Stop Depending So Much On Your Wine & Spirits Distributors, Part II

When I first published the original blog post almost 2 years ago, it went completely viral receiving over 5,400 views, 52 reshares, 34 comments and 180 likes. You can read the original post here.

Clearly, this article struck a nerve which wasn’t a complete surprise. But, what DID surprise me was how supportive distributors were of the piece. It became apparent to me that I was delivering a message that desperately needed to be sent to the vendor community, but no one wanted to be the one to send it.

The key takeaway from the article was, “Times have changed.” What used to work (educating distributor sales teams, creating meaningful incentives, and holding sales crew drives) is no longer nearly enough. The simple reason is distributors, in this age of consolidation, are completely overwhelmed. They simply cannot do for their vendors what they used to be able to do – especially if you are expecting them to do it all for you.

In this “refresh” or what I’m calling “Part II,” I want to expand on that theme. As an expert sales consultant to wineries and craft distilleries, when I encounter a client that is unhappy with their sales, the first thing I ask is, “To what extend are you relying on your distributors to build distribution for you?” It is shocking how many continue to believe that finding and retaining the services of a distributor is the end goal of their distribution strategy.

For further proof, just scan through a few of the classified ads for wine & spirits sales jobs. In the “Essential Duties and Responsibilities” of the ad, you’ll see phrases like, “establish and maintain strong relationships with all levels of distributor management personnel,” or “provide clear goals and supervision of distributors,” or “adequately motivate, educate and incentivize distributors to achieve volume and distribution goals.” So, let me get this straight, the key to building high quality distribution is to motivate, educate, and incentivize the distributor?” And, “clarity of the goals” will somehow move the needle? Man, oh man, are you ever stuck in the 80’s!

I’d like to provide a public service to all stuck-in-the-80’s wineries and craft distilleries out there by making two very important points:

  • Even the very best distributor can only magnify your efforts in the market. So, if you or your people don’t work on your own behalf in a market, don’t expect your distributors to work on your behalf. Help them help you. It’s that simple.
  • If it’s important to you, you must do it yourself. Do you want to gain placements in an important regional chain? Then put in the time, energy, and hard work it will take to establish solid, business-based relationships of your own. Don’t expect the distributor to just set you up with an appointment so you can piggy back on their years (and in most cases -decades) of hard work. Do you want to have your high image wines on the wine lists at high image restaurants? Then YOU must not only put in significant time in the trenches but be very patient. There is nothing so special in your sample bag that these restaurants just “have to have it.” The relationship has to come first and it will only happen if you earn the right to sell to them.

So, if you can’t rely too heavily on distributors to build your sales and distribution for you (like in the good old days), what can you do? You can start by waking up to the reality that is 2018. It’s a new day, a new environment. Like the old Vaudeville joke where the guy goes to the doctor and says, “It hurts when I do this…” and the doctor responds, “So, stop doing that!”

Once you’ve accepted the new reality, you can begin taking steps towards the do-it-yourself end of the spectrum. Decide which key accounts you want to be in. Commit to investing in RAD data and CRM. Restructure your sales team into two distinct roles: those that manage distributors and geography and those who call on chains and key accounts. Lastly, leverage digital and social media focused on both trade and consumers. It’s a new day and time, folks! And some of you need to go “back to school” to learn the NEW ways of building sales & distribution. To that end, my door is always open. I’ve shown others how to adjust. I’d be happy to show you and your team as well.

Ben Salisbury is an industry veteran and former sales executive with Constellation Brands and Ste Michelle Wine Estates. He now operates his own sales consulting practice for the wine & craft spirits industry. ben@salisburycreative.com