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.