In his three decades with The Wasserstrom Co., John Sweeney has created a solid reputation in the industry as a traditional sales rep with street sales skills.
"I've only had two jobs. I worked at a seafood restaurant while in school, before joining Wasserstrom as a sales person," Sweeney says.
Though the company is known for working with chain operators, Sweeney's customers are mostly independent restaurants, hotels and country clubs. "I tell people that I get to run around the city visiting my friends and taking their orders," he says.
In addition to his tabletop expertise, Sweeney's known for delivering solid value for both his company and customers. He spoke with FE&S about his long career, changes in the industry and what it takes to be a successful DSR.
FE&S: You've been in the industry for 30 years, all with the same company. What keeps you coming back?
JS: We have progressed a great deal over the years. In the past, we produced hand-written orders, dropped them at the office and wrote out invoices by hand. Now I'm in the office about two hours a week for sales meetings. I work out of my home with only a laptop and printer/scanner/copier. It is nice being self reliant. The only downside is not meeting everyone face to face. There are people I've communicated with on a daily basis for years that I haven't met in person.
FE&S: How do you consistently deliver value for the customer and company?
JS: Providing value is ongoing and a daily endeavor. This is especially true on the customer side, since I deal with a lot of independent operators, hotels and country clubs. My customers are looking for help and advice. I explain to them that only their mother should eat at their restaurants for free, because this is what they need to hear. Nothing comes in the back door without a price. Foodservice is a nickel-and-dime business.
FE&S: What is the most important aspect of earning a foodservice operator's trust?
JS: It is important to never lie, no matter the situation. If you don't know the answer, be honest and tell the customer you'll find the information they want. It's also important to both follow up and follow through. I recently had a situation where a customer was out of latex gloves, which were a must-have for the weekend. I went to the warehouse and pulled every latex glove backorder we had. My customers trust me to do the right thing.
FE&S: What do you like most about helping customers develop a tabletop?
JS: I love putting tabletops together. I've won two FE&S tabletop awards in the past. I enjoy working with owners, managers and whoever is in charge to put concepts together. It's fun working with different shapes and sizes.
FE&S: How have tabletops evolved since you've been in the business?
JS: Tabletops have evolved tremendously. Many upscale customers seek a different look when it comes to tabletops. These foodservice operators are not concerned with price as much as appearance. They will spend twice as much to get the color or look that they want. Their goal is to set themselves apart without spending a fortune. DSRs need to be in tune with what customers are looking for in this regard.
FE&S: How has the DSR's relationship with its customers evolved since you first started?
JS: Although relationships have changed over the years, when you really break it down, they haven't changed that much. Today's customers want instant answers and expect us to be available. I make it clear that I will not answer my cellphone when I'm in front of a customer, but will return all calls as soon as possible. Still, today's operators expect to get answers quickly.
FE&S: What is the most important thing to keep in mind as a DSR working in a down economy?
JS: It is important to remember that every order is a good order. Also, it may be necessary to take business from someone else or look for opportunities outside of your categories. For instance, I've been having success with furniture orders this year. It's important to look at where customers are spending their money and be smart about working with them. It may be necessary to partner with a factory rep or someone with expertise in a new category, for example.
FE&S: What advice would you give to someone just entering the foodservice industry?
JS: New DSRs should read as many catalogs as possible. Even today, I still pay attention to all of the product catalogs. It's important to have good product knowledge, and there is no shortcut. It's about putting in the time.