Transparency At Work
I love The Billfold and its community of commenters. I feel like I gain a lot of insight and would be a great place to throw out my dilemma for outside perspective. I work for a wine and spirits distributor, meaning I am the middle man between the wineries/importers/supplier and the restaurants/bars/liquors stores. I’ve only been doing this for just over a year, but have been in the booze industry for almost five and have had many friends and colleagues work wholesale. So I’m rather acquainted with the industry while still being green (and young, age-wise). Part of my job requires sampling wine to my customers (I have a permit to carry an open container for this reason, and it’s a fun time to see new acquaintances reactions to my trunk full of booze). Obviously one could assume a customer would like to taste wine before buying it, especially if you work at fancier places and restaurants, so it’s a crucial “expense,” and one that falls on the company.
While state laws on alcohol can vary drastically from state to state, there seems to be no “industry standard” on many procedures, but one of the few exceptions, I’m coming to find out, is the practice of who pays for samples. Related, one of the other industry standards is this concept of the “ride along” or “work with,” in which someone, who for simplicity we will call the supplier (a winemaker, proprietor, brand manager, importer, broker, dumb husband who married into the family business, etc) is assigned to a local salesperson (me), who plans a day to “work the market” with the supplier. By spending an entire day in the car, and add to that the alcohol consumed, it means we often get to converse more freely than we would if we were, say, in an office. It’s a tricky situation, in that it is an excellent chance to get some insight or gossip, but one must play politics correctly and not say too much, of course.
So, back to the samples. My company gives us a “sample budget,” but only in words, as in “your sample budget was a little heavy last month, might want to scale back” rather than giving us an actual number. If you asked me whether I have $5 or $5,000 worth of samples, I couldn’t tell you. What’s more, there is no real way to keep track of this; the main data crunching man at the office knows how, but we’re not privy to that information until AFTER we have spent it. There is great pressure, driven down from the corner office, to “ask our suppliers” for samples, meaning to email them—many of whom I do not know personally and do not live locally—and ask them to effectively pay for the sample so my company doesn’t have to.
And the real kicker: Between having friends who work as suppliers, all of the ride-alongs from the past 15 or so months (average two per month, at least 30 different people), and communicating with probably an additional twenty suppliers because of the “asking for samples” policy, I’ve come to realize that my company is (probably) taking advantage of our suppliers and using us, without our knowledge, as pawns.
You see, suppliers have complained, some more directly and intensely than others, that it’s absolutely ludicrous for us to ask them to pay for samples. They complain to us, the salespeople, because they have a captive audience (trapped in car together). I know some fight back with the people in upper management who is the correct person to address their grievance, but it would seem that it doesn’t get them far because they continue to complain to salespeople. Some suppliers outright do not approve our sample requests, and it is known which suppliers to not even approach.
The more complaints I got, though, the more I dug for information, and finally, a few weeks ago, I found myself working with an out-of-town supplier who is nonetheless a good friend, and he set the record straight. It is industry standard, across all states, from big companies to little upstarts, that the distributor bills back 2% to the supplier to account for samples. In fact, it is then common for the distributor to give their salespeople a budget based on this 2%, either giving the salesperson the access to the full 2%, based on 2% of their sales, or giving them a substantial portion in the form of a real budget.
SO I hope, through all that long mess, you understand that I feel like I’m in a tight spot. What seems to be happening is that my company is getting their full 2% on all wines but have left the salespeople in the dark on this. (Once a manager mentioned some random 2% thing in an aside, and at the time it made no sense to me but didn’t affect me, so I just shrugged it off as crazy talk by this crazy manager, but now realize that he accidentally let me in on the secret and feel confident this is the practice at my company.) Furthermore, they are getting us, the salespeople, to ask for MORE MONEY from these people, who already foot the bill for us on other functions (lunches, drinks, events, etc).
We have to see these people directly in these ride alongs, which means they also contact us directly to follow up, and we often establish professional relationships that last for a professional lifetime, but we are not only reaching out to them for more money in a rather gauche way, we’re all doing it without knowing any better—but now I know better! I was already uncomfortable about asking for samples from supplier. It didn’t feel like it was my place and that it was rather unprofessional, but now I feel like I’m practically stealing for my company, or that my company is stealing from them and using me as their go-between—again, without telling us how the system works!!
I write because I found myself in a touchy conversation this morning with my direct report. I have quietly stopped asking suppliers for samples in the last few weeks, and while that has not exactly been noted as the reason, it’s clear that I’m “spending” more on samples than I was previously. So I was given the same speech—be more mindful, pull less samples, and ask the supplier! But I’m feeling rather firm in my belief that it’s not the right thing to do anymore, and even though it is “company policy” and I desperately need samples to do my job (which is 100% commission based, no less), I just can’t bring myself to make the ask anymore. And I don’t want to lead a revolution in the office, but I fear that even standing up for myself will give the impression that I have an agenda or want to be a whistleblower or something—basically, I’m afraid to stand up on this. But I can’t NOT say anything, right? Is it crazy that I find this unethical, which is why I feel so uncomfortable with it? — A.
It’d be great if readers could chime in on this one.
A very short answer, to a very long question is that there appears to be a problem with transparency and communication at the distribution company you work for.
“If you asked me whether I have $5 or $5,000 worth of samples, I couldn’t tell you.”
If samples are a key part of doing your job, you should be able to know what your sample budget is. If your company needs additional samples beyond the 2 percent being billed to suppliers so that salespeople can effectively do their jobs (or because it simply helps its bottom line), they should be able to just say that. And you should be able to talk about some of your concerns to your company as well—especially if a key part of your job is making you feel uncomfortable.
Your manager once talked openly about the 2 percent situation to you, so this may not exactly be something they’re trying to hide. Talk to your manager. You can try to root out anything unethical they may be doing without accusing them of being dishonest. Your approach in this conversation can be, “I’m trying to figure out how to do my job better, and I think it’d be helpful to have a better understanding of how my sample budget works.”
Give your company the opportunity to explain to you how the system works. If the answer is unsatisfactory, or if you come to understand that what your company is doing really is unethical, it’s time to consider if you want to continue working there.