For brewery sales reps used to dropping in unannounced at bars and restaurants to shoot the breeze over a pint, COVID-19 erased everything overnight. Two years later, aspects of the beer business are beginning to resemble pre-pandemic normalcy—however, breweries and accounts alike say that the nature of the sales call has changed in ways that aren’t likely to be undone.
“COVID has been a great excuse for people to be more indulgent of who they want to be,” says Josh Allard, director of sales for Cruz Blanca Brewery in Chicago. “If [a buyer] was slightly reclusive before, they’re really reclusive now. If they were somebody who wanted to hang out with people and trade jokes, they’re more of that now.”
In today’s competitive sales environment, reps must be chameleons, adapting to some buyers’ preferences for weekly in-person visits and others’ reliance on sporadic text, phone, or email communication. They also must be more strategic and efficient in that communication because many breweries and accounts alike remain short-staffed. In essence, supplier reps need to be more attuned than ever to accounts’ needs, and they must make sure that both the format and content of their sales pitches are geared toward each specific buyer.
“‘Spray and pray’ sales tactics—where you canvas the market and hope for the best—that’s not the best way to tackle selling in our modern environment,” says Julie Rhodes, founder of Not Your Hobby Marketing Solutions in Broomfield, Colorado. Quality visits, rather, “mean that you’ve strategically planned where you’re going to go, who you’re going to talk to; and you have a purpose for every conversation.”
Make Yourself Useful.
Suzanne Schalow, founder of the Craft Beer Cellar bottle-shop chain—now with 18 franchises in 11 states—is a busy woman. A tight labor market combined with a growing number of breweries and SKUs mean she and her staff sometimes resemble the Tasmanian Devil as they whirl about their shops. Recently, when a supplier rep showed up three minutes after the Belmont, Massachusetts, shop opened—as Schalow was unpacking three separate deliveries—she felt overwhelmed. “I said, ‘If you want to see me, you have to chase me,’” she says.
She prefers reps who text or email ahead of time to schedule a visit—or, better yet, those who can convey pertinent information digitally. That’s not every account’s preference, but most reps and suppliers interviewed for this piece agree that the days of drop-in visits are mostly over.
Laura Thompson, director of sales and events at Diskin Cider in Nashville, says that during the pandemic, she began asking accounts point-blank how they preferred to hear from her.
“I ask, ‘How do you want me to reach out?’ Buyers who maybe were less candid about that before now appreciate that because everyone’s time is so precious,” she says.
Some retailers have reduced hours these days (bye-bye, lunch visits), and some prefer to make their regular, recurring orders through distributors’ online ordering portals. When reps show up in person, they need to make the account’s life easier, not harder. Merchandising, checking date codes, offering point-of-sale items and samples, assisting with ordering—all of these help a retailer find value in a rep’s visit.
Jordyn Frasier-Hill, a sales representative for Lakewood Brewing in Garland, Texas, says that one of the most important functions of her on-premise account visits is to educate bar or restaurant staff about her brewery’s beers. This is a two-fold benefit: Servers and bartenders can speak more knowledgably about what’s on their menu, and then they’re also more likely to recommend Lakewood to customers.
“The real salespeople are the waiters and the servers and bartenders,” Frasier-Hill says. “You have to [interact with that staff] almost every visit because in certain places, there’s high turnover with waitstaff. Every time you come in, there’s new waitstaff who [don’t] know your beer yet.”
Embrace “Consultative Selling.”
The best value of all comes when a supplier rep deeply understands an account’s business and needs and, thus, also where their products can help meet those needs. Rhodes calls this approach “consultative selling.”
“None of this, ‘I’m just going to check in.’ Instead, the rep is thinking, ‘I need to go to this gastropub because they just redid their menu, and I have beers in my portfolio that would be a good pairing with their new menu,’” Rhodes says. “You have a specific purpose and goal for that conversation.”
For Rhinegeist Brewery in Cincinnati, Ohio, the pandemic put a greater emphasis on pre-selling. Buyers aren’t putting money into large inventories of specialty kegs; instead, they are being choosier, committing only to what they need.
“It forces us to do more pre-selling and more planning with our sales pitches,” says Dana Cummin, Rhingeist’s Cincinnati sales director. “The days of going in and sampling a beer and selling it based on liquid and rarity—those days are dwindling. We have bigger launches, bigger batches, so we can have a more thought-out and dialed-in approach to a pitch.”
For Craft Beer Cellar, this type of information-sharing doesn’t need to happen in person. Schalow says that she’d like more suppliers to text or email videos and marketing materials that include all the details she needs to decide to order a beer—ingredients, pricing, container size, UPC number, etc.
Look to “Commitment Ratios” as a Key Performance Indicator.
As the nature of account service becomes more fluid and less based on a sales rep’s odometer, managers are rethinking performance metrics for those roles. Allard, at Cruz Blanca in Chicago, says that even a few years ago, reps were evaluated based on their ability to physically visit a certain number of accounts in a week or month.
“Now there’s more of an acceptance of, ‘It doesn’t really matter whether you’re in person or virtual, as long as the beer’s moving and you’re taking proper care of an account,’” he says.
Rhodes urges her brewery clients to use “commitment ratios”—the number of accounts visited or contacted compared with the number that actually order beer—as a way to measure the effectiveness of sales visits. After all, visiting 150 accounts in a week and selling only five kegs is less efficient than visiting 50 accounts and selling 10 kegs. Essentially, the success metric has shifted to quality of visits over quantity.
“It means being able to ask for the damn sale, honestly—just getting to it,” Rhodes says. “You have to drill down into the quality of your sales activities to see if you’re even worth your salt.”
Prepare for the Digital Future.
Whether or not specific accounts are currently embracing texts, Zoom calls, emails, or online ordering, these models are likely to become more important in the years to come. Get familiar with them now or risk being left behind.
Whether a supplier personally likes them or not, online ordering portals from distributors are poised to gain traction among more tech-adept buyers. (Allard calls them “a train that is not going to slow down.”) For Schalow, online ordering portals are a way to save time when ordering beers that she already knows she wants to stock.
“We’re pretty savvy as to what’s available, so we don’t need much hand-holding,” Schalow says. “We know when delivery days are; we use our portals. Despite the fact that we have access to some strong product portals for some distributors, they don’t exist for others. It’s 2022. Get online. Do it now.”
Supplier reps can use these to their advantage, too, turning a verbal commitment from a buyer into an instant order.
“We used to say we’d follow up with our distributor to get a sale done,” Allard says. “Now we can say, ‘Hey, we can punch this in right now.’”
He also anticipates that chain reset meetings may continue to be more virtual in the future. Right now, Allard says, he’s seeing an even split between in-person and virtual chain reset meetings; he thinks some chain retailers are becoming accustomed to the ease and convenience of Zoom pitches rather than in-office visits. The fundamentals of the sales pitch are still the same, but supplier staff will need to be comfortable creating rapport over a screen.
“A lot of people felt very comfortable in a room because you can crack a joke, see it play out in person,” Allard says. “There’s a comfort level that’s not necessarily there when you’re on Zoom and watching your own face. It’s going to be the [people] who are able to adapt [who] win.”