by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua
When I was 14 my Dad used his contacts to get me a part time job. It was in a Deli / Liquor Store, or, as we say in Ireland, an Off-Licence. I was paid 35 old pence per hour and worked 10 hours a week on a Friday evening (6 – 9) and a Saturday afternoon / evening (2 – 10). While all my neighbourhood friends hung out or went to teenage discos at weekends, I was in gainful employment. I might have kissed fewer girls but I had a better album collection than any other 14 year old!
Life Lessons v Classroom Lessons
I worked this job throughout my high school and university years and, if I’m to be really honest, learned more working in that store than in any classroom. Over the years, I’ve repeatedly applied and re-applied lessons from my years as a shop assistant but I’ve never relied on De Moivre’s Theorem or ever been required to recite 3rd declension nouns in Latin.
I know, I know this “life lessons” v “classroom lessons” is a complete cliche and it’s not De Moivre’s Theorem or 3rd declension nouns that count but the way they shape and mould your brain. Relax, I get it. But still. I’d argue strenuously that my real schooling was with Gerry and Dominic Duffy in their Off Licences in Terenure (where, amazingly, I still live but Gerry’s store is no more and Dominic’s is owned by someone else) and not the hallowed halls of Sandymount High School or the leafy groves of academia at University College Dublin.
So what did I learn?
Initially I did odd jobs around the store, carried stuff out to people’s cars, stocked shelves, swept up. The owner used to get me to dust the wine stock and align it to the front of the shelf to create a nice visual impression. I’d often dust and clean while he spoke with customers so I’d listen to his sales patter.
Thinking back, his approach was classic consultative selling. He’d ask a lot of questions before he made any statements and he never tried to blind the customer with high falutin’ wine-speak – this was the 70s in Ireland and nobody knew diddly-squat about wine so it would have been easy to show off.
I also noticed how, if someone was browsing, he’d greet them, make a comment like “The ’76 Volnay is drinking beautifully at the moment” and then get out of the way. After another 5 minutes he’d approach again and ask the customer whether they needed any assistance. It was all hands-off, no hard sell, build trust over time. Then my turn came.
I remember vividly one Friday night after I’d been there over a year and was in the store alone – it was so quiet the owner had slipped out to run some errands. A man in his 30s came in and entered the wine department. I could see from the way he was dressed that he was a business executive although from his body language I could tell he knew absolutely nothing about wine.
When he picked up a red Lambrusco that was on special offer I casually remarked that “the ’76 Volnay is drinking beautifully at the moment”. He turned sharply to find a 15 year old – who barely looked 10 – proffering the said Volnay. The look on his face was a mixture of amusement and irritation and that, for me, became my Everest. I resolved in that instant to send him out of the store with at least one bottle of Volnay.
There was quite a bit of banter between us before he decided to take me seriously. “Sure what would you know about wine?” was his first salvo. My answer was to quote the authority of the owner. “I hang around in here a lot and I listen to the owner and this is what he’s been recommending for the past couple of weeks”. To establish more credibility I dropped that Lambrusco tended to be quite a sweet wine and mightn’t be the best one to bring to a dinner party. It took a while but eventually I made my sale. He became a regular customer of mine on a Friday night. “What’s the owner recommending this week?” he ask. I talk him through his options and off he’d go, happy as a sandboy.
Sales – Read people
So what sales lessons did I learn as a teenager selling wine in South Dublin? Firstly, I learned that effective sales involves being able to read people, decode body language, know when to speak and when to listen. You don’t just jump in there with your sales pitch, you hold back, read the signs, maybe test the waters a little with a phrase or a question or an innocuous statement. Once you’ve established a clear understanding of the customer, who they are, where they’re coming from, what needs, spoken or unspoken they have, then you speak and lay the foundations of trust upon which the relationship gets built.
Sales – Know the product but don’t be a product bore
Secondly I learned that effective sales involves product knowledge, although I’d argue you don’t always have to be a product expert. Sometimes not being an expert is an advantage as you don’t intimidate the customer or blind them with far too much nerdy detail. I sold wine I was too young to taste based on good data from the store owner and some additional research that I used to do myself – reading the product descriptions that came from the wholesaler and practising my French by reading the labels.
Sales – Never give up
Thirdly, I learned how to deal with rejection, to be persistence and never give up. I managed to win over the customer above but there were many I approached who treated me with disdain and ridicule. Over time I learned not to take that personally, to take it as my Everest, my challenging mountain to climb.
Selling is a complex, complicated activity that’s deeply rooted in human psychology. It pivots, primarily, on being able to establish trust and then living up to that trust. I learned that many years ago as a 14 year old and it has served me very well in the intervening years. I also learned a lot about wine before a drop ever passed my lips. And that has served me well too.
Patrick Delaney, Aoife McCrum and Pádraic Gilligan run SoolNua, a specialist agency working with destinations, hotels and venues on strategy, marketing and training for the Business Events and MICE sectors.