If you and I were having coffee, how would you answer that question? At first, it may seem like a pretty easy and innocent question. But once you realize that your answer can mean the difference between winning or losing a customer, then formulating a response becomes more complex.

Joseph M. Carbonara, Editor in Chief
Joseph M. Carbonara, Editor in Chief

Most foodservice professionals would frame their answer around product quality, production methods, sourcing of inventory and the like. While interesting to note and undoubtedly a source of pride for the company’s management and employees, are these the attributes on which customers will base their decisions? Probably not.

That’s because most customers today are benefit-oriented. In other words, they want to know what’s in it for them if they do business with your company. This applies to every company within the foodservice industry –manufacturers, dealers, consultants, operators and even service agents all must define the benefits they will deliver to their customers.

Most customers assume that your products and services meet their quality criteria. If that were not the case, chances are you would not even be in the conversation with them. So what you have to do to get not the first order but the second, third and fourth orders from customers is outline for them what makes your products truly different from those of your competitors. And, most importantly, you have to be able to describe how those features will meet their needs.

As Jim Sukenik points out in his article, “Ten Elements of Any Smart Kitchen” (page 7), eating out is not a particularly unique practice, making it ever more important for operators to do what they can to attract that savvy customer by understanding what is important in the service, menu and experience. The same applies to equipment manufacturers and dealers. It is no longer enough to simply provide a piece of equipment that simply cooks or chills or cleans. To win the return business of the savvy operator, manufacturers must illustrate how their products lower energy consumption or increase productivity.

In other words you have to find relevant ways to continue to differentiate your company and its offerings in the eyes of the customer to drive sales and maintain margins. “If you are not meaningfully unique, you had better be cheap,” said Doug Hall of the Eureka Ranch, an Ohio-based innovation think tank. Hall made his comments during the NAFEM Annual Meeting and Management Workshop in February in Sonoma, Calif. “Benefit is what gets the customer excited.”

Being meaningfully unique means your organization continues to innovate, looking to package existing products and services or incorporate new ones to drive benefit and, subsequently, value for your customers. Doing so may require breaking down a few internal barriers. “Just because it is not something your company has done in the past does not mean it’s something you should not do today,” Hall said. “Adapt for your new customers and lead existing customers into new areas.”

And that can include emulating successful steps taken by competitors or even businesses from other industries. “We think it is wrong to look at other people’s papers, but we need to look at everything,” Hall said.

If your efforts focus more on what happens under your roof than on what’s important to your customer, chances are you will perpetuate a downward business spiral. Right now it’s easier to go back to your vendors to beat them up for better pricing. In light of the skittish economic climate, there’s a good chance you will get what you want in the short-term. But you can’t penny pinch your way to continued profitability forever.

So I will ask you once again: What makes your company great?