have mentioned it before.
As the direct , full time representative of not just my company but the wineries I think that it is important to get the buyers as involved in the product as possible which requires that I know as much as possible about the wines and where the come from and the best person to teach that to me is some one from the winery. Also, I feel like selling wine is more about story telling and most of the people I have had the opportunity to work with have the best stories about how the winery was founded, what happened that created the label etc.
While riding with me, I want to show the winery representative how we run our business and how we conduct ourselves to the best of our ability so then the “Work With” can go back and say , “Oh yes, this company is really working the hardest and best for our brand we should keep doing business with them!”
It call just comes down to good business.

27 08 2008
rebeccachapa

Thanks Sydney, I definitely did have MANY great work withs, and I took pride in the relationships (and friendships!) that I created with those salespeople, and the incredible work they did for my brands. The reality, though, is that the bad days were a hell of a lot funnier, so for this piece I focused on those. I’m glad to see that there are still some folks out there with real pride in what they do! Keep it up and be an example for all the rest.

27 08 2008
Morton Leslie

I love it when you are ushered into some buyer’s office and he wipes out a dirty, thick, fingerprinted wine glass (or his coffee mug) for you to pour your wine into.

Work withs aren’t worth much when it comes to selling wine, but it can give a winemaker an understanding of what it’s like selling their wine in the real world. I would have no idea what the sales rep faces without work-withs. Usually their were enjoyable and I formed some warm friendships in that short experience.

I found I could connect with the distributor rep on the subject of food. Since I was buying lunch or dinner I could usually get them to make the restaurant choice based on some local speciality that was in season….not the potential to sell wine. Usually it was a hole in the wall that gave me a better flavor of the city and the people.

My best memories are when I was a young, single winemaker and they seemed to hand me off to a young and cute distributor rep. I remember a great ride with in an old jeep wrangler sharing a six pack of Dixie beer in a cooler with a cute gal exploring the bayou’s of Louisiana where she grew up. I got to ride in her uncle’s Lafitte skiff, pull up some crab traps, and eat a casual seafood boil on newspapers on the porch. I don’t think we sold any wine, but after that day’s work-with I called home to the winery and announced I was taking a week’s vacation.

28 08 2008
Ian Blackburn

I see a good book here…. I’ve held many wine jobs in the past 20 years, but for seven wonderful years of glory, I worked for Kobrand. I was the person that reps “had” to work with and we all hated it.

As the Kobrand representative, I received VIPS and set up “days in the field” and the owner of the winery was my “work with.” I enjoyed this responsibility very much because it came with perks, budgets and VIP privileges. Drinking Comte de Champagne with Claude Taittinger, Grappa with Alberto Chiarlo, and Musigny with Jacques Lardiere are amongst of the highlights of my life. Not to mention golfing with Dennis Cakebread in Hawaii, pouring Sassacaia with Alexander Payne during SIDEWAYS promotion… all this sounds more like something you would read in the back of an American Express catalog and use 200,000 points to purchase!

Unfortunately, for those that “had” to work with me, I was not that much fun… typically arriving late with two cell phones going, traveling with no budget (not my fault), small wine supplies (my fault), crazy demands (me), ridiculously quotas (them)… I think “work withs” are the poison pills that kill the career paths of many a fine wine salesperson (me). If someone can fix it, then wine sales would be a better world to live in for all.

For now, I’m running late for something… see you at the next learnaboutwine.com event.

6 09 2008
cmac

After reading about Morton’s work-with, it sounds like Hans should be covering the deep south…

20 11 2008
Cheryl Durzy

Classic post….laughing out loud and forwarding to all my sales managers (we are on the supplier side). There has to be a better way to sell wine…

15 01 2009
Alfonso

You nailed it!

16 01 2009
Doyle A.

The two all-time for me were 1) The wholesaler manager met me at the first store, complained about sudden touch of an intestinal bug, ran to the restroom but did not make it in time – day over at 8:30am 2) receiving the phone call of the passing of a sister 1300 miles away – day over at 10:00am – thanks for getting me back to my car quickly Greg. All sorts in between.

As a supplier, vendor, winery rep, whatever it’s important to be respectful, useful, and presentable (and yes, take a cab if the sales route is a distance from your hotel) etc. but most importantly – prepare to return. You never make impact on the first tour or call. If there’s no intent to go back a second or third time, lower your expectations. Of course some houses are fundamentally inhospitable and their goal will only be to drop you off at the airport and get you out of town, forever – another matter.

As an aside, all of these post are from wino’s – try spending a few years developing spirit items inner-city. Have you ever been on a sales call where one customer smashed a bottle of Cisco over the head of another? – or the owner didn’t want to talk because her husband was robbed and murdered in the store the night before? – another world entirely…cheers!

27 02 2009
Justin K.

Hans is a freak to work with!
Great story about work withs, i’ve been on both sides of it and Its a circus for sure.

28 04 2010
Clare Apps

Thank you!!! As a rookie in the world of selling wines to buyers (Displaced Buyer myself), My first was a terrible experience with the winery, my second awesome and my third, and my peers agree by far one of the worst on record with Mr. Frenchy.

Had a full line up, although as luck would have it 2 appointments canceled and I found myself scrambling around pulling in favors to fill the day. Not something I like to do, because I view “filling the day” with buyers that you know are not interested in over priced Cotes du Rhone wines a complete waste of my time. But, the owner of this winery did come from out from France and they did just leave a major distributor, so we had do something right?

I always try and inform my “Work With’ about the next appointment and where my buyers taste’s lie, if they like to talk a lot, if they are always rushed and what NOT to do, as after all why would I want to ruin my relationship with the buyer for one workwith. Yes..well, I don’t even think that you can chalk this one up to a language barrier..What part of my wine buyer is a huge Parker fan did you not get?

Needless to say, the appointment went something like..”we had a choice to create a Parker Wine or a Wine Spectator Wine” But, since we are more about finesse and quality, we chose to produce a Wine Spectator wine. Umm..this is where I nearly made a mess in my pants. And..my wine buyer OMG!! Nostrils flaring and him trying to control his emotions..(Thank goodness for his kind nature) didn’t completely explode but in response started the “PISSING MATCH FROM HELL”. His response..”yes, well I just don’t think that a 95 point wine from Wine Spectator will sell in my market” (Mind you, this wine did get 92 points from Parker – 07 Vintage).

Customer interruption…..Mr. Frenchy had a chance to explore the shelves and saw many Cotes du Rhone wines with the same price point with lesser scores…Hands flaring on the side of his hand…stomping and pacing back and forth..expressing his anger out loud and his frustrations…Awe yes…time to go…

The short drive around wine country to fill time for the next appointment, I addressed why he would bash Parker when I told him beforehand that he was a huge Parker fan and that the demographic we were selling to was a Parker driven community? Response…”It is not just about selling wine, it is about educating the customer” ARE U KIDDING ME? Great, just when the 680 corridor is starting to embrace French wines, you pull out your snobbery. Thanks..I really appreciate it.

The small talk..and awkwardness followed and then he thought I was hitting on him. WOW…this guy really thinks he is all that.

Next appointment..dinner. Originally the intent was to dine and one of the 2 buyers or the owners would break away from dinner service to taste the wines. But, the restaurant was slammed..8:30 pm on a Thursday and still a line out the door. Mr. Frenchy..annoyed with not being able to taste the buyer..once again thought outloud, with the buyer standing right behind him. Awkward much.. I wish I could hit rewind and erase. Hands in the air again with frenchy accent..”So…are we going to sit here all night and wait for them or what”?

The balancing act of trying to appease Winery and Buyer…The buyer was kind enough when I asked him if he could just break away from service a brief moment to meet mr. frenchy and we would pour the wines for the “Splash and Dash”.

At this point, I really just wanted to put him on a BART train and let him find his own way home..but I drove him to his hotel in the city while letting himm play with my ipod. Ally McBeal…where are you?

There was another appointment earlier in the day, which was awkward as well as I think when the owners of the wineries come out, they get so excited and they have a sales pitch to share, that they forget that it is suppose to be about a 2 way channel of communication. Eyes rolling from buyers head..just a bad day.

28 04 2010
rebeccachapa

Hilarious story, in retrospect that is! What a total nightmare. These interactions definitely go both ways! Thanks so much for sharing!

29 04 2010
Clare Apps

Yes, all too true. As a former buyer, I can recite many blunders sales reps have made, but all in all now having sales experience on both sides of the coin; in retrospect, I was a very nice buyer and didn’t entirely pigeon hole my demographic.

Hey..umm..if you have time and can provide any suggestions or know of any great tasting groups in Old World in the bay area..would greatly appreciate it..taking WSET Advanced in June and then enter the D program, but and you know how it goes..you represent your portfolios and get what I call “Winery Palate” and need to keep memory palate in check. 🙂 I have Spain, so pretty set there with the Priorats, Rioja’s Rueda and Sherry, but Old World classically Loire need help.

Thanks and if you don’t have time, I totally understand as it is a crazy time.

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26 02 2013
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28 02 2013
2 03 2013
Margarita

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19 08 2013
rebeccachapa

Actually it was a sales job that I had, while I understand work withs can be useful a lot of the time they aren’t… It’s just a funny way that the wine business works I guess, so I thought it would be interesting to chat about the issues that arise when you get in a car with a stranger to spend a day selling wine with them. Thanks for reading!

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