It’s a small world, after all

Once a winery or brand hits a certain size, distribution becomes a necessity. Whether that is by travelling and hand-selling, or by appointing an agent, or by appointing a distribution business to handle the sales, warehousing, invoicing and so on.

Whatever happens, these producers, agents and distributors all need to pay for the expenses incurred by their businesses, and make a little moolah. Simple, no?

And for many, distribution is the holy grail. A channel to market. With people out spreading the word and pouring the booze. Five days a week (mostly; well, sometimes.; well, generally.).

From a winery point of view, there is a decent amount of negotiation involved in settling on a suitable distribution option and securing the agreement. Just finding the right people who you trust with your brand is a massive deal. Let alone the teensy bit of legal acrobatics that goes with securing a mutually beneficial agreement and ongoing business. Reading distribution agreements is:
a. BORING;
b. Detailed;
c. Dedicated to the notion that these documents are prone to favouring one party or the other at certain points, and this must be acknowledged, and often negotiated; and
d. BORING. And absolutely necessary.

Back in the day (pre-interwebs-on-phones), this distribution management involved a mountain of faith on the part of the winery. Winemakers would only get out on the road once or twice a year, and would rely on phone calls with brief details, and sales figures. There was not a lot of wriggle room.

Now? Now I can ask my mate in Melbs via the twitters whether Rep X had been in yet for the contact I had set up. I can double check the wholesale prices they have been given. I can ask my restaurateur buddies in Sydney how the rep went with the spiel and sales bit. If they were on the ball. And the venues and the stores can check the RRP in SECONDS by jumping online. They can check in a heartbeat whether a rep is fibbing with the old “independent/on-prem only” line. Pop the deets in a search engine and Robert is your father’s brother.

Distribution is fundamentally a business of trust. A business of relationships. An agent or distributor trusts the brand to make a consistent wine and to support sales. And to not go outside the lines by selling to a venue with sales territory managed by that agent or team. The winery trusts the agents or distribs to be smart. To sell into good venues or outlets which respect the wines and pay their bills. To make the margin they need, and to build business. To work hard and to bring in new business all the time. The restaurants and retailers trust reps to bring them the wines which will fit, at the right price and to not waste their time. They trust them to not bring a wine in with an RRP of $22 and a Woollie/Coles/Clearance Channel advertised price of $12. The punters trust the venues to not put truly shit wines on their lists, and to know what they have on hand and how it suits their venue, locale and palates. They trust retailers to recommend with a degree of sense and a broader database of knowledge than the punter might own.

And sure. Sometimes it does not work. Some staff (distrib/agent/retail/on-trade/winery) take a while to best identify their approach, their method, their spiel. Some take time and don’t necessarily hit the ground running. Some do. This timing bit? PART OF THE TRUST FACTOR.

I ran into a sales rep a couple of months ago. He had had a big day, and was fairly smashed. Lovely. Not rude. Not incoherent. Just talkative and drunk. With no filter. He told me his business LOVED me because I build up sales in hard accounts and on wine lists and get them to a point where they are a good takeover option. They hit up the winery, offer a distribution option with a team of reps and BAM. Done.

Cheers dude. Yeah. I know. That’s ok. Getting a brand to that point? For me? Is a job well done. Move on. But my agreements now have a sunset clause covering existing sales for three months after the termination of an agreement. I find that fosters a little more trust on both sides…

Someone else on the west coast? Agreed to take on a brand. Promote it. Talked the talk. Was so¬†engaged in it all. A true believer. A new venture, but with some runs on the board. Eight months later they have changed the wholesale price by 45%, which effectively made the cellar door/website rrp an AWESOME deal. They said it was because they couldn’t make money on the agreed price. But they did not call. They did not advise what they were doing. They were just cranky that they were not selling anything. Except: they NEVER told the brand. They adversely impacted the brand reputation without a care by monumentally manipulating the brand price-point. And then issued a borderline threat to the brand – decrease your prices or we stop selling it. DUDE. You were not selling it ANYWAY. And apparently have NO plan in place to do so even if the prices were lowered. I have seen the portfolio. EVERY brand has a manipulated price-point. Scarcely a brand in there has a wine at a price that would reflect their rrp. Trust – DESTROYED. (Besides – seriously: if your business plan is to increase sales by increasing the price that much on a product with a clearly identifiable rrp? You’ve got bigger problems…)

A restaurant. Orders a wine. It fails to show up. That happens. And yes, the warehouse should have been on the ball, and the venue should have put their hand up before 8pm on a Friday night, but still. No sauv for the weekend. Their rep? Begged, borrowed and stole enough stock to get them through til Monday. Trust – on the way to being destroyed, but saved, and because that rep moved hell and high water to fix it.

A winery. Sends a wine of a different vintage/style/quality with no heads up? They just expect a follow on and are possibly trying to conceal something. Do I even need to say it? Trust – DESTROYED.

Different winery – threatens to penalise the agent financially for a customer business failing to pay bills. Which is in contravention of pretty much everything, but is also a fairly solid way to decimate any remaining trust and goodwill within someone working in the industry. It takes very little to undermine a business and doing it to yourself seems a teensy bit silly.

Seriously people. Faith must be earned on BOTH sides. A teensy fracturing of that can have an incremental effect. Be good. Earn the trust. Put your hand up when things go wrong. Be forgiving when you have the chance. And learn to walk away when you should. Is a distributor who breaks your trust better than none at all? Is a restaurant with a great reputation who does not pay bills worth the debt? Is any winery irreplaceable to a distributor or agent? To any restaurant or retailer?

Why would you trust your business there when you do not trust the people? It is a small world. Know thy neighbour. And don’t screw them over.

Be ready

Opening a new business means being ready to go from the day before you start. 

In restaurants, that goes double. The moment you open you are up for assessment. And in the social media world, that means immediately.

Train the staff. As in, not just table numbers and how to carry three plates without going arse-up, but in hospitality. When people walk in – greet them. They’ll have questions. Listen closely and reply clearly. If you don’t know, admit as much, let them know you’ll find out and do so quickly.

Know the terminology on the menu. Know how to recognise it when enunciated. Know the restaurant layout and how it best works. If one bit of the room is too hot/cold/noisy, know where to guide people to be most comfortable. Don’t send them to an empty space in another room that is not set up. Be helpful. Wait upon them. They are here for a service, a meal, a drink. They might be scoping the next venue to host ongoing corporate events. Or the best place to dine solo regularly and be content. They might be a one off. They might just be wanting another glass of wine…

But you don’t know what they are. Being precise in your offering is knowing that every minute of their time with you counts. 

Forgetting someone after their main has been cleared. Not offering coffee, tea, dessert, a digestif? Is money lost. In no small part due to the fact that they will feel ignored. And people who feel ignored don’t come back. 

Most people have a budget to spend out in the world. Enabling them to spend more of it with you – and to be happy about that – is the gold standard.

Restaurants are a tricky business. Being prepared, and training your people, knowing where queries might arise and having answers ready? KEY. 

Kinda like knowing what the fish of the day actually is some time before 1pm…

Taking the communication out of telcos

A slight diversion. Many of us have telco issues, particularly in regional areas. We kinda live with it because there is little to be done other than to rant and rave. They own the market. They dictate terms. 

And those terms are designed to minimise contact with their customers, and to make actual complaints borderline impossible. 

With Telco 1, I wished to end my contract. Multiple issues. No clarity. Continual connection issues and the “help” avenues were anything but. 

I changed to Telco 2, who this morning inferred that I was fibbing about the outage I was experiencing, needed to switch it off and on again, and that there was no outage because no one else had reported one yet.

I tried social media as I couldn’t find another channel to actually just NOTIFY the supplier that there was an issue they might like to address. I was told there were no outages, before acknowledging that outages only show up if a significant volume of calls/alerts are received. That wasn’t helpful. They told me to call the nbn. Because not ENOUGH people had reported an outage. 

Which is possibly because there is no avenue other than physically calling the nbn people (not the supplier – they bill me but are a different office and they can’t refer calls or issues or anything). I was cut off multiple times as wait times turned – in theory – to connections. I tried the website. The live chat option. Which also cut me off but I persisted. They again inferred I was fibbing or just stupid enough to be wrong. 

So that was fun. After banging my head against these particular brick walls trying to do the right thing and let my supplier know there was an issue, I cracked it. A teensy bit. 

I did kinda insist that I wasn’t incompetent and had a general dislike of being treated as such. Via the live chat facility. Which does not resolve properly for mobiles, leading to typos and a conversation that was slightly nuts. 

He apologised. I asked how to report an issue. He said he couldn’t. I got cranky. He told me to make calls to get it resolved because the nbn live chat (no link to that anywhere on the telco site) was busy? Or not working? Or something? But go on. Try it now anyway. 

Was disconnected when I gave up and called again. 

Dear telcos: make it EASY for us to report a fault. Have a clear form on your site. Then we are done. We’ve informed you. You know there is an issue and can deploy techs/engineers/fix-it-types straight away. Simple. 

Otherwise we get cranky at your inability to know about issues, let alone to address them. 

So far today I’ve been told that I’m wrong (or fibbing) multiple times. That I need to “cycle” the nbn unit countless times. I’ve been apologised to multiple times by people who couldn’t know what it was for which they proffered apology, and to zero result. 

Let us register a fault. Enter an email address for updates. And go on our way. Fobbing us off and telling us that as customers we have to either live chat with someone who cannot possibly help; or check earlier fora because I’m sure that will help with my current clear outage; or my personal favourite: send a letter by post – NONE OF THESE are an effective use of anyone’s time. And it makes us angry. Frustrated. And looking for options. We might request recompense. We might tie up employee time dealing with our frustrations. We might just get snarky on social media. 

This is simply avoided. Accept that you have some responsibility for the service you purport to provide. Allow us to simply register faults (with some way of determining the veracity of such). Don’t treat us like braindead hedgehogs. And work to fix the issue.

This would actually save time on SO MANY LEVELS. And time is money. So you are welcome, telcos. I’ve just fixed stuff for you. 

Where do I send the bill?

Finding value

I started my business to work with people I liked, who make vino I like drinking. Simple, no?

I didn’t want to deal with the industry twerps who engage in belittling reps for fun. Or with wineries who changed the rules on their staff half way through the game. Good vino. Good people. Good sales. 

And essentially I want these businesses around me to succeed. So yes. On occasion – or, if I’m honest, as a rule – I give extra to my tasks. I conduct tastings on my own time at no cost to the wineries. I provide advice to many at little to no charge. I let many pick my brain without a fee. Because I want them to succeed. 

And to date, there have been only a couple of moments wherein I have felt the need to terminate an agreement, or switch things up. 

I’ve been lucky that way. 

But perhaps the word has escaped that I let my brain be picked. Or maybe I am just a teensy bit nervous. Because I have – both personally and through friends in the game – begun to see a rise in businesses forgetting that it takes time, energy and money to generate sales and to market themselves. 

For the most part, it is businesses who have done some degree of this work themselves in the past. And have not accounted for this time as a cost to generating business. Because it’s just their time. 

Sure. If you see your time as having zero value…

As a small business, we should all put a solid value on our time and our input into said business. As a writer, we would count in words. As a seamstress, in stitches. As boot maker, in, well, boots. Whether it is the ephemeral – words – or the literal and solid – boots – the work and the time invested in it has value. 

For a sales person, much of that value is in the contacts. The relationships. The knowing which venue and when, and which ones are tottering. That can take time to relate to sales but it ALL has value. Whether that sales person is a big company rep, an agent or a winemaker spruiking their own wares is irrelevant. The investment of time, the accumulation of contacts and knowledge, the cognisance involved in successfully matching wine with venue? Has value. 

Our experience has value. The knack of adapting accounting software to the wine industry. Of how to set up effective social media. Of event management. Of media management. Of wine list training. Of good sales practice. 

And things of value, should be accordingly given a price. Anything we do as a small business should be accorded a value. Then whether we pass on that value as a cost becomes a separate decision. 

As an exercise, I totted up a basic cost for an imaginary client – an amalgam of several clients over several months. I gave each task a fair cost, and worked out exact hours spent, billable time, expenses. And looked at what I had actually billed for those tasks. 

I have fallen, to a smaller extent, into the same hole I advise against above. Doing the job because it is there and needs doing without actually reporting or billing my time. Like a winery who does not account for their time managing sales, I’ve been nice about getting stuff done because I want people to succeed. Letting people get away with picking my brain as if it had no value to me. 

But it does. So: new rules. I value my time. It is my business. 

Any small business should be accounting for billable hours. Expenses. Experience. 

A butcher does not give away the bacon once it is cured. An accountant does not hand out free, professional advice. A vet cares for our pets but bills us for their expertise and tonics. As they should. 

Small businesses – and especially wineries – are no different. Samples should be counted, and accounted for as a part of the business. Expenses incurred generating sales – from petrol to parking to snacks to delivery costs to time spent – must be a part of our business model. 

Spend money to make money. But know exactly where it goes…

Feb

Sod off, world. It’s easy to die. I just wish my body would stop failing. 

But like any business, there is a method. I feed it and it fuels my existence. I nurture it and it gets better at being effective. I give it wine and it makes my soul sing  (sorry). I train at the gym and I use a third less insulin and the pain occasionally recedes. 

I’ve got nothing for the staph infection but nor do a multitude of medicos.

So – a business. Any business. It needs input – cash, at a very basic level – and expertise. Winemaking. Packaging. Channel to market. Marketing. All of these can be exponentially expensive for a small business trying to scrape itself off the bottom level. 

Have a clear directive. Have a brand identity if no actual label. A concept. A why-me moment. Go to bottleshops. Bars. Will what you do stack up or stand out? For style or packaging or price point?

Style? Look to how Brown Brothers fostered and developed King Valley prosecco as a key part of the wine market. Packaging – can’t go past Some Young Punks for rewriting the game and tapping into the zeitgeist at a key point: that is, before everyone else. To nowadays whereupon it is now kinda trite and done and occasionally obsolete. Price point? Yellow sparkling. Oyster Bay. Yalumba Y. Yalumba anything, as they manage to (mostly) tread that fine line betwixt broad commercial appeal, retail punch and on-prem lead. 

So: identify the general market. Work the brand and identity to appeal. Trade in authenticity. Have a link between grapes and bottles. 

Tick. 

Now what?

Have a voice. A clear voice. Driving the brand. An idea of where you want to be and how to get there. Because changing the game plan too early on leaves buyers with a distinct lack of confidence. People – buyers, somms, punters, restaurant managers – all want to believe in you. Give them a reason to do so. Give them a story which is credible. And true. In THAT order. 

And good vino for the money. Try the competition. Know what you are up against and how to better them. Be effective. Know your costs.

And know how to drive the sales to market.

Know this before you start looking at vineyards. At fruit.

If you want to understand the channel to market? Understand it forwards and backwards. Know the numbers. And understand what value you deliver and where you might sit on a shelf. 

Should anyone buy your wine….

Hello 2017

It is easy to look back on a year like 2016 and lament only the poor decisions made – ahem, UK and USA – and the lives lost. See only the bad and seem to forget that there have been awesome parts as well. 

Good people. Doing good things. Work going well. Achievements made, goals reached. 

In my personal world, the health bit went phenomenally pear-shaped, and I’d really like to find someone to eradicate the blood infection doing its level best to destroy me. Extreme options WILL be considered. Go nuts, world. Suggest away. I have people in my world who have lent a degree of support and strength for which I can never express enough thanks. I promise to not do it again. As much as I can. I’m going with no calls to ambulances in the next twelve months. Hopefully. I have so much gratitude to those around me and to the smart, searingly honest voices around me. And some of it is not great, but there are doors closing and opening apace. 

On a side note, many thanks to the friends who helped and the ambos who are always awesome. Always.

Many thanks to the customers who understood when I couldn’t quite make an appointment. The ones who helped when they didn’t need to do so. The venues who took the time with me to understand my brands, my wines and my people. 

And yet. Yet 2016 delivered in SPADES on my capacity for disappointment in community and world growth. I enter 2017 hoping that this abandonment of basic humanity doesn’t take over… This year? NOT. BEING. QUIET. 

The fact that the sheer fury and disappointment at the world’s rampant inanity is a stimulus to do better in 2017. To stand tall and be better. To speak for our beliefs and for those without voices. 

But 2016 was not just a melange of the middling to awful. And occasionally we need to push away the vile to search for the better. 

Working with awesome peoples. Learning stuff. Not screwing up the health thing too much. Getting better at who we are. If you can look back on your year and see no improvement here then maybe you need to make changes. 

This is an opportunity. As each year is. We think about diet and exercise when there are bigger issues. Start big. It filters down.

Be better.

Hello 2017.

Complacency

This old 2016 has been full of loss and political chaos, war and discrimination, anger, and a feeling of disenfranchisement.

That last one though – the disenfranchisement. This sense has been blamed for the electoral madness engulfing the world: from One Nation here, and Brexit in the UK to the rather frightening Trumpitude in the US. People in economic strife look to change-makers – or at least change-promisers. Those bellowing loudest that they speak for THE PEOPLE – with scarce knowledge of what lives these PEOPLE live. Those fear-mongering to promote themselves. Those instilling despair and terror in the face of relative well-being. Those blaming otherness, and fostering hatred.

This is where we find ourselves at the end of 2016: the political system in the US is being staffed by race-hate, science-denialists and religious zealotry. The UK is terrified of the very immigration system which staffs their hospitals and schools, their pubs and shops, and creates such a vibrant nation. Australia leaning so far in to the right-wing populist approach that the reasonable and sane man supposedly leading the country has such minimal power and voice to do, you know, anything. Russia is sowing dissent everywhere and the Middle East is destroying its history and peoples at an unprecedented rate. Climate change is still being debated, rather than addressed, in the face of blatant facts.

We rant on social media. We post emojis of wonder at the pace of the world. We blog our snide and sarcastic posts. We laugh at the inane politics of the world. And we go back to our lives, and settle in to complacency.

This however, is our call to arms. This is the voice of the world trying to rouse us from our complacency. And where are we? Looking at youtube videos instead. Politics turns. People get angry and power switches sides. This is the entire point of political freedom – get angry and DO SOMETHING. Case in point – America essentially got bored of the whole election brouhaha and decided that voting was too much trouble. Those who voted were angry, or disenfranchised, or fired up – they heard the call to arms and rose up. In Australia, people who rarely take heed of political issues were befriended and entranced by candidates who sounded like them, and played on their fears. They voted in great numbers for the fear-mongerers and left old Malcolm and Bill with barely a toe between them upon which to stand.

This, dear world, is our chance. We have been stagnating and taking our sane, progressive world for granted. Progress requires action. It requires strident voices and a willingness to engage ALL members of the community. It needs us to stand up and speak out for those at the fringes of society. We do need to keep fighting for action addressing climate change and racism, religious persecution and gender bias, hatred and fear.

Knowing that we are right is a dangerous position. It encourages blind faith that the world will come around eventually.

Stand up. Speak your mind. Argue the path forward. The standard we walk past is the standard we accept; the lies we ignore are the lies we accept; and I for one do not accept this political swing to borderline fascism. Complacency is easy. Complacency is expecting someone else to stand up for our beliefs. Complacency is the breeding ground of fear. Encourage debate, discussion and education. Look for answers rather than thundering statements. Get political. Get invested in our future, because by the looks of world politics, no-one else will do so. Have a voice. Because those fringe voices? Are getting louder by the day.

Grow up, 2016. We need to be better next year.