People in sales are often known for their gift of gab, but we learned from Sales Manager and Certified Cicerone Ben Hunter that the ability to close a sale often lies in the quiet art of listening.
One of my absolute favorite facets of my job is interviewing different people. I have spent the greater portion of my career, to the tune of fifteen years, behind the camera directing fishermen, fashionistas, brewmasters, bikers, teachers, entrepreneurs, survivors, fighters, founders, chefs, scientists, shark divers, journalists, models, parents, soldiers, car enthusiasts, CEO’s, presidents and authors. I see the value in interviewing people in varied fields as a means to grow, both as a director and a lifelong learner.
And this week I was lucky enough to sit down with Ben Hunter, Certified Cicerone and Sales Manager for Denizens Brewing Co about how he fell in love with all things craft beer. Along with valuable nuggets on beer & food pairings, he sheds some light on how he has learned that by listening to both his clients and himself, he has found a way to turn his passion into a profession. Check out these excerpts and stay tuned for the full interview audio coming soon…
The recipe for a craft beer sales manager
Heather: So, let’s start at the beginning. Can you tell me a little bit about your background?
Ben: My father was into home brewing. So, at a young age, I was definitely around beers in general that not most people were exposed to at that time. I was able to kind of taste little bits along the way as he was brewing, and eventually I’d get to help out with that. I also worked in the food industry where I was in the kitchen a lot, and so, obviously beverage and food are very closely related. Eventually I moved to the front of house when I moved to Washington D.C. and started serving at ChurchKey. ChurchKey was a renowned place that I was going to be able to really immerse myself in beer. But, also that shift to the front of house got me directly dealing with customers. And, when you work at ChurchKey with 50 drafts and 700 bottles, you’re more of a salesman than you are a server because you really have to guide them through the menu. You have to figure out what flavors they are looking for and also bring them options they didn’t even know they wanted. Once I was in that position at ChurchKey I really saw that this could be my industry. I saw great opportunity. The industry was booming. And that slowly led to moving to Silver Spring, and my girlfriend Kristen and I would go out to Denizens for happy hours and when they posted that they were looking for their first salesperson, I quickly took advantage and applied. And that’s how I landed here at Denizens as a sales manager, and also pursued my certified cicerone certification.
People can hear passion loud and clear
Heather: Back to ChurchKey for a moment. You said they had 50 drafts and 700 bottles. You saw that there was a booming industry taking afoot with craft beer. What was it about beer that really attracted you? Was it the taste? Was it the complexity? Was it the fact that you saw opportunity?
“I think what really draws me to beer, and especially craft beer is the community most of all, but also the collaboration, the camaraderie and the craft. The idea of people passionately pouring their hearts into the liquid and making the best beers they can.”
Ben: Yeah. I think what really draws me to beer, and especially craft beer is the community most of all, but also the collaboration, the comradery and the craft. The idea of people passionately pouring their hearts into the liquid and making the best beers they can.
Just the art and craft of people really doing what they’re passionate about, really trying to bring that passion to other people, and to unite and bring different people together.
Heather: So, you come to Denizens, you’re their first salesperson. You are now a certified cicerone and you did that all while building your career at Denizens. How has your position evolved to what you’re doing today?
Ben: When I started, Julie, one of the owners of Denizens was doing all of the sales and deliveries to the point where they finally hired me. Early on I was wearing many hats. In a way it was really good for me to get that insight and to really peek into all the avenues. So firstly I was doing deliveries and making sales. I was the sales rep. I was also working events on the weekend, evenings, happy hours, beer festivals, private tours and stuff like that, even to the point of helping in the brewery when we needed help packaging cans. I needed the cans to sell so I would come in at six in the morning and help them can, go out for my normal day after that, and then probably end up in an event in the evening. So, it was a lot, but it was a labor of love.
Now, in addition to being a full time sales person, I am also heading up a new brand ambassadors program onboarding and training people who can really help us be a face out in the field. Building these relationships now that we have a lot of products to work with is definitely a new dynamic.
Jumpstart listening by asking questions
Heather: You mentioned that you spent some time in the mornings before your deliveries in the canning process. What kind of things did you learn? What questions did you ask, and was that just you being proactive, or was this required of you?
Ben: I mean, it was definitely me mostly being proactive. It wasn’t something that was required of me, but, I also knew that it was going to be helpful for the company. I now can say that I have some experience on the line, removing the cans out and making sure to weigh them. I learned a lot more about the problems that you can run into with packaging, oxygen exposure, the cans not being filled all the way properly, stuff going wrong with the canning line, and having to start and stop that. It gives me a well rounded understanding which helps me talk with other people out in the field.
Listening isn’t passive, it’s active participation
Heather: What is your favorite part of the job, form events, to delivery, to outreach to training. What do you love the best?
Ben: I’m definitely passionate about education. Part of being a certified cicerone has really helped give me a really wide base of knowledge to be able to educate, so I really enjoy that I get to be a part of beverage programs that our beer is featured in by either helping convey to the bar manager or buyer how to sell all this beer, and how to explain it to their staff. Even down to where I’ll come in and do staff training. I’ll bring recommended food pairings for whatever food options they have on their menu, and get them excited about the beer and how to sell it. The other aspect is the relationships. I think it’s really fun that on any given day, I get to go around and be a representative for a great brewing company, and I’ve made a lot of good friends in the industry.
“I did make a decision for myself, for my future, and for my customers. I knew that this was where I wanted to go, this is what I wanted to do with my life, and that I owe it to the passion of craft beer and the passion that people that order it from me to really educate myself. So, it’s been a huge confidence builder for me, and, I think has really shown my customers that I take the craft of beer seriously. I can guide them in areas that they may not have knowledge.”
Heather: So, we’re coming up on the second anniversary of the Denizens rebrand. How has that rebrand changed your business?
Ben: Yeah. Definitely, I think that the rebrand was a great decision. I think you and your team here did a really great job with it. It’s really helped us with getting to show more of our personality, and in a way, kind of tell our story a little better and easier. I think just the eye catching quality of it. I think that the aesthetic of the cans really helps with shelf presence, with getting people to notice it. I like that there is a common thread and you can tell from a distance, “that’s a Denizens beer” but they’re all very different in their own right. I really like that cohesiveness. So, the rebrand has really been able to show people that this is who we are, this is how much character we have, this is how much passion we have for this.
Heather: Well, it sounds like we’ve done our job then.
Ben: That’s right. I would agree.
Heather: That’s the mark of good branding, cheers.
Listen to what people say about you, not just directly to you
Heather: You are the face and voice of Denizens to much of the community. What are people saying? What do you hear most about the beers, about the brand, about the craft industry as a whole?
Ben: I think Denizens is known for being very active in the community so I definitely hear a lot of people out in the field talk about how it’s really cool that we had this event or helped sponsor that fundraiser. I think that’s a really cool thing Denizens does. I get feedback on how they appreciate our wide range of styles, that we do all of them very well, and try to honor those styles. They’ve been excited to see the new cans, and the new branding, and the new future of Denizens. I hear a lot of feedback about how people have been excited to see us grow as the beer scene grows. Denizens Brewing has been a huge part of the brewing scene in Montgomery County, helping change the antiquated laws surrounding direct to customer alcohol distribution.
Heather: That’s awesome, and we couldn’t be more proud and happy for the team at Denizens. Do you ever hear anything negative on the road? Maybe not necessarily about Denizens but more about craft beer in general?
Ben: Yeah. I think some of the negative stuff that has come up with the industry is more about exclusion or the lack of inclusion. Such as the lack of inclusion amongst women and minorities, or, how the product can be inaccessible and more expensive. I see that we shouldn’t try to be the cool kids, don’t get a big head and be supportive of all the breweries together, and to step away from some of those old tired joke names that could be derogatory. Stuff like that. And with the creation of a craft beer diversity panel for the Brewers Association, I think they’re really starting to help make this issue very public. By having people stand up for each other and give adequate representation to women and minorities, consumers can really see what else is out there.
“And with the creation of a craft beer diversity panel for the Brewers Association, I think they’re really starting to help make this issue very public. By having people stand up for each other and give adequate representation to women and minorities, consumers can really see what else is out there.”
Heather: Well, I know collaboration is key for Denizens. I know you organize the Make It Funky festival, where you invite a bunch of other brewers to your beer garden. And I was just recently speaking with Mark at Streetcar 82 in Hyattsville, and he mentioned that Denizens and Streetcar were going to collab on a beer.
Heather: That’s you directly taking the feedback and really putting it into action, which is super good to hear.
Ben: I agree.
Feedback isn’t always a “Fuck you”
Heather: How do you and the team at Denizens react to feedback? You’re out there, the face of the brewery to a lot of people. How do you deal with customer’s feedback and thoughts in the moment?
“I really try to let them know that I hear them, and we do take it back and share it with the company.”
Ben: Yeah, the feedback is obviously very important. We try to be encouraging of receiving feedback, but then, also reacting to feedback is very important. I’ve gotten feedback from certain buyers that have comments about either the beer, or about maybe some of our ideals as a company and I always try to act really positive. I really try to let them know that I hear them, and we do take it back and share it with the company. We’re getting feedback on everything from our prices to our servers in the taproom. I know that it’s hard sometimes to be appealing to everybody for all situations, but I think it’s just about not disrespecting that person, not brushing them off. Just say thank you for your feedback, and see if there is something you can do.
Heather: Yes. Everybody just wants to be heard.
Ben: I think so.
Heather: What is one of the most interesting things you’ve heard on your job?
Ben: I think it’s mostly been me learning about how to convey messages. It’s almost like basic sales knowledge. Learning how to read the situation, learning how to be pushy but not too pushy, learning how to be creative about what I can offer as a salesman or my performance versus someone else’s. I think the most interesting part is what I’ve slowly learned about myself over time, and that is that I have continued to fall more and more in love with craft beer and the industry in general.
Listen with the intent of learning something
Heather: Do you have any advice for someone going from being a doer to being kind of a manager and a leader?
Ben: I think that the biggest thing that has helped me is to continue to ask questions to show that you’re eager and that you want to learn. I think me pursuing the certified cicerone program on my own accord has shown the company, shown Julie, that I am willing to always keep learning, to always keep getting better, and I think that if you are really passionate about craft beer then it’s very easy to be eager and to want to learn. And, I’m reading a lot of books and articles. I think any knowledge you can have about what the craft beer industry is up to is going to help you progress, whether you want to be a brewer, whether you want to be a manager at a tavern, or whether you want to be involved with the distribution.
Thank you so much for joining me for this journey. Read more about our love for craft beer by exploring the Denizens rebrand case study the post on capturing the beauty of craft beer in photography and what grabs our attention while shopping through the beer aisle