(NOT) Death of a Salesman

by Francine Cohen

A liquor salesman walks into a bar.  And the bartender runs for cover.

Okay, so this isn't exactly the classic joke that you'd likely hear a comedian telling, but, much as most jokes have a kernel of truth in them (that's what makes them funny) so too there is truth in the opening line above. Haven't you wanted to duck and run for cover when you saw a salesman walk through the door?  You know you have.  More than once probably; depending on the salesperson.

That may be about to change as more and more bartenders cross over to the brand selling-in side and do so with the sensitivity of having been solicited, poorly, one too many times.  Damon Dyer, New York General Manager of Brooklyn Gin comments, "When I made buying decisions in bars and restaurants, I despised being pitched by salespeople. Invariably, they would be shown the door due to one of three reasons: 1. They would pitch me at a comically bad time. 2. They couldn't speak about their product in terms other than marketing bullet points. 3. They would blitz me with old-school, used car salesman, hard selling. (‘Listen, what can I do to close this deal? How about I put you down for three cases right now?’).  The sales pitches that I appreciated were the presentation of a quality product, along with the information that that could show me why the product would give me better offerings for my customers. Those brand reps that used that approach, and were respectful of my time, would often find a sympathetic buyer. And now that I have changed sides of the bar, I attempt to maintain the same approach."

Bringing value to the sales pitch is crucial to selling in.  Then selling in again , as new brand owners Jason Kosmas and Simon Ford of the 86 Co. have discovered.  Kosmas notes, "There are so many seen and unforeseen logistical challenges.  It requires either really deep pockets or incredibly unwavering street pounding and belief.  What’s most important when I sell is telling the story of how we created it.  It’s about that journey.  It’s not that we’re bartenders and have a great bottle.  Or the price.  That’s a plus.  It’s about the profile of each spirit."

He continues, "People are looking at price points and how they can change their menu and what they can do.  Coming into a new market, I might be higher.  They have to believe we can make a better drink and that higher price is going to provide more value to their customer."

Believing in the value your product brings to a bar is the difference between being seen as a shill and finding financial success as a salesman.  Not to mention enabling you to sleep at night. Brian Facquet, Founder and President, Sales and Development for Prohibition Distillery's Bootlegger 21 vodka, spent many years in a sales role in another industry before getting into the hooch life and he knows that your heart needs to be in it if you're going to be effective. He reflects, "I'm only able to successfully sell those things I feel good about.  Sure, there are folks out there who can and will sell anything; you can spot them a mile away.  It doesn't work for me."

Dyer concurs with Facquet's philosophical approach to effective sales, "My only advice to those looking to transition from the bar to a brand gig is to remain true to your beliefs. The worst thing that a bartender could do is to hastily sign on with a brand, and then find themselves in the rather tricky spot of promoting something that they cannot believe in. I was lucky enough (and patient enough) to wait until the right situation came along, one where I could fully believe in the product and the people that make it.  I am not a lobbyist. I could never advocate a position that I didn't believe in with complete certainty. And that is why I have passed on a number of brand opportunities that, while very lucrative, did not fit well with me."

It was primarily because she believed in the product that Anne-Louise Marquis stepped from behind the bar to a more educational role for Pernod Ricard where she now enlightens about and promotes the must-have bar ingredient, absinthe.  She comments, "What I say is that you have to really think about it [switching sides of the bar] and you have to really love your brand.  And, at first, I didn’t really understand this fully.  You have to sell your voice.  I can only do Pernod. All I do all day is think about and drink Pernod.  When I first started out that was a rough transition because I was used to being a bartender and giving people what they wanted.  And serving a wide variety of brands.  Now I only serve Pernod.  And I don’t go to all the bartender events. Still, it’s awesome.  I’m really happy.  It’s a more sustainable job for me.  That’s all some things you definitely have to think about."

Knowing your brand inside and out and truly believing in it makes the difference between having your pitch heard and missed sales opportunities.  Vince Favella, head barman at Ward III, recently expanded his horizons by getting into sales for the fledgling cachaca brand that launches this month, Avua (www.avuacachaca.com).  Having spent much time being pitched to he's pretty conscientious about not wasting anyone else's time.  From the perspective of his dual role as bartender and Avua brand representative he shares, "We went to see Naren [Young of AvRoKo's Saxon & Parole and The Daily].  He gave us a 10 minute window.  We said all we had to say in 8 minutes.  I’m getting good at it.  I know the product really well."

While you never want to waste a busy bartender's time the sales process can take enough time to become a two way street; especially when in your prior role as a bartender you've developed a good reputation and strong relationships.  Lynnette Marrero, Brand Mixologist for Perrier, says, "Well sometimes you are selling to your friends and that is always awkward, but they are also the people who will help you grow and learn without being embarrassed."

That personal growth is an intangible benefit of getting into sales but should be considered thoroughly.  She continues, "Know your strengths. Selling isn't for everyone, although we do it in some way nightly when selling cocktails. Sometimes it wasn't the best feeling. It is a completely different power struggle. Except when you are a bar begging to get some PAPPY in, then the shoe is on the other foot."

When you find your feet are leading you up to the bar with bottle of booze in hand to sell rather than standing behind it poised to pour, it’s important to heed Favella's advice, "Just be cool. That’s it."

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