Bingo for Social Innovation
ChangeOrder 2010 Summer Bookshelf

The Glass Is Always Empty

Sake Glasses

Last Saturday, I was talking with Keith, the export representative for a sake brewery in Nagoya. His day-to-day life sounded like a dream job for anyone who enjoys chatting with people and world travel. He's constantly flying from city to city, often internationally through Europe and Canada, presenting and pouring the range of high-end sakes that his brewery crafts every winter.

While he explained the flavor nuances between a junmai sake and a non-junmai sake—where the rice utilized in making the sake had its husk and 50% of its kernel polished off in the pre-fermentation process—I asked him how his job performance is measured. Does he have a sales quota? Or is there some kind of softer metric for his success for his company?

"I'm not measured on having to sell bottles of sake. It's my job to encourage people like you to come out and try sake." He held up one of the sake bar's glasses, which are traditionally made of white porcelain with blue concentric rings in the center to aid the human eye in assessing the color of the wine. "Sake is like a river that flows through Japanese culture. It could be considered holy. When a baby is born, she is brought to a Shinto shrine in her first few weeks of life to be blessed, and her lips are wet with sake. When a person dies and is buried in the Buddhist tradition, sake is poured in a glass at their grave in tribute."

"I don't imagine that would happen with beer," I said, visualizing Arlington Cemetery with a series of Miller LIte six-packs littering the otherwise pristine green grass and pure white grave markers.

"So, my job isn't to sell my employer's sake. It's to build relationships around sake." He pointed to my hand, which was clutching about 2 oz. of his employer's (admittedly) delightful junmai sake. "My traveling and holding tastings is going to encourage more people to start drinking sake. It's to encourage more people to show up with one of these sake glasses and ask for a pour. It would be foolish if I was focusing just on selling bottles, and not in the best interest of my employer."

For emphasis, he pointed to the bar's special glasses again. "If you sell someone a bottle, they will drink the bottle. But if you sell them a glass, they will always need to refill the glass."

He leaned over, his eyes twinkling behind square-rimmed, elegant Japanese glasses. "And the glass is always empty. It always needs to be filled."

Are you selling your clients yet another of these proverbial bottles of sake?

Or are they holding up the glass they've acquired from you, expecting a refill?


Carolyn Wood

Lovely story nicely connected to our work. Thanks, David, for writing this.


Wonderful story. At a slightly pessimistic guess, I'd say I was a bottle salesman needing to figure out the glass bit.

Definite food (drink?) for thought - thanks for the insight.

Danny Hotea

Beautiful. Rich with implications.

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