table ronde retail vente

Round table: retail and sales professions


  • Élodie de Boissieu
    Professor-researcher and academic director of the M2/MSc Luxury and Lifestyle programme
  • Guillaume Paillard
    Export Director for Asia at Champagne Laurent-Perrier, Graduated in 2012


What does it mean to be in sales today?

EDB : In the luxury sector, we don't "make sales", we "organise meetings". This has nothing to do with the sales professions in mass retail and consumer goods.  

Louis Vuitton is one of the shops with the most sales assistants in the world. In the Champs-Elysées store, there are around fifty full-time salespeople. Working in these shops is a great training ground, if you ever want to broaden your horizons and move into other areas of activity.  

The sector has been changing since 2000, with the emergence of the internet. Initially, shop assistants saw the internet as an enemy that would drive down their sales. Salespeople's commissions in the jewellery sector are enormous. When Cartier started selling online, they saw the internet as a new competitor. 

Attempts were made to integrate an iPad into Burberry shops in London, just after Hermès created its website in 2004. The sales staff were not trained in the use of Ipads. When a customer asked a question about a product, the sales assistant was at a loss and felt threatened by these new technologies. 

Later on, we began to think that the internet could complement the work of the shop and not compete with it. The customer experience was enhanced by the contribution of digital technology in the shop. The sales staff realised that these tools enriched the customer experience. 

For example, at Berluti, when we offer a made-to-measure shoe, we use a touch screen to co-create a personalised item: choose the colour, the patina, the height of the shoe, the heel... That's when we realise that digital technology adds value to the sale.  

Since then, all the sales assistants in the shops have been trained in this practice. In the Vuitton shops, they all have an application on their phone to call their customers and offer them products from the new collection or exclusive products. In this way, they encourage customers to come into the shop. The salesperson is now assessed not only on his or her sales figures, but also on the number of encounters he or she has generated and on the "voice", i.e. the customer's feedback following his or her encounter with the salesperson.  

The shop had become a meeting place, especially after the pandemic. We had to find a way to reconnect with our customers. The sales assistant became key because he had to find a way to meet his customers again, to renew contact. We talk a lot about building customer loyalty in sales.  

I encourage you to visit the spectacular Dior boutique on Avenue Montaigne. It's a place where no sales are made. It's a place where you meet the brand and the soul of Christian Dior. You see all these silhouettes and the spectacular creations of Dior and its artistic director John Galliano. The person who works in the boutique is no longer a sales assistant but a creator of encounters and an advisor to the customer.

What does your job as Export Manager involve?

GP : My daily life has changed a lot over the last two years, with the major crises that have changed the world and disrupted our habits. On the whole, this has accelerated movements that existed previously. There's more and more digitalisation and new ways of doing business. 

As an export manager, I'm not in direct contact with the end customers who are going to buy the bottle. In our sector, the end customer is almost never going to meet someone from the brand, unlike the luxury houses, which do everything they can to create a close relationship between advisor and customer.  

My job is to manage importers in each of the countries in the zone concerned, in my case the whole of Asia. Our importers are exclusive, meaning that we have an importer who imports all our products into each country. We are present in almost every country in the world. This importer has to manage a very large part of the logistics, with customs formalities and sales authorisations, for example. 

There's also the whole commercial side to manage. You have to draw up a sales plan to determine how and where you are going to sell. We also have to draw up a development plan so that we're in the right place at the right time and at the right price. 

In addition, I have to manage all the marketing aspects, i.e. define the means of developing our brand, reaching our targets, increasing our visibility and ensuring that the customer/prospect remembers the brand.  

Finally, another part of my job involves contact with the biggest clients, such as major hotels, wholesalers, distribution chains and certain restaurants.  

It's a job that requires a great deal of diplomacy. You have to 'pamper' your importer, because we only have one. We see them more as partners than customers. We have to establish a climate of trust and ensure that they develop a love of the brand by making them adhere to our values.  

Some importers have very large brand catalogues, with a wide variety of spirits products (wine, beer, etc.). The first challenge when managing an importer is to make them aware of the importance of our brand and ensure that we are well placed in their catalogue. It's also a question of ensuring that the importer and his sales staff in the field want to sell Laurent-Perrier.

EDB : Love of the brand is a key element in our work. The Laurent-Perrier brand may not be as strong as a brand like Mumm in terms of its weight in the champagne market. But it develops this love of the brand. Many researchers have worked on this subject, such as Pierre Valette-Florence. 

We often talk about it in our courses at EM Normandie. This researcher talks about the love of and attachment to the brand, as well as the "memorability" of each encounter with the brand. The brand needs to reinvent itself at every encounter, so that the customer rethinks the experience and the whole story behind the bottle of champagne, both the content and the container.

GP : This is all the more true now that everyone is so exposed to it, all the time and everywhere. I'll take the example of audio objects, such as speakers and amps that I like. Naturally, when we think of something we like, a certain number of brands come to mind, whether for good or bad reasons.  

The problem we face today is that there is a huge diversity of brands, each of which has enormous digital resources in terms of social networks, advertising... but also print. It's important to get people thinking about your brand, and for the right reasons.

Do you work in collaboration with marketing?

GP : Sales and marketing are two wheels on the same motorbike. Some brands are good sales companies. Others are good marketing companies. Some rare unicorns are good at both.

We sometimes have a bad image of marketing because we think that it allows us to sell dreams. This is not always true. Many of the services we sell today are in the service sector. Marketing has its place there.  

The greatest successes often come from companies that are talented in both areas.

EDB : In reality, it's companies that put sales and marketing on the management committee, and give both a fair say. When you apply for a job in a company, it's always interesting to analyse who's on the management committee. That's where you can see the orientation of the CEO, whether he wants to focus on sales and therefore the customer, or whether he prefers to focus on the product alone.

GP :

At Laurent-Pierrier, we have an extraordinarily important product dimension. Our cellar master has been with the company for a very long time and is a member of the management committee, as are the sales and marketing people. 

In some companies, there are also a lot of behind-the-scenes jobs that are sometimes underestimated, particularly production. Yet this is what gives a company its soul. A company like ours is obviously based on sales and marketing, but the basis of everything is the product.  

What skills do you need to work in sales?

GP : First of all, I'd say that there's no such thing as a typical salesperson. Certain skills are obviously essential, such as good interpersonal skills.  

I would say that it's important to have some kind of appreciation of the product, in my case Champagne. The skills required include know-how and interpersonal skills.

Know-how is acquired at business school and enables you to survive at the beginning of your career and build up your wall of experience on the technical side. In some professions, you need to push these skills further, for example to learn how to put together a sales plan.  

As far as soft skills are concerned, they were already important several years ago. They are increasingly so. When you work in a group, you learn to behave well. For me, that's really crucial. At Laurent-Pierrier, it's unthinkable to hire someone with great technical expertise if they don't have a minimum of interpersonal skills.  

What may sometimes seem unfair is that these talents are often innate. Even if you can improve and work on yourself, it's much harder to learn to behave in a certain way than when it comes naturally.

You also have to take into account the international aspect of this profession. It's always been my dream to work in Asia. I did everything I could to make it happen.  

The courses I took at EM Normandie in Caen talked a lot about cultural issues. Even when I first worked in Belgium, I noticed cultural differences. Even within the French regions, there can be strong regional differences. Imagine what that means on an international scale. 

It's important to realise that if you want to go abroad, you need to have this desire to go elsewhere and be confronted with situations that you don't understand at first. It's by finding out what's going on that you get a better grasp of what's going on.  

Cultural differences are very enriching because the answers given by each importer will be different. There's a different mentality in Japan and Korea, for example. What's more, it's essential to have a good command of English, that goes without saying. 

If you don't like the negotiation aspect of being a salesperson, it's perfectly possible to turn to advice. When a customer walks into a luxury boutique, the sales assistant doesn't have to convince them to buy from him.

How did you know you were cut out for this job?

GP : I didn't know. Initially, I really wanted to work in export. I was attracted to foreign countries in both senses of the word, both international and exploring new things. 

Before finding my first job, I tried to identify the aspects that could help me sell myself to an employer. In the case of Laurent-Perrier, I knew the product because I was born in Champagne. I tried to associate this skill with an area that interested me. 

For the record, at the end of my internship at Laurent-Perrier, I had the choice between marketing and sales. I hesitated between the two because marketing is a really nice field. I expressed my hesitation to my manager, who told me that I needed to get out in the field to gain experience.  

I agreed without question, even though I didn't necessarily want to be out in the field. That's when I realised that there are a lot of different jobs in sales, some of which I liked and some of which I didn't. I did everything I could to get the experience I needed. I did everything I could to orientate myself towards tasks that I liked and leave aside, for example, mass retailing, a field in which I didn't think I had the qualities to develop.

Can you spot a future sales expert?

EDB : In the luxury sector, this is called a Client Advisor. I wrote an article about the experience of meeting people in luxury shops. To do this, I interviewed a lot of people in the industry. They all agreed that you have to like people to be a good salesperson. 

On the one hand, these are the people behind the product, the famous 'craftsmen' who sit at the CEO's table when decisions have to be made. We see this in houses like Hermès. These craftsmen are people. When you sell products, you're also selling the people behind them.  

On the other hand, we have to take our customers into account. When they come to spend 15,000 euros in five minutes and you don't earn as much, you really have to pay a lot of attention to them.  

You have to have empathy both for the brand and for the people you meet. Guillaume, you didn't know you were cut out for sales, but in reality you already knew that you wanted to meet people of all kinds.

GP : Once again, there is no archetypal salesperson or perfect salesperson. If we take an example that is the opposite of the luxury sector, for example in the oil industry, which is highly technical, we will have skills that are specific to that field. The common denominator with luxury is having a certain appetite for this social aspect. 

Is there always this notion of challenge when selling?

EDB : This notion doesn't exist so much any more, since the notion of loving people and the product has taken over. Sales come naturally.

GP : The challenge is there in every case, whether you're a salesperson or not. To simplify the sales professions, on the one hand there is the hunter, the breeder and the mixed salesperson. The hunter goes door-to-door and tries to sell at all costs.  

As far as I'm concerned, I'm more on the breeder side because you build up a relationship over time. Some of my customers have been working with us for 10 or 20 years. There's no notion of conquering, but rather of growing the relationship with the customer. 

In any case, you have to enjoy dealing with people and talking to them, otherwise you won't choose this field. Customers need to meet the sales assistant and talk to him.

How will sales jobs evolve? 

EDB : Some of my students say that in the next few years, a good salesperson will be someone who can control their avatar in the metaverse. Of course, the shop will still exist, but it will be virtual. Customers will be offered product-related experiences. The sales assistant's avatar will be there to welcome customers and talk to them.

GP : Indeed, it's a certainty that digital will continue to develop. On the other hand, when the first e-readers came out, we thought that books were finished. Yet they are still sold in large numbers today. 

Digitalisation has enabled brands to launch their own online sales sites and even to create their own applications, even though these applications no longer exist. We're already well on the way to digitalisation, but I'm convinced that the reality of sales will never be replaced. 

E-commerce has exploded since the pandemic, but nothing can replace contact between buyer and seller. People want contact. These two worlds, the virtual and the physical, are complementary. 

A number of years ago, many major brands failed to make the transition to digital and were forced to close down. This was the case with Kodak, for example. There are certain turning points that shouldn't be missed, but we shouldn't overplay our hand by claiming to be hyper-digitalised if that's not really the case. 

If I take Laurent-Perrier as an example, we have a physical product that is made in France by a whole group of people. There is a real reality here. Personally, I'm not going to sell Champagne in the metaverse. We might have customers who take a virtual tour of the cellars.

EDB : In any case, this virtual world should not be seen in opposition to reality, but rather as something complementary. Think of the shop assistants who were initially opposed to the digital tools they were being offered. Some time later, they realised that these tools were useful to them and improved the customer experience.

GP : I'm not closing myself off to the idea of digital, but I realise that having not been to Japan for two years because of the pandemic, we need this contact with customers and contact with reality.  

We did, however, organise remote tastings and cellar visits with our customers during the period of confinement. We adapted to the situation as best we could. I think that the biggest contracts we sign in life are done in real life, by meeting people and not by video. In almost all cultures, you go to a restaurant to celebrate the sale and have a convivial time.

What advice would you give to a candidate?

EDB : I've noticed that a number of students find it difficult to converse in English. I'd advise you to broaden your horizons and go on trips and work placements abroad to practise the language and meet new people. 

I'd also advise you to be passionate about what you do. Sales is a passionate profession. I believe that a good salesperson is capable of talking passionately about the products they sell. There's an authenticity and confidence that you give to customers and users.

GP : I agree about the notion of passion. Personally, I didn't have a precise idea of what I wanted to do.  

My advice is to identify what you absolutely don't want to do. Then you end up with a huge number of things you could do. If you want to work in wine, you mustn't get discouraged as soon as you don't find a work placement in the sector. 

You have to try to gradually move towards what you like. If you've ruled out law and medicine, you could go to a business school to work in wine. After that, a first experience in the luxury goods industry could lead you to Champagne.  

Before going for an interview, you need to find out all you can about the company. When you go for an interview in the wine industry, you need to know about the grape varieties used, for example. You need to have an idea of where you're going before you introduce yourself.  

I'd also advise you to be honest. When you're a young graduate, you can't introduce yourself by saying that you know how to do everything. You have to admit that you don't have much experience.