J.D. Walker: Back to the Basics for Sales Force Transformation

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Transforming and leading a sales organization require a set of leadership capabilities, skills and characteristics rarely found in one individual. J.D. Walker, Executive Vice President of the Branded Garden Business at Central Garden & Pet Company, has participated in a number of transformations. And along the way, he’s learned vital lessons about how to make and sustain authentic change that’s good for business, and he’s developed into an executive with the capability to transform and lead a sales organization effectively.

Born and raised in Kentucky and educated at the University of Louisville, J.D. later studied management through an executive program at Harvard. Over a three-plus decade career in the consumer packaged goods industry, he has traveled far and wide and worked with people from around the world. Yet, when asked about sales force transformation, he’s quick to cite his blue-collar roots, a strong work ethic honed while working at his family’s business when he was young, and the basics of how a sales organization defines itself and communicates with its customers and employees.

Listen to the customer

J.D.’s father, an independent businessman, taught him one of the most important lessons about sales and sales management: Pay attention to the customer. Nothing fancy, nothing to overthink. Simply pay attention. Listen to what they say. Look at your own strategies through the lens of the customer, and then craft a message that your customers and employees will understand. As basic as that sounds, it’s surprising how often it gets forgotten.

One sales force transformation in which J.D. was involved launched after company leaders realized that the organization had begun paying too much attention to its own brand and not enough to what its customers wanted. The transformation initiative involved a number of challenges, including a few internal hurdles: Many of the employees relished the fact that the organization was transforming back to what it had been. But others, who had come to the company more recently, felt let down. After all, they’d signed up to create a marketing-driven organization. Some of those people were transitioned to marketing roles elsewhere in the company. There were also a number of legacy employees who returned to their previous roles where, once again, they felt that they were creating value. And so did their customers – eventually.

J.D. and the sales team went to their customers and said, “We got away from what made us successful. Now we want to work with you to drive customers to your stores.” According to J.D., customers were understandably skeptical at first. “We had to work our butts off to be better than the competition. Now we’re getting to be the first call again.”

Protect your sales force

As a sales executive, J.D. expects the sales team to deal with customers on a day-to-day basis. But when it’s time for a difficult conversation, he steps in and has the talk with the customer, often shielding the salespeople from pushback. In a prior business transformation that covered the sales, marketing, and supply chain organizations, he recalled, “we had service issues. We couldn’t ship on time, and it caused great angst among retailers.” The salespeople were “taking grief” for the problems. But it wasn’t their fault. J.D. spent a lot of time in front of customers, explaining what was going on, talking about the company’s “get well plan” and taking the heat off the salespeople. Not only did the customers appreciate his approach, but the sales team did, as well.

Develop your sales force

Salespeople who are worth protecting are worth investing in. With that in mind, J.D. has helped to mentor and develop many of his team members over the past twenty years. Most recently, Central sent one promising team member to Emory University where he earned an executive MBA at night. The company has also launched an internal MBA program to develop the next generation of sales leaders who cannot only sell and motivate others to sell, but who are also adept at one-on-one coaching, listening and critical problem solving – all of which are key to a customer-centric sales organization.

Communicate

Despite the requisite communication skills being pretty basic, a sales career isn’t for everyone, warns J.D. “Communication is one of my pet peeves with the millennials,” he admits. “If critical problem solving and being goal oriented are in your DNA, you’d make a good salesperson.” A decidedly un-millennial recommendation he makes to new salespeople is to have direct communication with their audience, “preferably face-to-face,” he says. “Email and texting make face-to-face relationship-building a lost art.” Salespeople should want a seat at the table when customers are talking about important matters.

Coming up in consumer packaged goods sales, J.D. sometimes felt disconnected, he says. “I couldn’t understand how my contributions were tied to the overall cause.” Again, the answer is pretty simple. He’d learned it all those years ago working at his family’s business: Communicate. Show appreciation to people who contribute.

There’s no magic in J.D. Walker’s approach to sales basics. A lot of time and energy go into building relationships that earn trust. Sales and sales force transformations are essentially about relationships. “Relationships,” says J.D. Walker, “will get you a seat at the table.”

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