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EPISODE 167: Joel Kline Shares the Biggest Sales Opportunities That Occurred When Nestlé Took Over Selling Starbucks Products in Foodservice
JOEL’S FINAL TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “If you know your product and you know your customer and their needs you can really sell anything. I’ve been in coffee and food service for a long time but I’ve come to that realization that if you do your homework, you spend your time understanding what it is you’re selling and who you’re selling to that it’s transferable across multiple industries.”
Joel Kline is the VP of Sales at Nestlé Starbucks Coffee.
He’s the second Nestlé sales leader we’ve interviewed for the podcast. The first was Dominic Strada, sales leader for Nestlé Nutrition.
In 2018, Starbucks Sold Nestlé the Rights to Offer Its Coffee in Stores. Read more here.
Prior to coming over to Nestlé Starbucks Coffee, Joel held sales leadership positions in sales at Sysco, Sodexo and ARAMARK.
Find Joel on LinkedIn!
Joel Kline: I’ve been a Northern Virginia resident for 20 years, wife of 22 years, got a son that’s a senior in high school, a daughter that’s a freshman. Graduated from Providence College with a history degree and then moved onto the Culinary Institute of America where I got a Associate’s Degree in Culinary Arts. Competitive swimmer through college, do cross-fit now to keep busy and when I’ve got some free time I’ve got a 1973 El Dorado that I try and get out and cruise around Loudoun County.
Fred Diamond: Again, you’re the VP of Sales at Nestlé Starbucks Coffee. I’m going to guess that a lot of the people listening to the podcast are familiar with Nestlé and Starbucks. How does that work?
Joel Kline: In August, Nestlé acquired the Starbucks Food Service business as well as our consumer packaged goods business if you’re familiar with the coffee down the aisle in your grocery store. Nestlé has the right to distribute those products for Starbucks and brought over about 500 members of the team that have integrated into Nestlé .
Fred Diamond: I guess the first question everybody wants to know is how many cups of coffee do you drink a day.
Joel Kline: (Laughs) Usually two. I can do a few more before 10am, but after that I get the jitters so I try and keep it early.
Fred Diamond: You alluded to it a little bit, but tell us specifically what you sell today and tell us a little more about what excites you about that.
Joel Kline: With Starbucks within the food service division, it’s an amazing brand, everyone knows the brand and has a story. Typically I’m approached to find out where we can put a store in someone’s neighborhood. What we do in the food service business unit is place coffee where people live, work and play so within college, university, healthcare, military, business dining, anywhere that there’s coffee outside of our stores.
Prior to the Nestlé acquisition, we were also responsible for the license store franchise business, so you might see that in airports, grocery stores and in some of the same channels that I’ve mentioned already within the food service business.
Fred Diamond: I’m going to guess most people are familiar with Starbucks Coffee. Are there other products as well that you’re responsible for?
Joel Kline: Yes, we sell a full portfolio of products beginning with the Starbucks Coffee, we also have Seattle’s Best Coffee, we have Torrefazione Italia Coffee which is a smaller brand that had a small retail footprint a few years ago, but that’s since gone away. We’ve also got the Teavana teas, syrups, sauces, everything that you would need to run a full espresso bar, a full coffee program is part of what we have as our program.
Fred Diamond: I’m going to guess our audience are sales leaders and people who want to become Sales Game Changers, so they probably drink a lot of coffee. What can you tell us about the coffee industry that we may not know? How do people decide again, not going into a Starbucks store but when they’re going down the aisles of the supermarket or online, what are some things that they decide upon to make their brand choice?
Joel Kline: A lot of it is what you’re familiar with, so with anything. Strong brands there’s loyalty so you’re going to choose that first. As you get into the grocery aisle, there’s a lot to do with pricing so you’ll see a lot of promotions and discounts that drive some of the behavior but primarily it’s a loyalty to the brand and what people are familiar with.
Fred Diamond: How did you first get into sales as a career?
Joel Kline: Started out after my Culinary Institute education in the restaurants, moved into Sodexo and ARAMARK for a little bit better work-life balance. That was a Monday through Friday role whereas the restaurant was the opposite schedule of my wife and we had just gotten married. Did the back of the house in the kitchens for a little bit, moved into some managerial roles but was looking to get into something a little bit different to utilize the skills I had and an opportunity came along with Sysco Baltimore and that was my first step into sales. Again, able to use my education and my early experience in the food service business to translate over to a sales career.
Fred Diamond: Do you still enjoy cooking?
Joel Kline: I do, I had a gap where I was burnt out a little bit and then over the last few years started to do a little bit more meal prep for the week for the family and for the kids, and starting to enjoy that with a little bit more free time.
Fred Diamond: What are your go-to things that you cook?
Joel Kline: Some of the basics, always some chicken, some steaks, when we get creative we’ll try a new recipe with some seafood and get out on the grill when the weather’s nice. Looking forward to the spring arriving here shortly.
Fred Diamond: You made that shift and you moved into sales. What were some of the key lessons you learned from some of your first few sales jobs?
Joel Kline: I think the competitive nature of sales, having been an athlete growing up and a competitive swimmer I have that competitive side and getting into sales seeing how you can form a career and still feed that hunger to compete. Early on that was what drew me in and I think that’s kept me going, the competitive piece, the team piece. As I’ve grown in my career I’ve been able to build teams and work with groups that balance out those two sides of what’s got me interested.
Fred Diamond: You mentioned before that Nestlé had purchased the Starbucks brand for the product lines in stores and things like that. Just curiously, how does it change for you selling for a Nestlé versus selling for Starbucks? Did you work for Starbucks the company for a large part as well?
Joel Kline: Yes, about 16 years with Starbucks in similar roles. As we’ve moved over to Nestlé, the core of what we do has not changed so we’re working with the same customers selling essentially the same products. What Nestlé brings is a company that is familiar with what we do, Starbucks was a retail company with 30 thousand stores, food service was a small piece of that company which certainly had its benefits. We could fly under the radar at times but now that we’re with Nestlé they are a food service CPG company, understand what we do and as we look ahead I think they’ll be able to provide the resources and support that we need to grow. Not only in the US, but the opportunity is globally as we had not expanded food service beyond North America and a little bit in Great Britain.
Fred Diamond: I’m just curious again, how has e-commerce played into what you’re doing as well? A lot of people are now going online for almost everything. You mentioned that you had sold in the stores and you want to be on aisles and pricing and packaging and things like that, but what role does e-commerce play right now in you as a sales leader?
Joel Kline: From a Starbucks brand perspective, the digital app is such a big part of our experience. This morning I was at the store, there were more people waiting to pick up the orders they had ordered online on their app than had actually ordered in the store. That translates as you look at our business that it’s a brand expectation that customers are familiar with.
We have a website now on the food service side that customers can understand the latest promotions, products, order and something we’re looking to evolve, that’s the next step of what we’re doing. From the CPG business it’s definitely a big piece of that business and it’s an evolving, shifting piece where Amazon is starting to play a bigger role in our business and I think in everybody’s lives.
Fred Diamond: As a sales leader though, how has that impacted you? How do you change your sales process? Do you spend more attention in other places where you’ve done for the 16 years you worked at Starbucks?
Joel Kline: It hasn’t had as big a role in our business up till now. As we look to the future we see it having a bigger piece as more interactive, more customized marketing where we can reach out and again, promotions that are specific to a certain segment of our business, certain products. That’s where we see things going but from a food service perspective I think in general the industry is a little bit behind.
Fred Diamond: Tell us about yourself, tell us what you’re an expert in. Tell us about your specific area of brilliance.
Joel Kline: I would say organization may not be the right word for it, but years ago had the opportunity to take a Getting Things Done seminar, and I went in to take this. I was testing it to see if it was something we wanted to introduce to the broader organization. We ended up not moving forward with it, but I had the opportunity to sit through the course for the day and took some things from that that I’ve carried forward. The basics of: you get an email, what can you do with it in a minute? If you can respond to it, respond, if not you file it away in a place that you know you’ll get back to.
If you’re familiar with Getting Things Done, it’s the basic pieces that I’ve pulled from it but what I found, I don’t consider myself the best salesperson or the best anything along those lines, but what I have excelled in is responsiveness. Getting back to whether it’s a customer, whether it’s someone on my team, somebody that needs something, I feel that’s sort of been my superpower where I get responses to this day appreciating my quick response. I look at it as, “It’s a customer, why wouldn’t I be responding quickly?” I feel that’s probably been the one area where I’ve differentiated myself and I would say secondly would be team building. I had the opportunity through the years, it seems like every two to three years our organization would make some sort of a change to shift in how we go to market or to the teams and businesses that we cover.
Through that some experience in whether it’s taking different teams and bringing them together into a new team, recruiting from the outside and bringing in new talent or just developing the teams that I’ve gotten and growing them to move forward in their career. I feel like I had a good experience in that.
Fred Diamond: We have Sales Game Changers listening to the podcast all around the globe. Let’s talk about responsiveness for a second because that’s one that hasn’t come up all that frequently. What would be your advice? Do you respond via text, do you respond at 11 o’clock at night, do you call people at midnight? What should you tell the people listening to the podcast, what should they be doing to be more responsive and how has it really helped you in your career?
Joel Kline: The email organization piece that I mentioned. If I finish the day with more than 25 messages in my inbox, not new messages in unread but actual messages, that’s to me a point where I need to do some organization and some work. What that allows me to do is a customer emails me, I see it, I respond whether I pass that onto my team for follow up, whether I follow up. It’s getting on a phone call and having someone say, “I sent you an email an hour ago, you probably haven’t seen it” I can say, “Actually, I saw it” and I’m able to talk to what is top of mind for them and respond accordingly. I think it’s really about just having the ability to be in the moment and current with what’s going on in the world around you and responding. I would say try to keep it during business hours but I know whether it’s someone on my team or a customer, if they work late hours, if they prefer text I fall into line with the communication style they are most comfortable with.
Fred Diamond: I’m always intrigued by who people talk to first, so whose call do you take first? Is it your boss, is it someone who works for you, is it a customer? I’m always curious what VP’s of Sales say to that question.
Joel Kline: I would say whether it’s my team or my boss, I would take those calls without hesitation. If there’s a customer calling I may wait to see what the message is and make sure that if I need to follow up with the team and get a little bit more information on why they’re calling me, is there something else I need to know to be prepared for the conversation? That’s probably how I approach it.
Fred Diamond: You’ve worked for Starbucks and now Nestlé Starbucks, you’re the VP of Sales for Nestlé Starbucks Coffee, you must have had some great mentors over the course of your career. Why don’t you tell us about an impactful sales career mentor and how they impacted your career?
Joel Kline: I’ll start with not necessarily a sales mentor but someone who’s had an impact on me. It was actually my high school swim coach, we had 10 state championships in a row that I was fortunate to be a part of two of them. Our coach, Jeff Johnson – he actually recently passed away – had this ability to convince us that even though we knew going in we were going to easily beat another team, he had this ability to convince us that the other team could show up and beat us. Not to overestimate the competition, not to look past what’s in front of you. Also, on the flip side where we would go up against competition that we would come in thinking maybe we didn’t have a chance he also had that ability to level set on the other side of things to say, “Believe in yourself. You’ve worked hard, you should be able to do what we’ve set out to do and win.”
That set the foundation for me in establishing that sense of urgency around competition, don’t get too complacent, that you can always lose no matter who you are and who you’re going up against. That’s foundational for me.
I would say beyond that, John Culver who is still at Starbucks, oversees the global channel development business and then our Asia Pacific business. When I started at Starbucks, he was in my role as the VP of Sales, learned from him to be accessible. Whether it was to the customers or to the team, he always made time when he was out in the market to pull together the local team for a round table, have some question and answer sessions and then similar with customers. Someone that found the time to make sure as needed he was available to have conversations with the key customers and spend the right time.
Then I would say my current manager, what I’ve learned from him, Heath Nielsen is take risks, don’t overthink things. We can get into a place where you think things to death over a period of time and don’t make a decision and I think there’s a time and place where you just say, “Let’s give something a try and see what happens.” I think we’re fortunate in our business, we sometimes say, “It’s just coffee, so what could go wrong? Let’s give something a try.”
Fred Diamond: What might an example of a risk be that you’d be guiding your team to do?
Joel Kline: I think whether it’s in deal making, something we haven’t done before and it seems like it’s the appropriate decision to make, let’s go for it. Let’s make sure we have the right checks and balances in place but again, let’s not overthink it, let’s put it on the table and see what happens. With Starbucks there’s a strong focus on the brand and protecting the brand, so there’s times where we have to say, “Is there a risk we want to take with the brand that we haven’t taken before? Is there a customer, a channel, an opportunity?” At some point we’ve got to think outside the box and evolve and innovate, so decisions there might be of a risk nature.
Fred Diamond: That’s interesting because you’re in a very competitive space, you’re also in a space that’s moving so quickly and of course there’s global expansion, organic and all these new things are popping up. The whole level of distribution in your industry has completely changed so things are coming up new every day.
Joel Kline: Yes, it’s definitely a big transition in the coffee industry. What we’re in today is referred to as the “third wave”. If you think originally coffee up through the 70’s, even the 80’s was the big Maxwell House, Folgers, the brands that you’d think of today is maybe not the premium brands. Starbucks came along and created a whole new coffee culture within the US and then globally with the cafe culture, cappuccino, espresso, things that were not common before Starbucks came along.
Now today you’ve got these third wave smaller local roasters that are setting up shop and drawing in a new audience looking for something more customized, more hand crafted, not different from the beer industry. I look at the big brewers up through the 70’s and 80’s, you’ve got Sam Adams that came along and started the craft movement and now everywhere you go there’s breweries popping up. I think Sam Adams is now looking to maintain relevance and figure out how they stay ahead of the curve. I feel like Starbucks is starting to get to that stage where we’ve got to think how do we change the game a little bit and stay relevant.
Fred Diamond: What is it like, for the Sales Game Changers listening on the podcast, to represent such a big brand? Does it give you such a big advantage, is it harder for some reasons that we may not be aware of? What do you think?
Joel Kline: Probably a little bit of both. Everybody knows Starbucks, knows the brand, knows what experience they’re used to having in the store so that sets you up for success to a certain extent. Within our food service business what we like to say is we’re creating a program within a larger venue, so a location on a college campus that serves coffee, that’s where we’re fitting into versus placing a full store. The expectations that come with that customer experience need to be met but in a slightly different program.
Where it plays against us, sustainability is a big initiative within coffee and it’s difficult at times for customers to believe that a company the size of Starbucks can be doing the things that a small company may say that they’re doing. The small local roasters that I mentioned, they’re travelling to the origin countries meeting with the farmers sourcing coffee directly from those farmers. Starbucks does that as well, I’ve had the opportunity to travel to Costa Rica beyond the coffee farms, meet the farmers, understand how coffee is grown and the impact on the farmers through the purchasing practices of a company like Starbucks.
But again, when you’re in front of a group of college students that are adamant that the big corporate giant like Starbucks couldn’t possibly be thinking about that small individual farmer it becomes a challenge. When we have the opportunity to tell the story, it’s a good story.
Fred Diamond: You guys invented a lot of that stuff.
Joel Kline: Yes, right.
Fred Diamond: Joel, what are the two biggest challenges you face today as a sales leader?
Joel Kline: I touched on one already, the competition piece. As the landscape has changed within the coffee industry and food service in general as it evolves, technology as we talked about earlier, all of those pieces just make it more competitive and it makes it easier for a smaller startup to pop in when the technology piece, the awareness of the brands, that’s first. The second one I would say is probably not dissimilar from anyone else is finding good talent. We’re fortunate that our tenure is very strong, we don’t have a lot of turnover but when we do, we find that our business is a little bit unique within the food service industry so it’s identifying that right skill set that fits from both a cultural standpoint and then having the skills that we need.
We have a couple of roles that we’re successful in sourcing directly when we were a part of Starbucks. You’ve got store managers in our stores that could move into an entry level role in food service and then grow from there, and that’s still there but we don’t have the direct link so it’s a little bit more of a challenge to do that. On the flip side, being a part of Nestlé there’s great talent within the company and the other divisions and we’ve already had some success with a few folks coming over and joining the Starbucks team.
Fred Diamond: Just curiously, what’s the most fun part of your job? What’s the thing that gives you the most joy? It’s a question I don’t usually ask, I’m just curious.
Joel Kline: It’s a great brand, I’ve got a great team and I enjoy working with the people that I’ve got around me. It’s fun to go out and again, talk about a brand like Starbucks, everybody knows it and you can have a conversation about it. Back to the experience that people have, everybody has been to a Starbucks and has a story to tell and it’s a great way to start off a conversation whether it’s around business or just socially and that keeps it exciting.
Fred Diamond: Joel, why don’t you take us back to the #1 specific sale success or win from your career you’re most proud of?
Joel Kline: When I started with Starbucks I was within the food service unit and then about 8 years ago we pulled together our food service team, our office coffee team and our license store sales team into one to create more of a one face to the customer model. Licensing, franchising being new to me, I had a fair amount to learn. I was in the leadership role at that point and had picked up members of the team that had done license stores and I was handed the agreement for Universal Studios that needed to be renewed. Went into that with certainly knowledge of selling, relationships and all those pieces but 70, 80 page licensing franchise agreement that I needed to understand and then negotiate to renew for another 10 year term. I found getting your hands dirty, rolling up your sleeves is the best way to learn and through that process learned quite a bit.
Stops and starts along the way where I had been down a path and the leader at the time that was coaching me through this process redirected me to the point where we had a final agreement agreed upon and we were having to fax over a couple of pages that needed to be changed. It set a great foundation for the next 7 years in running that business on the east coast. I knew that agreement inside and out, I knew where the pitfalls were of the negotiations and in the end was able to increase the terms and add stores to the portfolio.
Fred Diamond: Did you ever question being in sales? Did you ever think to yourself, “Joel, it’s too hard, it’s just not for me”?
Joel Kline: I would say with probably any career, one that you can 24 hours a day, is always going on if you want it to be it’s certainly appealing to think that if I had a job that I could leave at the office and come home and not have to worry about it. But for the most part, it’s something I enjoy as I mentioned earlier. The competitive nature keeps me going, keeps me hungry, again the team aspect and the people that I have around me keep me excited. Certainly there’s times when you’re down and you think maybe something else would be nice, but generally I’m pretty happy with the path I’m on.
Fred Diamond: Joel, what’s the most important thing you want to get across to the selling professionals listening around the globe to help them take their careers to the next level?
Joel Kline: First I would say listen. So often we sit down in front of a customer and tell our story, tell about our products, tell about everything else but don’t take the opportunity to listen to their needs. It’s one of the basics of selling and any course you take, that’s what they’re going to tell you to do. Again, with experienced and non-experienced salespeople you’ll see that all the time where they don’t take that moment to understand what the customer needs, what the customer wants.
Beyond that, I would say believe in what you sell, you don’t always have that opportunity maybe but I think if you can really find a product or something you believe in and have that passion for it, it certainly makes it easier to do what you do. Work for someone that you like – again, not something you always get to choose but as I think back through my career I’ve been fortunate with the leaders that I’ve had. If you’ve got someone you like working with that support you that works towards your development, it’s going to make things go a lot more smooth.
Fred Diamond: The concept of listening comes up not infrequently from the people we interview on the Sales Game Changers podcast. When you’re younger in your career you have an opportunity to talk to somebody so you just want to spew out all the features and benefits. Give us a tip on how you physically listen better. What are some things you do or you’ve learned over the years to make you a better listener? I agree with you 100%, but tell us what you do.
Joel Kline: I think it’s as simple as just having those couple of questions to get somebody talking. Everybody loves to talk about themselves and talk about what they do and whether you find that common piece outside of work that you have in common and get the conversation and steer towards the business at hand or just again have those key questions that you know are going to get things going. At Starbucks we try to start every meeting with a coffee tasting so you have that opportunity to get the conversation going, enjoy a cup of coffee talk about something that’s outside of the specifics that you’re there to address but then that plants the seed and it’s the ice-breaker for the conversation.
Fred Diamond: What are some of the habits that you have that you’ve incorporated into your sales process that have helped you be successful?
Joel Kline: I would say set the pace. Customers are going to want something as quick as possible and push you to get there, and there’s times where there’s a short turnaround and you’ve got to get things done. What I always work with my team on is don’t feel pressured to have to follow that pace, take a step back, let the customer know we can move fast but we go out of our process and then things fall apart. If you let us follow our process and our pace and awareness to their needs and the timing, the result usually ends up in a good place. I find more often than not that I’m pulling back the reigns and saying, “I know they need it tomorrow. If we deliver it tomorrow, it’s going to be wrong. Let’s talk to them and just have an open, honest conversation to say ‘we’re going to get you the solution you want but if you force us to do it quickly it’s going to fall apart'”.
Fred Diamond: What’s a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success?
Joel Kline: We’re 7-8 months into the integration within Nestlé so there’s a lot of work. Fortunately we brought everyone over, Nestlé took good care of us, Starbucks took good care of us so the team is in a good place. We’ve got technology, systems, some of the different things that have to be addressed when you take two companies and put them together. That’s the key piece, my focus is heavy on the IT side so working with the Nestlé IT teams to figure out how we get out of the Starbucks systems into the Nestlé systems and lay the foundation for success going forward.
Fred Diamond: Joel, sales is hard, people don’t return your phone calls or your emails. Again, you just left from one company to another and there’s been a lot of continuity like you’ve talked about. Why have you continued? What is it about sales as a career that has kept you going?
Joel Kline: I think it’s the competitive nature. There’s always a battle to be won, something to make you feel good about and times where you don’t win you want to get back up and do it again. Again, I’m fortunate to be surrounded by a great team of people, great leaders and it keeps me going every day.
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you give us a final thought to inspire our listeners today?
Joel Kline: I would say I found within selling if you know your product and you know your customer and their needs you can really sell anything. I’ve been in coffee and food service for a long time but I’ve come to that realization that if you do your homework, you spend your time understanding what it is you’re selling and who you’re selling to that it’s transferable across multiple industries. As you’re starting out I think you’ve got to figure out what you’re passionate about, take some risks, move around and find what you really enjoy doing and a product that you’re passionate about selling and being a part of and go with it.
Fred Diamond: I’ve just got one more follow-up question. Again, you sell a big brand, most people are familiar with Starbucks, most people want to go somewhere to buy Starbucks. You see them all over the place in stores, etcetera so your customer is probably already selling Starbucks. What are some things you’re trying to achieve? Get them to sell more, new products, what are some things that you do as a sales leader with an established brand like that?
Joel Kline: A lot of our growth comes from our base business so we’re certainly bringing on new customers but there’s a lot of effort to grow the base. What we’re looking to do is help them increase their sales and their profitability. Whether it’s adding new products, whether it’s training so that we’re making them more efficient so they can sell more beverages during their peak times, anything we can do to set them up for success. They see our stores and they know what products are available and they have customers that say, “I want that” so we’ve got to make sure they have what they need to be successful and meet the customer needs. That’s really what it’s all about.