You can have the highest scoring, most awarded wine list in the country, but if you don’t have the sales team with the skills to build relationships and understand which wines are best suited to which restaurants and bars then it’s going to gather dust in your warehouse. Here we talk to Maria Proshuta, part of the London on-trade sales team for Corney & Barrow, about the skills she thinks you need to sell wine to the on-trade.
“At Corney & Barrow it is all about relationships. That’s what makes us different.” An approach that Maria Proshuta says is even more important when working with its on-trade customers.
Maria Proshuta no doubt has her fair share of demanding, exacting restaurant and on-trade customers, but none up to now have asked her to source a pink elephant. But if they did she knows where and how to get one.
For that was just one of the requests she received during her time working at Quintessentially, the luxury concierge service, which promise to do virtually anything for its clients.
It’s not your classic route into on-trade wine sales, but it’s one that has given Proshuta an invaluable insight into what ultimate customer service is all about. Knowledge and skills, she believes, helps her every day in her role as part of the London on-trade sales team for Corney & Barrow.
It’s also what helped her get her first first role at Corney & Barrow. When she was asked in an interview with associate director, James Franklin, to answer what was the most challenging task she has ever had in her career – the pink elephant came up. Franklin was suitably impressed.
After two years answering the call of the rich and famous at Quintessentially, Proshuta was ready for a new challenge of her own. “I wanted to do something completely different,” she says. A friend mentioned Corney and Barrow was looking to hire and she thought it could be a good opportunity to use her sales skills, and learn about wine at the same time.
Her first role was part of the company’s sales support team, operating largely behind the scenes making sure any deals and transactions the front line sales team did were followed through and completed.
But, she admits, she probably went further than her brief and started to talk and build relationships with the on-trade customers she was dealing with. “It got to point where they were talking and emailing me,” she adds.
From sales support she moved to an account coordinator role where she was able to have her own accounts and build those personal relationships with customers.
It was clear she was best suited to a front line role herself where her natural people skills could really come to the fore and she moved to the five strong London on-trade sales team in July. “At Corney & Barrow it is all about relationships. That’s what makes us different,” she says.
But interestingly Proshuta says those relationships are just as important with your team mates and colleagues as they are with your customers. Only if you are truly working as a team where you have each other’s best interests at heart are you going to be able to them give your clients the service they deserve and need, she explains.
“It is important to have good relationships both internally and externally. We have such a good team spirit in our sales team. If someone gets a good deal then we are all pleased for them. That is our culture. We go out of our way to help each other out which I don’t think you always get in other companies.”
That can even go as far as suggesting a different member of the team takes on a particular account as it is felt they are better suited to their needs and the personalities are better matched. “We are not afraid to do that. We have that freedom to make those sort of decisions,” she says.
“That’s why it is important you understand the traits and personalities of your team. It helps that I have built really good relationships with them during my years working in sales support. We are all good friends and can talk to each other about our customers and their needs,” she explains. “That helps a lot.”
It’s also why, she adds, Corney & Barrow has such long-standing members of staff and you don’t get the churn of people leaving as you might elsewhere. When you join you feel like you are joining a family, she adds. “It’s why I have been at Corney & Barrow for over five years.”
But it is with her customers where she can make a personal difference. Proshuta says that when she meets a customer for the first time it’s crucial she only offers and talks to them about wines that are going to be relevant and in tune with what their customers want. “You need to understand what will work for them or not.”
She says she also relies a lot on her own “gut instinct” about what a customer might need, which is why it is so important for her to get that personal connection with the wine buyer or sommelier team.
That’s when they can fully understand what Corney & Barrow can potentially offer them, she stresses. Yes, it is rightly proud of its quality, premium wine range, but it is also able to offer wines at all price points, including the invaluable house wines that are going to really drive the bottom line.
That’s when the relationship can really blossom, she says, when customers start to buy right across the Corney & Barrow range and take advantage of their own private label range, with exclusive blends made to hit specific needs of different customers operating in different channels of the on-trade.
“Yes, Corney & Barrow is ideally placed to work with fine dining restaurants, but we also have the potential to be working with pub groups as well.”
Her own customers reads like a who’s who of the London restaurant scene selling wine to the Arts Club, Zuma, Roka, Oblix, Gordon Ramsay Group, Medlar, Corbin & King, Imperial Treasure, Belmond Cadogan, Muse by Tom Aikens. But she also works with a number of gastro pubs and independent pubs across the capital.
Proshuta says having such a wide range of customers also stretches and tests her sales skills and allows her to work with them in different ways. The pub customers, for example, are usually more interested in the value and private label lines where she can go in and do more personal training with the staff.
Part of an on-trade sales role, she adds, is knowing how often a customer genuinely wants to see or hear from you. Some might expect to see you every week, others are happy to leave it to once a month or longer and are happy just emailing and with phone calls.
“They are all super busy so you need to make the most of the opportunities when you can,” she says.
“You also have to understand and recognise the egos and personalities of the buyers and sommeliers you are working with. Get to know what it is they like to taste and how much information they need to have about any new wines. You do not want to be offering them wines they don’t want. That only ruins a relationship. So if they know you are only going to show them wines you know they will like they are more likely to try them.”
She adds: “Some customers will ask me to bring in three new wines, but I know they also want me to bring in another couple of suggestions that I personally like. Others will want to see 10 new wines but will only ever order five.”
It’s that almost psychological understanding of what different customers want that Proshuta really enjoys.
“It’s why I always feel sad when a good sommelier leaves a restaurant as I know I will have to start again with that customer. It takes time.”
She says Corney & Barrow has arguably been able to forge even closer relationships with its customers during lockdown even if the majority of them were closed. As the business did not furlough any member of staff, it meant they were able to keep in contact and ask them what help and support they might need at different stages of the openings and closings that the sector has had to go through over the last 18 months.
It was also a time when that team ethic at Corney & Barrow really came to the fore as the on-trade teams were quickly redeployed to work in different areas of the business, including direct sales to private clients and also supporting the growing digital arm and new opportunities with independent wine merchants.
“It showed how flexible as a team we could be, but having worked in sales accounts I did not find it too much of a change.”
Proshuta says she enjoys the opportunity to be constantly learning about wine and since being with Corney & Barrow has reach WSET level 3.
“There is always something new to know. I am constantly reading articles and doing what I can, but it is impossible to know everything. We also do tastings as a team which is really helpful.”
She adds: “I can taste a wine and have my own description for it, but when you hear your team mates talking about it it gives you other ideas for when you are explaining it to your customers.”
Proshuta is particularly grateful for the support and help she receives from Corney & Barrow’s head of commercial buying, Rebecca Palmer. “She is so collaborative and will bring wines to the on-trade team and ask us what we think and how they will go down with our customers. That really is so helpful and it makes such a difference to how we work.”
It’s clear Proshuta, who first came to the UK from Estonia 11 years ago, has caught the wine bug whilst being at Corney & Barrow. So much so she tells a story of being on holiday in Australia and realising she was in the same state as one of the producers – The Lane Vineyards – that she first tasted on joining the company.
So she set off in a hire car to pay them a visit. Not realising it took 11 hours to get there. But she made the trip, met the team, did a tasting and then drove the 11 hours back again. “I just loved it. It’s amazing to do those kind of trips,” she says. “I also felt I was representing Corney & Barrow. I feel like I am in my dream job.”
Which as company testimonials go is pretty good.
Oh, in case you were wondering, just how do you find a pink elephant at a moment’s notice? Well, her persuasive skills managed to convince the elephant house at Moscow Zoo to loan Quintessentially an elephant for a client’s birthday party. Which she was able to somehow dress in a pink skirt and away you go. Mission accomplished. “You just could not say no to a customer,” she says.
So if you want to a scarce back vintage of a Chateau Lafite you know who to call.
- Corney & Barrow is an importer and distributor partner to The Buyer. You can find out more about the services it provides the on-trade at is website here and on The Buyer here.