3 Ways to Help Your Distributors Help You!

Man reaching out to extend a helping hand
Extend a helping hand to your distributors

Welcome to the new reality

The longer you’ve been in the wine & spirits sales game, the harder this concept is to grasp – what distributors used to be able to do for their suppliers they can no longer do. Why? Quite simply there are too many suppliers & brands and way too few distributors. As a result, that sets up a new reality that if you fail to appreciate will leave you seriously frustrated. You need to help your distributors help you!

So, YOU must adjust to the new reality and let go completely of any notions that you can somehow get your distributors to perform at a higher level. Let me be clear. The diminishing of distributors’ capabilities is not a matter of “motivation” or intention. It’s simply a function being in a very overwhelming situation. So, stop the seriously flawed belief that somehow more training, more communication, more accountability, and more incentives will improve your distributors’ performance. Put your bleeping “trackers” in the paper shredder where they belong!

How could so many people be so out of touch?

When I look at a typical wine sales job ad, I’m astounded to see evidence that this way of thinking is still very much alive. As I peruse the “essential functions of the job,” I see bullet points that are so out of touch with reality it’s sickening. How could so many people be so wrong about something so obvious? Here’s why: people are making the fatal assumption that what used to work still does.  

Now, for those of you reading this who are finally ready to accept the new reality and DO something about it, consider this article to be a nickel’s worth of free advice. It’s time to start helping your distributors help you.

What can and should the distributor do?

Image of a typical distributor warehouse
Distributor warehouse

I think it’s wise to re-calibrate your expectations to the lowest common denominator and slowly, incrementally move up from there. Think about the most basic capabilities you NEED from your distributors: a) purchase pallets of your products and store them in their warehouse, b) ship them to accounts as ordered, c) do it at the correct price, d) don’t run out of stock.

Then the next level is to have their sales reps actively building new distribution for you. But here’s where things start to go wrong for most suppliers. This is not going to (and should not) happen without YOU doing your part. I’ve said this before but unless YOUR footprints are all over the marketplace, you’ve got no right to expect the distributors to do it. In fact, a good rule of thumb is the best you can expect the distributors to do for you is MATCH YOUR EFFORTS. Once again, help them help you!

Now, if you are one of the countless supplier “partners” that feel it’s the distributors’ “job” to do these things you simply must wake up and recognize those days are long gone. It’s not a question necessarily of whether not a distributor CAN sell your products but more one of WILL they sell your products. And whether they will or won’t is completely up to YOU. You need to be the lead dog on the sled- not them.

What should YOU do?

Once you’ve come to terms with the cold hard facts that you’re going to be limited in what you can expect the distributors to do for you, you can then get busy executing a newer, more modern approach to building distribution. I suggest these 3 important steps:

  1. Have a plan. A REAL plan. A REALISTIC plan. A plan that based on solid research of the market, the competitive landscape, and the “complexion” of the market. By this I mean chains versus independents, on premise versus off premise, etc. Where’s the business being done? Where are the highest value targets? What’s trending? I’m not going to go too deeply into this in this article but suffice it to say you need to do your homework and lots of it.
  2. Create your own target list(s) of accounts. Start with a “profile” of the idea customer for your brand. Then start researching accounts that fit that criteria. Adopt the mindset that less is more; fish where the fish are; not all accounts are equal, and the 80/20 rule is real.  Let’s face it: time, people, money will always be very limited. Therefore, you can’t be everywhere calling on everyone. The results-by-volume approach is extremely foolish. Being more selective in the use of your resources will provide a much greater return on your investment. In case you haven’t picked up on this yet, the target list is for YOUR efforts. Don’t just hand it over to the distributor.
  3. Take responsibility for generating demand for your brands with both trade and consumers. How do you do this? There are several powerful ways, but I highly recommend a combination of Facebook Lead Ads and email marketing. We use Constant Contact and recommend it to all our clients. Use the highly targeted Facebook Lead Ads to grow your email list (one for trade and one for consumers) and use the email list to market and “sell” your wares. There is a learning curve to all of this but isn’t it wonderful to have something that is completely within your control?


Look, there are no doubt varying degrees of successful collaboration between suppliers and distributors. There are those who do an exceptional job, those that are average and those that truly suck. I suggest you figure out where YOU are on the spectrum and resolve to move up the ladder to the next wrung. I will just say this in closing. There is a magical correlation between how hard YOU work in the market and how hard your distributor works for you. So, go forth and leverage it! Help your distributors help you!

This One Little Metric Could Have A Big Impact on Your Wine or Spirits Sales

When it comes to measuring and tracking the right things in the wine & spirits game (KPI’s to those of you pulling on the oars in the belly of corporate slave ships), there are far more options than there used to be. Oh, sure, you still have the old Reagan-era metrics like depletions and accounts sold. No doubt important but not very insightful if you’re looking for deeper understanding into the quality of your distribution. It’s nearly impossible to tell from these rudimentary dimensions if you’ve got the right products in the right places. In fact, for those of you given to impatience, “right places” is very much where I’m headed in this article.

And what about top ten and bottom ten? There are all kinds of ways to apply these whiffle balls (accounts, territories, distributors, states, etc.). But while this is certainly something that’s good to know the best it can do is indicate where YOU’RE doing or (not doing) business. It will never tell you where you SHOULD or should not be doing business. If it was me, I’d much rather learn about the most valuable “white space” accounts, the 20-percenters, the honey holes, the big tunas. Well, who wouldn’t, you might say? Good luck with that, some might say.
Given the unprecedented level of the competition today, it’s a fatal error to assume something can’t be quantified. I encourage all of you reading this to immediately start questioning everything- starting with what you measure and why. Sometimes you’ve got to be like Yoda and unlearn what you have learned. In case you haven’t noticed, we live in a very flat world. Literally everything can be optimized. Now I do think optimization as a concept has been overdone in certain applications (Fitbit comes to mind) but the wine & spirits business can never be accused of going overboard with it.

Which brings me to what I regard as the single most important metric: sales per point of distribution aka velocity. I know for a fact that not all accounts are equal so what I want to know is precisely which accounts are the most unequal – especially on the biggest-bang-for-the-buck end of the spectrum. “Wide and thin” used to be a popular and noble strategy for distribution but with so many more SKU’s chasing much fewer square feet of shelf space, it just isn’t a practical pursuit any longer. Fewer accounts but the RIGHT accounts -now that’s using your noodle.

And with less total points of distribution available, we must pay close attention to the retention and longevity of each placement as well. “Churn” is the mortal enemy of modern distribution and if YOU don’t pay super-close attention to it, you’ll be among its many victims. Churn is the most insidious byproduct of the too many brands / too few distributors dilemma we find ourselves in nowadays and God help you if you’re not monitoring it DAILY. Like cancer cells feed on sugar, so does the distribution machinery feast on churn. And guess where you won’t notice churn? By measuring depletions and account sold, of course.

Once you commit to relentlessly measuring velocity, like proverbial scales falling from your eyes, you’ll notice opportunities everywhere. You’ll begin to see crystal clear correlations like the one between foot traffic and velocity. You’ll see with Clark Kent clarity that certain “attributes” of one high volume account can easily be extrapolated to twenty more just like it. Look, we’ve been so used to relying on distributors for so long now, we’ve forgot how to think (and research) for ourselves. Remember when we used to set goals for “HT and MT” accounts (high traffic and medium traffic)? Maybe people still do, I don’t know. But nowadays you can apply “High Traffic” to just about everything – and you’d be very wise to do so.

Foot traffic is KEY when it comes to high velocity placements. And the data is staring you right in the face. Take on premise accounts, as an example. Restaurants with lots of private dining space and/or outdoor seating have far more foot traffic than an average restaurant. I’m not talking one or two times the traffic. I’m talking factors of ten and twenty times. Have you identified these accounts? Are you tracking them? If you were, you’d already know that these are among the highest sales per point of distribution (velocity) accounts in every market. Why do you think hotels do such high volume? You guessed it: foot traffic. Lots of people. A hotel with 1,000 or more guest rooms and 100,000 or more square feet of meeting space is typically the highest volume account in the city. Hint: they can usually be found near city centers and convention centers. Starting to see the correlation?

A quick side note: to those who say, “That’s great, Ben, but those hotels are all ‘corporate.’” To you I say don’t buy that malarkey for one minute. I spent 17 years as a VP of On-Premise chains for the US. I know from firsthand experience only about 40% of any given hotel’s volume is from the “mandates.” The other 60% is up for grabs, locally. Not only do your distributors know this, they leverage it to the hilt.

I could go on and on with many more examples of high-volume account types driven by high foot traffic (both on and off-premise). The point is if you start paying close attention to velocity, you’ll deepen your appreciation for how powerful this metric is. From there, it won’t be long before you start asking yourself, “Where are the other high traffic accounts where we’re NOT doing business?” Not only is it possible to do more with less, in today’s brutal environment, it’s mandatory.

How to Apply DTC Sensibilities to the 3-Tier System

Paul Mabray of Emetry shared an article on LinkedIn the other day about how the direct-to-consumer model is infiltrating the alcohol industry and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. In case you’re not familiar with Paul’s work, I consider him the EF Hutton of the wine industry. When he talks, I listen. When he posts and article, I read it.

The take-away from the article that’s induced my insomnia for two nights in a row is this idea of “applying DTC sensibility” to the 3-tier system. My post is all about expanding on this idea.

When the supreme court case, Granholm v. Heald, was decided in 2005, it kicked off an avalanche of investment and innovation the likes of which our industry had never seen. It was our Y2K. Only this time instead of stocking up on freeze dried foods and filling our bathtubs with fresh water, it was all about rushing to install CRM systems, e-commerce platforms, legally compliant order fulfillment and a whole slew of new marketing strategies & tactics. Wineries found themselves face to face with the ability AND the platform of permission to connect directly with consumers in a context other than their own tasting rooms.

It’s also quite interesting to recall that, at the time, the formidable Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America had a singular focus for the funds in their lobbying coffers which was to stop the DTC train from ever leaving the station. I remember this well because I was heavily involved in helping to recruit new members to the American Beverage Institute which was up to its eyeballs in the battle against the (successful) attempt to lower the BAC level to .08 in all states. Despite strident efforts by some of the most powerful buyers of alcohol in the country, WSWA’s standard response in refusing to support the ABI financially was they needed to keep all their powder dry for the DTC battle. In the end, consumer choice won out as it inevitably does.

But the Granholm decision was 14 years ago. No one can deny most if not all the wineries in the US have been working overtime ever since to capitalize on the opportunities ushered in by the ruling. I’d go even further to say the epic proliferation of US wineries was enabled by this newfound marketplace. It allowed for small wineries to sell their entire production without ever having to darken the paneled hallways of a distributor. We’ve come a long way and learned a great deal about CRM, email marketing, targeting & re-targeting, data sets and a host of other tech and data driven best practices. And yet, from where I sit, I’ve seen very little of this transfer over to selling efforts in the 3-tier system. I certainly have my own theories of why this is. At most wine companies, the DTC team is siloed away from the “regular” sales team that oversees the wholesale network, which is a shame, in my opinion, because many of the same SENSIBILITIES can and should be applied to the trade side.

For example, take email marketing. What is your strategy for acquiring well-qualified email addresses of trade buyers from all over the country? How large is your list now? How is it segmented? How dialed-in is your messaging and your use of email service software such as MailChimp or Constant Contact? Many wineries have their email marketing tool as a plug-in to their e-commerce system, so they’re not used to operating it as stand-alone platform. What a missed opportunity! Especially considering the low cost of this technology.

Next, let’s talk digital advertising. How often do you upload lists of trade buyers to your Facebook Ad Account, save it as a Custom Audience and then create Lookalike Audiences so you can launch highly targeted ads on Facebook aimed at wine buyers both on and off premise? How well are you leveraging Facebook’s Audience Insights tool to research and create trade audiences with titles like Restaurant General Manager, Bartender and people who have an interests like Master Sommelier and WSET. Do I hear crickets?

And don’t even get me started on CRM! News flash: CRM is not just for DTC! Talk about DTC sensibilities circling the drain (instead of being leveraged). As powerful as CRM is and has been for the DTC channel, it’s TEN TIMES more powerful in the 3-tier realm. I’ve been a street-corner evangelist on this topic for more than 5 years. My poor, ragged cardboard sign is in tatters. But don’t cry for me, Argentina. Cry for yourselves. Because while you’ve been doing what you’ve always been doing (believing the distributor is the center of your universe), many of your competitors have been going to night school at places like the University of GreatVines and KARMA College, putting in the time required to learn CRM sensibilities- but this time for the trade. And now, while you’re asleep at the wheel (blissfully unaware just how dramatically this business has changed in the last 14 years) a new breed of wine companies (armed to the teeth with said DTC Sensibilities) are quietly eating your lunch. Nom Nom.

So let’s go back to the DIGIDAY article that launched this rant in the first place. It’s called, “Direct-to-consumer is coming to the alcohol industry” (dated July 9, 2019). Just for fun, let’s Key Word the crap out of it. Here goes: “infiltrate, shift, branding, opportunity, content, growth playbook, hit mainstream, making an impression, brand equity, natural evolution, growing competition, healthy results.” By the way, I don’t meet a lot of wine sales pros who eat, sleep and breathe key words. Case in point.

Since it’s a Friday, I’d like to end on a positive note. It is by no means too late to start applying these DTC Sensibilities to the trade. If fact, if past performance is any indication of future results, you’ve still got a gigantic head start on the rest of the field.

The Greatest Paradox in Wine Selling

The wine business is full of contradictions. But, nowhere are the illogical absurdities more abundant than on the selling end of the game. The tragedy is the beliefs wine sales pros hold most deeply are the very ones in desperate need of some serious myth-busting.

Take for example the dogmatic notion that there is a direct correlation between the amount of wine knowledge someone has accrued and their ability to sell it. I’ve spouted off on this misguided perception in other places, so I won’t belabor the point here. Ironically (and paradoxically), the higher you go on the learning scale, the less in touch you are with the mindset of the average wine consumer.

Another incongruous and highly unsound bit of reasoning is the belief that the best way to sell wine is to blather on endlessly about its flavor, its provenance, and its “story.” Everything about this approach makes complete sense to our brains. People love stories, we say. Stories sell, we say. The problem is the vast majority of conversation and persuasion around a wine’s “distinctiveness” (in quotes here because there’s a lot less distinction among wines than people think – yet another paradox) takes place between the employees of the company that produces the wine and the employees of the retail/restaurant community. The consumer rarely if ever partakes in this supposedly game-changing storytelling.

But the wine selling paradox that frustrates me most is the persistent belief that the more accounts in which you have distribution the more wine you will sell. The widely used and highly revered metric of “accounts sold” is held up as one of our industry’s most important KPI’s. Yet, while it could be true (and makes perfect sense to our brains), it seldom IS true. The reason, quite simply, is not all accounts are equally capable of moving lots of wine through their operation. Like it or not, the 80/20 Rule is real. A fatally ironic twist in this more-is-more fallacy is it is now 100 times more difficult to put your wine into distribution than it has ever been. So, in reality it’s a very a good thing that not all accounts are equal and wineries who have the presence of mind to aim their time, money, and manpower with great precision will enjoy consistent and profitable sales results year after year.

The massive explosion of the number of wine brands for sale in the US combined with the ever-shrinking pool of distributors has created a very unworkable situation for ALL sizes of wine companies: large, medium, and small. Never in the history of the wine sales game has it been more important to choose your points of distribution as wisely and strategically as possible. My suggestion is to trade off a little bit of time spent amassing wine knowledge and use it to more thoroughly research the market opportunities.

The key takeaway from this blog post is to do your homework and choose your targets wisely. The single biggest determinant of volume in any given account is foot traffic. The best accounts in which to seek distribution are incredibly busy – packed every day. THESE accounts are worth pursuing above all others because they sell so much more wine than all others. So, how can you tell which accounts fit this profile? For restaurants, look for “indicators” of volume like lots of private dining space, outdoor seating, and massive numbers of reviews on Yelp. BTW, “most reviewed” is a much more reliable indicator of volume than “highest rated.” Ratings are subjective. Foot traffic is not only objective but a rock solid gauge of volume potential.

On the off premise side, one of my favorite targets are retailers who sell as much or more wine off their website than they do inside their brick-and-mortar store. These accounts are not limited in any way by their shelf space and can carry a virtually unlimited “inventory.” They are very easy to find if you know where to look, what to look for and are willing to spend time on it.

Taking time to understand, research, and target highly desirable account types is one of the most important ways modern wine salespeople can spend their time in this highly competitive environment. And the good news for those of you reading this post is most of your competitors will continue to cling to the “old playbook” and look elsewhere for keys to sales success.

Less really is more. Not all accounts are equal. Narrow the focus of your sales activity, don’t widen it. Truly, one of the great paradoxes of our time.

The More You Act Like A Salesperson, The Less You Will Sell

I predictably get strange looks whenever I tell salespeople that “real” selling isn’t necessarily about the product. It’s such a counter-intuitive concept to the untrained, amateurish seller of goods that they convulse involuntarily when I espouse the notion.

If you look as closely and as frequently as I do at the profession of selling (which already ranks among the most maligned of occupations), you’ll see very distinct camps or schools of thought and these demarcations are easily put into a hierarchy representing progressive levels of expertise. In a fairly simplified way, I’ve arranged them for you here:

At the very lowest level is the “TRANSACTIONAL” approach. This is the bastion of the much revered but hopelessly obsolete features-and-benefits style of selling. I have a product to sell. You have money. I’m going to keep spewing facts until you buy. The seller sees features and benefits as a logical, linear pathway to fulfilling your prospects needs but the buyer sees only trivial BS. Need proof? Just look at the expression on your prospects face when you’re engaging in transactional selling. You can always tell you’re amid a transactional sale because the salesperson is the only one talking. In the very worst cases, the seller has never bothered to even qualify the need of the buyer with a few simple questions. For those of us who know better, it’s excruciating to see the profession of selling being clubbed to death before our very eyes.

The next level “up” is (clear-throat, put hands around own neck in a choking position) the much touted “CONSULTATIVE” approach. While this was certainly a breakthrough in sales technique when Jimmy Carter was President, this selling style, too, is as outdated as a public payphone. I know, I know! Many of you reading this believe this is cutting edge stuff! For a lot of you, this is as far as you’ve progressed in your sales skills. Completely unaware that “modern” selling has evolved significantly in the last two decades, you continue to hang your hat on the idea that once you’ve asked a few off-the-shelf, qualifying questions, you’re free to launch a diatribe of your products’ features and benefits. The central pillar of both the transactional approach and the consultative approach is still the presentation. And that, my friends, is how you can tell whether you are truly a professional salesperson – how much emphasis you put on the presentation.

Jeff Thull, in his book, Mastering the Complex Sales, says that presentations suffer from 3 major flaws. Too much information presented too early in the sales process to the wrong people. This overemphasis on presentations is so ubiquitous it’s very hard to get anyone to see its futility. A practical tip for getting out of this “trap” (which is exactly what it is) is to ask yourself, “Is this presentation focused on my products or the buyer’s well-qualified, well-researched needs?” I think everyone reading this knows the answer to that question.

The highest level of sales expertise, in my well-qualified opinion is what I call a “MODERN” approach. The distinguishing mark of this level of sales proficiency is that it doesn’t look like selling at all. In fact, in all my training classes, I frequently use the following phrase to vividly capture the spirit of the idea, “The more you act like a salesperson, the less you will sell.” As proof that I’m speaking the truth here I ask you to take a moment right now to conjure up in your mind what it means to “act like a salesperson.”

If you aspire to this level of professionalism (and effectiveness), I know of no better place to start than Daniel Pink’s book, To Sell is Human. Among the many pearls of wisdom put forth by Mr. Pink, my favorite is the shift from buyer-beware (Caveat Emptor) to seller-beware. This caution flag truly conveys why a more modern approach is needed today. The relationship between buyers and sellers has changed dramatically due to the astounding availability of product information, social proof, and transparency via the internet. Buyers no longer lack access to high-value expertise, product information and category insights previously offered by sales people decades ago. As a result, THE SKILLS REQUIRED to be successful in sales have also changed.

A modern selling approach is about taking the focus off yourself and your products and placing it on he needs of your customer. It’s about postponing the urge to talk about your products and services long enough to find out what the buyer really wants. Sometimes THEY don’t even know so you’ve got to do a lot of research and bring real solutions/suggestions to the table. A modern approach is about empathy because, truth be told, quite often your product is not the solution they need. You have to EARN the right to ask for the business and that takes time. So a big part of the modern sales approach is patience. A saying that very much captures the spirit of the modern approach is this: You can get anything you want in life if you help enough other people get what they want.

In almost every instance, I begin my sales training classes with the question, “Selling has changed- have you?” It’s natural to blame individual salespeople for not taking the initiative to keep up with the times and continually upgrade their selling skills. But, instead, I prefer to put the blame squarely on the shoulders of sales leaders and training departments who perpetuate antiquated sales approaches in their organizations. I do a lot of recruiting of salespeople for my consulting clients and I make it my personal mission to eliminate candidates with “old school” sales approaches as early as possible in the hiring process.

I’m sure the same can be said for a lot of sectors of the business world these days that if you’re still operating in the same ways you did ten years ago, you are already obsolete. “Transactional” sales people are a dime a dozen and offer no enduring value to an organization. By contrast, a “Modern” salesperson is one who truly understands a sale is merely a by-product of a much larger relationship and that adding real business value is the key to achieving greatness in sales.

About the Author
Ben Salisbury is the Founder and President of Salisbury Creative Group, Inc. which specializes in helping wineries and craft distilleries achieve high levels of sales effectiveness. Leveraging his knowledge and experience from three decades in the industry, Ben and his team deliver sales, marketing, and distribution expertise to a wide array of adult beverage clients. Prior to starting his own company in May of 2014, Ben spent 17 years as VP of On Premise National Accounts for both Ste Michelle Wine Estates and Constellation Brands.
Contact info:

The 3 best and worst sales tools for small wine & spirits brands

The modern sales environment has never been more challenging for small wine & spirits brands, and it won’t be improving any time soon. But thriving and surviving IS possible if you’re wielding the right tools for the job at hand which is building high quality distribution and lots of it.

At the top of the list for the 3 BEST tools is your mindset. “If it’s going to be, it’s up to me” should be your mantra. “If it’s important to us, we’ll have to do it ourselves,” is what you should say every day to the face in the mirror. With every fiber of your being, you must avoid the temptation to reach for one of the 3 worst tools (below). YOU are responsible for building distribution. YOU are responsible for generating demand. YOU are responsible for absorbing the learning curve necessary for survival in the modern era.

Next is leveraging digital & social media to generate demand for your products. Facebook advertising, landing pages, email marketing and, of course, your website. Everything must me optimized to capture data. Data that can be used to target and build relationships with both consumers and trade. Some of this data will be captured by the Facebook Pixel. Some accumulates via your various lead-gen forms on your website and landing pages. If you think this stuff is confined to the realm of fancy pants marketing gurus, you’d be wise to reconsider. YOU or someone on your team needs to not only learn about this but master it. If necessary, find a TRUSTED expert to help you.

The third best tool is awareness of your options. It continually amazes me how shockingly unaware most small producers are of the options for selling, distributing and managing sales activities of their products. If you’re not familiar with following companies, strategies, and platforms, I suggest you give yourself a crash course asap. LibDib, SevenFifty, GreatVines, Provi, BevStrat, Green Glass Global, Equinox Technology Partners, Bevology, winery direct programs, clearing distributors, Merchant 23, BlueCart, Tennessee v. Blair just for starters. What you want to be aware of is anything that disrupts the status quo because, quite frankly, your livelihood and life’s work depends upon it.

My list of the 3 worst tools is counter-intuitive for most and downright offensive to some. But, don’t shoot the messenger. Somebody must tell you the emperor has no clothes. Might as well be me.

For decades and decades, working with distributors was the number one tool in the small brand sales tool box. Unfortunately, due to the astonishing proliferation of new brands (most of them small) and the rich-getting-richer consolidation of the wholesale tier, this is no longer the case. I can’t overstate this enough: when it comes to small brands, distributors just can’t do much for you. The best they can do is match your efforts and even that is a big stretch. Accept it. Adjust to it. Move on. The good news is most of your competitors simply refuse to accept this new reality so, for at least the next 3-5 years, you’ve got a first-mover advantage. Start relying less and less on your distributors now so you can enjoy a thriving enterprise for many years to come.

The second worst tool is product knowledge. Nothing wrong with it. Got to have it. But having it, investing in it and spending time on it won’t move the needle on your sales in any meaningful way. It’s simply not enough. Most of the wine & spirits industry reveres product knowledge over business acumen. I implore you to get the heck off that train. Again, nothing wrong with product knowledge, just don’t expect too much from it. The wine & spirits industry suffers from two powerful but opposing forces: romance & hedonistic passion on one end and cruel & pitiless competition on the other. While your top salesperson is describing soil types and degree days through moist eyes and tremored discourse, his competitor is on the phone confirming a winery-direct order for a 20-foot container.

The third on the list of worst tools for wine & spirits sales is activity. Not really a “tool” per se but it is high on the list of things-to-do-to-sell-more for most small brands. I’m talking here about the flawed mindset that more sales calls equal more sales. Or that more activity means more achievement. Not necessarily. When a small family winery or craft distillery goes out of business, a post-mortem analysis will reveal they had no regard for the 80/20 Rule. They tolerated way too much low-value activity from their sales team. They sacrificed the best on the altar of the good. The path of the productive, however, is one of prioritization, focus, and discipline. Less really is more. And it’s a good thing because small brands have so much less of everything than the larger players.

About the Author:
Ben Salisbury is the Founder and President of Salisbury Creative Group, Inc. which specializes in helping wineries and craft distilleries achieve high levels of sales effectiveness. Leveraging his knowledge and experience from three decades in the industry, Ben and his team deliver sales, marketing, and distribution expertise to a wide array of adult beverage clients. Prior to starting his own company in May of 2014, Ben spent 17 years as VP of On Premise National Accounts for both Ste Michelle Wine Estates and Constellation Brands.
Contact info:

The Single Best Way to Accelerate Your Wine & Spirits Sales

Of all the things you could do to accelerate your sales, this one is by far the most impactful -shift your time, energy, investment and focus away from low value accounts and restrict yourself to only the high value target accounts. Not all accounts are equal – not by a long shot. In fact, the accounts capable of the most volume do about 20 times more volume the average accounts.

But, please don’t take my word for it. Look no further than the Comptroller’s office in Austin which shows the top 50 on premise accounts in Texas buy 19 times as much wine as the average of the top 10,000 accounts. (I didn’t even include the bottom 16,000 accounts in my analysis). If I had, these comparisons would be even more dramatic. Even if you narrow the analysis to just the top 500 on-premise accounts in the state, the top 50 do 3 times the volume of the average of the next 450 accounts. The 80/20 Rule is real, folks!

So, let’s say the average wine & spirits salesperson can reasonably take responsibility for 50 accounts over the course of 1-2 months’ time. WHICH 50 ACCOUNTS ARE YOU GOING TO CALL ON? Keep reading for a few clues.

Now YOU know the single best way to dramatically grow your sales. Narrow the focus of your time, energy, and investment to ONLY the most attractive and responsive accounts. This means if you’re not already practicing this discipline, at the very least you should be able to triple your sales by adopting this simple strategy.

Naturally, this begs the question: why don’t more salespeople do it? Several reasons. First, no one above them is directing them to do it. Second, they allow themselves to be led around by the distributor sales folks who, in spite over their best efforts, lack the freedom to apply the 80/20 Rule to their jobs. Lastly, very few if any sales people or sales leaders stop to analyze the account base and identify the highest value targets in each market. Even if they committed themselves to the exercise, most wouldn’t know where to begin. BTW, don’t waste your time asking the distributor and lists like Zagat and Wine Spectator don’t show you where the VOLUME is being done.

Texas makes it easy. They identify the exact accounts for you (for free). But what about the other 49 states? How do you identify the richest targets in those states? Well, the truth is all you need is a high-speed internet connection and a little help from someone like me who knows exactly where to look and what to look for.

Just one last thing. For those skeptics reading this article who might say, “Most of the top accounts aren’t accessible to small family wineries and craft distilleries,” or “What you say is true in theory, but in the real world the top accounts are controlled by the big suppliers and big distributors.” To these doubters, I simply reply, “Would you like to visit The Post Oak Hotel, the Gaylord Texan, Pappas Brothers Steakhouse, B&B Butchers, Nick & Sam’s and III Forks (all in the top 10 on premise accounts in Texas) with me to see if we can find evidence of them buying wines or spirits from the ‘little guys?’” If you accept, you’d better bring a toothpick because crow tends to get stuck in your teeth in the worst way.

About the Author:
Ben Salisbury is the Founder and President of Salisbury Creative Group, Inc. which specializes in helping wineries and craft distilleries achieve high levels of sales effectiveness. Leveraging his knowledge and experience from three decades in the industry, Ben and his team deliver sales, marketing, and distribution expertise to a wide array of adult beverage clients. Prior to starting his own company in May of 2014, Ben spent 17 years as VP of On Premise National Accounts for both Ste Michelle Wine Estates and Constellation Brands.
Contact info:

The Secret to Selling Wine & Spirits On Premise

I call this is a “secret” because, it seems, so few people know about it. I recognize there are a solid number of you reading this who will say, “Duh, I’ve been selling this way my whole career.” And, I for, one salute you for it. We need more of you so keep setting a good example. But, for the rest of you ham-handed, self-centered hacks who don’t have a clue what makes someone buy one product over another, allow me to use this forum to enlighten you. Selling wine, spirits, beer (or anything) is not about you or your product.

Here’s what else it’s NOT about: price, taste, ratings, presentations, and all manner of “product attributes.” I’ve got news for you. Your wine is not that special and there are a thousand others just as good at the same price. You can sit there and talk until your blue in the face (or the buyer’s is red) and babble on about your oak regimen and lees stirring and soil types. At the end of the day, in a restaurant operation, none of that matters.

The best place to start having success selling wine and spirits (or anything else) to restaurants is to take the focus off yourself and your wares and put it on the buyer and the restaurant operation you are selling to. Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care. As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, what makes a restaurant buyer choose one product over the other rarely has anything to do with the product itself. It has to do with the person selling it and that person’s ability to service the account.

Service. Dependability. Trust. THESE are the things that matter to restaurant operators! Will you make sure they don’t run out of product? Will you be there for them when they need an emergency delivery? Will you take the time to educate their staff (not just on your products but on all their products)? Will you honor the price you quoted? Will you keep all the promises you made? Can they reach you when they need you? Will you keep your excuses to yourself? Will you put their needs ahead of yours?

You see, restaurants are all about service. They “get” service and place a very high value on it because that is the “currency” of their business. As a seller to restaurants, you must understand what is important to your buyers. Every restaurant wants three things above all else: grow revenue, control costs, and improve guest satisfaction. How will doing business with YOU help them achieve those objectives?

Put down your spit cup and your aroma wheel for a second and ponder these things: The keys to growing revenue in a restaurant operation are to increase foot traffic, increase incidence, and raise the check average. Can you help your buyer do that? Controlling costs is about reducing inventory, increasing efficiency, minimizing waste, and stabilizing prices. Can you help your buyer do that? Improving guest satisfaction is all about delighting guests with quality, value and experiences. Can you help your buyer do that?

When you walk in the door with your sample back full of products you need to sell, where is your focus? It’s certainly not on the customer. When you do more talking than asking questions, are you exhibiting sales professionalism? Absolutely not and your ineptitude offends not only the buyer but every professional salesperson out there. You give sales a bad name.

Would you like to sell more wine or spirits? Would you like to blow away your quotas and consistently pocket hefty bonus checks? Would you like to win more incentive trips? Would you like to keep your boss off your back? Then, here’s the secret: the more you act like a “salesperson,” the less you will sell.

Selling is not about product presentations, overcoming objections, and closing skills. Not real selling, anyway. It’s about service, dependability and trust. It’s about providing business value to your customer relationships. If you consistently seek to provide these things to restaurants, bars, and hotels, you will “own” the by-the-glass list, the wine list, the room service list, the banquet list, the happy hour list, the late-night list, the well, and the back bar. You will have earned the right to dominate your territory. And all your competitors will scratch their heads and wonder who you slept with or who you bribed because their feeble minds are incapable of “getting it.” To the amateur, success in selling will forever remain: a secret.

The No 2 Problem in the Wine Sales Game

What makes wine sales a “game” is there are winners and losers. These days, the losers outnumber the winners by a significant margin. And, like all games, there are strategies and tactics to not only increase your chances of winning but decrease your chances of losing. Pat Riley, one of the smartest coaches ever in the NBA famously said, “Figure out what causes you to lose and stop doing it.”

The No. 1 cause of losing in the wine sales game is depending too much on your distributors. But a close second is tolerance of low value activity. I call this “heat loss.” A lot of time, energy, money, and sweat poured into activity with extremely low return on investment. Lots of “heat” being generated but most of it evaporates into the atmosphere.
Examples? Treating all retailers and restaurants as if they had the same value. Selling to accounts incapable of buying serious volume (say, 5 cases per week or more per SKU). Selling one case at a time to an account that never buys that wine again. Ever. Spending lots of time and money traveling all over the place. Wasting precious marketing funds on trade activities that are more show and not much go.

Whatever you measure, you get more of. Measure accounts sold, you’ll get a lot of accounts sold. No two ways about it, this is an industry metric that needs to taken out behind the barn and put down. It’s a “hollow” metric that assumes all accounts are equal which they most certainly are not.
While there is some value in knowing how many accounts in each market are buying your product, it only tells a tiny part of the story. Winners want to know how many accounts buy every month (# of engaged accounts). Winners want to know how many cases each account buys when they buy (velocity). Winners want to know exactly which 20% of the accounts are capable of purchasing 80% of all volume in the market.

What we’re talking about here is the QUALITY of distribution. Here’s something to tattoo on your brain: activity does not equal achievement. Whenever I hear a salesperson talk about how busy they are, I immediately get concerned. What they’re saying is, “I don’t really have a disciplined, strategic approach to my territory.” Show me a salesperson who is harried, and I’ll show you someone without a plan. Whose fault is this? NOT the salesperson’s. It’s the leadership’s fault for not providing direction and accountability for results.

Here’s another thing wine companies do wrong – measure the number of sales calls made or days-on-the-street required. More sales calls rarely equal more sales. You want more sales (and who doesn’t)? Put a hard, cold stop to low value activities and re-allocate the hours, headcount, investment to higher value activities. A less-is-more approach, while hard to wrap your head around, truly is the ticket to accelerating sales performance. Working smarter not harder is not only possible, but mandatory. But, my oh my how few people in our industry know how to execute this.

So, what is the best way to measure and re-calibrate the value of sales activities? Disciplined use of a CRM system embedded with the highest quality RAD data you can buy. Very expensive. Steep and time-consuming learning curve. Lots of push-back from your sales team. But, let’s cut to the chase, here. If your sales are not what you want them to be, can you really afford to maintain the status quo? Fire the bottom 10% of your sales team that consistently under-performs and use the money to buy RAD + CRM. The wine business has become a very serious business. Which means its time to take the gloves off and get serious. As always, I’m happy to show you how.

About the Author
Ben Salisbury is the Founder and President of Salisbury Creative Group, Inc. which specializes in helping wineries and craft distilleries achieve high levels of sales effectiveness. Leveraging his knowledge and experience from three decades in the industry, Ben and his team deliver sales, marketing, and distribution expertise to a wide array of adult beverage clients. Prior to starting his own company in May of 2014, Ben spent 17 years as VP of On Premise National Accounts for both Ste Michelle Wine Estates and Constellation Brands.
Contact info:

The Environment for Selling Wine Has Changed. Have You? Introducing the “Modern” Playbook

The “game” of selling wine in the US has changed a great deal in the last 5-10 years but you’d never know it because most wine companies are still operating out of the “old playbook.”

What’s changed? Two things, primarily, and then a whole bunch of smaller things. The two big shifts are a) consolidation at the distributor level and b) an explosion of new wines available in the market from all over the world.

The smaller shifts are positive things, actually, but many are overlooked or under-utilized by most wineries and these include: Direct-to-trade advertising (Facebook + Landing Pages + Email Marketing); Alternatives to “traditional” distributors (Merchant 23 and LibDib); Better RAD data (SRS data from VIP); Adoption and use of CRM.

If your winery is still running plays out of the old playbook it’s likely you weren’t happy with your sales results for 2018. What are the most popular plays in the old playbook? Educating the distributors; working with the distributors, meeting with the distributors; creating incentives for the distributors, etc. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, these plays used to be wildly affective but no longer pack the same punch – not by a long shot.

Well, it’s a brand-new year and, with the reset button pressed, you’ve got an opportunity to do things differently in 2019 (and the years ahead). Why not try running a few plays out the NEW and more modern playbook? If you’re not sure what those plays are, here are some of the real game-changers.

1) Rely less and less on your “traditional” distributors to build distribution for you. Adopt the mantra: if it’s important to us, we’ll have to do it ourselves. For more details, click here.

2) Leverage the 80/20 Rule in everything you do. For example, you should identify the highest value “targets” in each market you are in and narrow the focus of time, energy, and investment to ONLY these targets.

3) Measure the right things. Accounts sold is a hollow metric. It assumes all accounts are of equal value which they most certainly are not. Instead, measure things like points of distribution within your target accounts, sales per POD (velocity), and customer engagement (how many accounts buy your products month after month after month).

4) Hold your sales people accountable for RESULTS. Activity does not necessarily equal achievement. Nothing matters but results. No excuses. No blaming the distributor. No blaming the market conditions. You do this by acquiring your own RAD data and tracking all activity using a CRM system (preferably one that is specific to our industry). Relentlessly prohibit “low value” activities.

5) If you are a small family winery, don’t use “traditional” distributors. Instead, approach major accounts (both on and off) DIRECTLY. Use “clearing distributors” to get the goods delivered. This is called the “winery-direct” approach and was popularized by Total Wine & More. In response to the competitive threat of Total Wine & More, major retail chains like HEB, Spec’s, ABC Liquors, and many others (all over the country) are very keen to establish their own relationships directly with wineries. This strategy is all about providing MUCH greater margins to the retailer. Funds that used to go the traditional distributors are used to accomplish this. The other element that makes this work so well is providing wines that are not in broad distribution, so the consumer has no way to compare prices.

6) Take advantage of opportunities provided by Merchant 23 and LibDib to sell to the trade without using a traditional distributor. It is vital small family wineries become intimately familiar with these options.

7) Establish a very robust “direct to trade” marketing strategy using a combination of Facebook advertising, Landing Pages, and Email Marketing. It is essential that small wineries create, grow and nurture their OWN relationships with on and off premise wine buyers. You must learn how to reach them, get them to “opt in” to your email list and how to market to them.

8) Engage tens of thousands of consumers directly using social media advertising and email marketing

In the nearly five years I’ve been consulting for wineries and craft distilleries on their sales & marketing strategies, I continue to be shocked at the scores of companies who aren’t even aware a new and modern playbook exists. But the winds of change are in the air and I, for one, am going to beat the drum and sound the trumpet much more loudly in 2019. As if my life and business depended on it. Yours certainly does.

About the Author
Ben Salisbury is the Founder and President of Salisbury Creative Group, Inc. which specializes in helping wineries and craft distilleries achieve high levels of sales effectiveness. Leveraging his knowledge and experience from three decades in the industry, Ben and his team deliver sales, marketing, and distribution expertise to a wide array of adult beverage clients. Prior to starting his own company in May of 2014, Ben spent 17 years as VP of On Premise National Accounts for both Ste Michelle Wine Estates and Constellation Brands.
Contact info: