To sell wine, get on the phone

The humble telephone is one of the most overlooked sales channels in direct to consumer marketing. Felicity Carter hears from an expert on how to use it.

Photo by Mike Meyers on Unsplash
Photo by Mike Meyers on Unsplash

This year has been an apocalyptic one for many wineries. Wine tourism gone, events gone, restaurants shuttered. 

“Wineries have had to stand down a lot of staff,” says Robin Shaw of Wine Tourism Australia. “It’s really hard to pick up new customers right now.”

Wineries that depended on the on trade have been particularly hard hit, as have those that failed to get their online offering up and running during the good times. But for some wineries, the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed a silver lining. “What wineries are finding is that their loyal customers are sticking by them,” says Shaw. “People in the local community want to support local businesses and that includes wineries.”

The question is how to tap into that loyalty. Shaw says one approach is both effective and under-used: the telephone call. 

An important tool

Wine Tourism Australia, founded by Shaw, is a consultancy that specialises in helping wineries build their tourism and direct sales. She says one of the typical DtC mistakes that wineries make is confusing the concept of a wine club — where consumers, typically visitors to the cellar door, sign up for regular deliveries — with online sales. The latter means wineries have an online shop, from which anybody can buy. Not only that, but Shaw says too many wineries think about their trade customers first, and neglect the opportunities offered by the cellar door, a mistake that has come back to haunt them in the pandemic. 

“A lot of them have clunky systems in place and they aren’t faring very well, because the modern consumer has been educated by Amazon,” she says. Such customers are used to scanning a website, seeing a product they like and clicking “buy”. The product then shows up on their doorstep. “I still see wineries with a PDF form to download and fill in — those guys are dead in the water.”

Yet even those wineries that have more up-to-date online systems have ignored the power of the telephone in favour of email marketing, which Shaw puts it down to a lack of training. “People aren’t trained to sell on the phone,” she says.

What the pandemic lockdowns have shown, however, is that customers crave human contact. “What some wineries are saying is that people really appreciate the call,” says Shaw. “People are receptive to taking a phone call and purchasing.”

That’s understandable in a time when people are trapped at home, but will they still want the phone to ring when life goes back to normal?
“It depends on the relationships developed,” says Shaw. “If you talk to anyone in a call centre, they will tell you that they develop genuine relationships with specific customers.” 

Permission-based marketing

Laws around distance selling vary by country, but many European countries forbid unsolicited marketing calls. So before a wine business even thinks about contacting customers by telephone, they need the customer’s permission. 

The way to get this permission is simple — ask the customer how they prefer to be contacted, and offer the telephone as an option. “Get them to self-select so it’s not a cold call,” says Shaw. “Never pick up a directory and cold call people.” She says businesses are often surprised by how many customers will agree to be called. “A lot of people don’t want to do that online click,” she says, “particularly older ones.”

Then have an unbeatable offer ready. Shaw says she takes calls from a wine company because they know her tastes and only phone her when they have something special they know she will like. 

The key to making the right offer, whether through email, postcards or telephone, is to have a segmented customer list. That means taking every opportunity to build a database of contacts — every time someone visits the cellar door or attends an event, the winery should ask for their details. This is also the moment to ask customers about their wine preferences, as well as how they want to be contacted. “The information you collect about customers is critical, because it lets you create the right offer,” she says. “This is where email campaigns go wrong; they send the same offer to everybody on the list.”

Amazon and other online services have trained consumers to expect that businesses will send them personalised offers. “We can blame Amazon and Spotify for this, because they know everything about us,” says Shaw. What this means in practice is that every time a customer has a contact with the winery, the conversation needs to be recorded somewhere. “You don’t have to have a sophisticated customer relationship management system. You can do it in a basic spreadsheet. The critical thing is that you find out as much as you can about your visitor or customer and record it.” 

Asking for information, even for something as simple as an email address, can feel confrontational for staff. For this reason, Shaw says it’s important to give any staff who have contact with customers proper training. If they are going to sell by telephone, such training is even more important — without it, the person will not only be ineffective but they could even damage the business by saying the wrong thing.

“This is relationship selling,” says Shaw. “The only thing that’s different is you can’t see the person, so you miss out on visual cues.” She says sales people have to use their voice instead. “Pick up the phone and smile as you speak. It changes your voice.”

The most important thing is to get over the fear of being rejected. “A lot of people are afraid of making the sale,” she says, adding she sees it at the cellar door as well. “People are afraid the customer will say ‘no’. But it’s not the worst thing in the world.”

The way to tackle this, she says, is to train staff to see their role as building a relationship, rather than making a sale. Another helpful aid is a script, which should be a road map for the conversation, rather than a rigid prescription. Staff should also be trained to understand buying signals, and how to close the sale.

What’s it worth?

Given how difficult many people find selling in general, but particularly over the phone, is it worth it?

Yes, says Shaw. “Conversion rates can vary considerably, but you could easily expect a conversion rate of 20 percent.” Not only that, but a warm and friendly conversation can build loyalty for the brand. And staff who have learned to sell over the phone become better salespeople generally, who will also generate sales in other settings.

Finally, Shaw says it’s important to see conversations with customers as a chance to build long-term relationships, rather than merely sales transactions. “People are craving authenticity. Businesses that have made personal connections with their customers during this time will keep them in the future.”  


Tips to sell by telephone

1. Before you pick up the phone, know what you want to achieve.

2. Ask if this is a good time to call. Even in lockdown people can be in the middle of something and you won’t get a sale if they’re eager to get you off the phone.

3. Keep the offer simple. The more complicated the offer, the harder it is for the other person to comprehend.

4. Start the conversation with a positive remark. “One study tried to figure out how to increase room service tips for waiters in hotels,” wrote Max Altschuler in a HubSpot article. “Much to the researchers’ surprise, all the waiters had to do was start with a positive comment.” 

5. Use a script. This doesn’t have to be a rigid document that must be followed. It can be a series of talking points, such as a summary of what the offer is, some notes on why the offer is worth buying, and answers to likely questions from the customer.

6. Practice. One of the best ways to overcome nerves is to rehearse. Try the script out on other people or record yourself, or simply talk out loud in an empty room. The more practised the script, the less likely you are to speak too fast or stumble over words.

7. Stand up and smile. Body language is surprisingly important in a conversation, even if the participants can’t see each other. That’s because how you feel will be communicated in your voice. Standing up will make your voice sound more energetic and engaged, while smiling makes the voice sound warmer.

8. Focus on the customer and their needs. This is where having good customer records is vital — if you know someone likes a particular wine, and you’re calling to tell them it’s about to sell out, they will see the call as good service rather than an annoying sales call.

9. Make a record. After each customer contact, make a note of how it went. 

Felicity Carter

This article first appeared in Issue 3, 2020 of Meininger's Wine Business International magazine, available in print or online by subscription.

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