Sonny Thielbar: Sales is a Byproduct of Passion



Sonny Thielbar: Sales is a Byproduct of Passion

In 1999, Sonny Thielbar arrived in the Napa Valley from Kansas City to work a grape harvest during a vacation. Thirteen years later, he’s still there, gainfully employed as a Direct Sales Manager for a legendary Vineyard. Sonny’s love affair with wine began in college. Before long, he was head over heels for every aspect of wine making. Empathetic and people-oriented, it’s no surprise Sonny landed in sales. “My sales ability draws me back to what I do best,” he says. “But I don’t think of it as sales. Sales are a byproduct of the passion I have for telling people about what I love.”


If you believe in the product and frame it with your passion, the sales will come, says Sonny. The main ingredient – the grape of a salesperson, so to speak – is empathy. When he interviews candidates for sales jobs, “I can find people that are effectual and pleasant,” he says, “but they literally need a heart that wants to meet people and connect. If they don’t have empathy, then sales don’t happen – and empathy is a quality I can’t teach.” Empathetic salespeople have a natural curiosity about their customers. What are their tastes? Are they collectors? Where do they come from? “They might not buy wine at all but will be evangelists if you listen to the guest first,” says Sonny. “More wine is sold by engaging the guest than by forcing a sale.

In a cautious world where people have natural defenses against being sold to, Sonny’s sales-as-a-byproduct style turns salespeople into advocates. “The quicker you communicate integrity,” he says, “the quicker that defense comes down.” Sonny believes he began to develop empathy while waiting tables in college. “I learned to understand needs,” he says. “I made money by filling gaps that exceeded expectations. And I did that by listening.” If you listen to what’s important to the customer, even if your product isn’t right for them, your empathy will put them at ease. “I tell my team to be themselves, to use their authentic voice,” he says. If you are formulaic, those defenses won’t come down. But if you’re authentic, what might have been a three-bottle sale can turn into a two-case sale based on a customer’s emotional connection to the place and to the seller.


There are more than 500 wineries in the renowned Napa Valley. “Everyone here makes exceptional wine,” observes Sonny. Ultimately, he says, it’s your people – not your wines – that will differentiate you from your competitors. Sure, Sonny knows wine. But he knows people too. One time a married couple returned to the winery for their second visit. “It was really hot and we walked into the cellar,” Sonny recalls. “I was watching the wife’s body language and I could tell that this is not what she came for. Last time they were here, they were sitting in the rocking chairs on the porch.” Sonny knew that the wife wanted to recreate her previous experience, not roam the cellar. “It was 105 degrees and it was the last thing I wanted, but it was important to her.” What do the guests need? What are they asking for? What do they remember about their previous visits? What are they expecting today? These are key questions for Sonny and his sales staff.

Most vineyard guests are on vacation and interested in wine, so Sonny doesn’t meet with much skepticism. But when he does, he enjoys turning it around. Knowledge of both wine and guests is key. “I’ve got a glass of wine, beautiful scenery – it’s always fun to be challenged and eventually figure out what’s important to this person, and to draw them out.” It’s not as calculated as it sounds, adds Sonny. “It’s in my nature to want to find a way to make this happen. Sales are just tangible signs of the connection.”

One of Sonny’s best learning experiences came out of a disastrous moment. A team of pharmaceutical sales professionals who were new to wine made a visit to the winery. Sonny felt that they made a few compromises in their purchase decisions. “As I was putting the wine into their vehicle, I commented that they weren’t big buyers,” he recalls. Unfortunately, one of them overheard him. “They loved the winery, but the minute they heard that, everything was destroyed. I was devastated. Then they viewed everything else based on that one comment. My gut turns just thinking about that now.” Sonny wrote a letter of apology, but he acknowledges, “You can’t recover from those types of moments. It’s how you learn and grow, these human moments.”


The son of a college professor, Sonny grew up listening to his father’s lectures on quantitative methods in statistics. “At age 8, I watched him captivate audiences over the driest subject.” This exposed young Sonny to the power of language, the power of the pause and to the value of stories and parables. “Students adored my dad,” he says. “They couldn’t help but be drawn to him. It was beautiful to watch.” A natural storyteller, Sonny is still a bit surprised at how well it works. “In this business, you need to tell stories,” he says. “And just watch people connect with them!” Stories, he says, wear down a buyer’s natural defenses against being sold to.

The bottom line for Sonny is pretty basic: “Find something that you absolutely love and want to talk about every day, even when you’re not on the clock,” he advises. “People are drawn to passion. Find this in your life and it will work.”

For Sonny Thielbar, the nuance and detail in a glass of wine is the perfect metaphor for living in the present moment. “When I spend more time in the moment, whatever I’m discussing, wine or food, there is nothing better,” he says. “And when people see that, I’m setting an agenda for when they return home.” Sonny sets an example, exemplifies a lifestyle and shows guests how to think about wines and what that can do to improve the quality of their lives. And the sales? Just a happy byproduct.


Download This Top Performer Profile in PDF Form: Sonny Thielbar – Top Performer Series #6

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