I've always maintained that if a manufacturers' representative, either independent or factory based, does not call on me, then I can safely assume they will not assist my firm in taking care of our clients for any issue or potential problem that may happen once a piece of equipment is installed. This is still a relationship-based business, and we have built relationships with the reps to the point that the good ones know the type and quality of equipment we look for and will work with us as we design projects and specify equipment.
The vast majority of manufacturers' reps are honest about their equipment, what it will do and will not do and they know what we want from specific pieces of equipment. In fact, some reps have even asked that we not specify their equipment on certain jobs. This may seem counterintuitive to some but these reps feel if the application is not right or the quality is not a good fit, they do not want their equipment on our project.
This reminds me of a statement my friend and fellow FCSI consultant Richard Dieli made in an FE&S article last year: "A good manufacturers' representative — factory or independent — will be honest when discussing the performance of a specific piece of foodservice equipment and whether it fits the application criteria. The representative knows that the foodservice operator's needs drive the specification."
In recent years, another guiding factor has entered the equipment selection equation: the relationship between the manufacturer and local rep. Specifically, we are looking at how the manufacturer treats its reps. In the past half-decade, our firm has witnessed a number of instances between the reps and the companies they represent that makes us wonder if some manufacturers take their relationships for granted with this very important part of their teams.
The natural concern we have is that if the manufacturer treats the rep poorly, how will they treat our customer when an issue arises? Some of these instances have even caused us to reexamine our own relationships with certain manufacturers.
One recent instance involved the manufacturer cutting the rep's commission in half as a poor attempt to entice them to sell more equipment. But we observed that the decision had a negative effect on the rep's customer service, as he had to take on more lines to recoup lost income and was consequently spread too thin. Due to increased sales targets the rep could not maintain the level of support we had come to expect.
Another example occurred with a local rep who had been working with a national chain for years. One day, without notice, the manufacturer's sales manager told the rep that the restaurant chain was now a house account and would be serviced solely by the factory. This is the thanks the rep got for putting in years of hard work and dedicated service to build up the account. This begs the question: Why should the local rep go out and work on building any chain accounts business when the manufacturer can walk in and just take over?
One day I called a local rep to ask if he had time to come by in the afternoon to go over a project and he promptly told me he could not because he had too many reports that had to be filled out for a manufacturer's sales manager. He said most of the weekly reports that he was required to complete had little to do with actually selling the manufacturer's product, and he felt like he was only providing numbers that would end up in a report that no one will ever read. Clearly, this was an instance where being busy does not necessarily mean someone is being productive.
Another time, a rep relayed a conversation he had with one of his manufacturer's sales managers on the topic of sales quotas and sales volume. The sales manager provided a chart detailing the number of units the rep should sell in each zip code. While this activity may look good on a sales report, it again underscores a lack of communication and even understanding of how sales reps best perform.
Most contracts between manufacturers have 30-day contracts with their reps; this is an accepted industry standard. We have seen cases, though, where manufacturers come into an area and give the local rep two or three days notice before they lose the line. This has occurred with reps that have been with the same manufacturer for 20 years who lose their lines almost overnight. Many times, we see these changes occur when a new sales manager unilaterally decides to replace the existing local sales reps with friends they've had at other firms.
When we see any of these types of situations arise, we naturally must question how the factory will treat our clients, the end user, the chef and/or the school foodservice director?
This is not to say that all manufacturers take their reps for granted. In fact, the vast majority of manufacturers work closely with and respect their reps. Most factories understand and appreciate the value the independent sales rep contributes to their success. We know and have worked with many wonderful manufacturers who have been great allies to our team. They have supported and backed us and our reps. I have seen some sales managers and owners bend over backwards to work with their reps to help their clients.
As I stated above, I strongly believe this is still a relationship-driven business. These relationships extend from manufacturers through their reps to the consultants, dealers and finally to the employees who actually use the equipment. As independent foodservice consultants, we need our clients to be successful and satisfied with the equipment we have specified. When the supply chain experiences a disruption, the chance of getting an unhappy customer increases, which is bad for everyone involved.
The face of the factory, in the majority of the cases, is the independent manufacturers' representative. We see the sales managers and other factory representatives periodically at industry events like The NAFEM Show and the National Restaurant Association's annual exhibition. But our day-to-day contact is almost always the local representative, who is ready to come when we need them or answer the phone late at night when we need assistance. They are the ones who willingly perform an extra equipment demo to make sure the client is using the equipment correctly. Not because they get any extra commission or sales but because it is our project and they want to make sure our client is satisfied with the results of our work.
During the design and review process, the rep can also help us make sure that we don't forget to add a needed accessory, or just as importantly, that we do not specify unnecessary items. The rep is there to represent their manufacturer to us, as an asset of and for the manufacturer. There must be trust and honesty between the manufacturers' rep and the consultant. And we believe there must be that trust and honesty between the manufacturers and the reps.
The Golden Rule applies so well here: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Yes, I understand business is business, but I also understand and know that we must be able to trust each other and treat each other with respect. Consultant, manufacturer, representative and dealer; we each play an important part in the supply chain that provides services and products to our foodservice industry clients. When specifying equipment, consultants must look at all the links and make sure they are working effectively together as one or we will start looking for new links to work with.