If there is one thing we don't have enough of in an industry suffused with manufacturing and distribution over-capacity, it is feedback from end-user operators on our products and services. Well, here's where FE&S can help. Reed Research Group and FE&S have just completed a study of some 400 operators in all 10 major commercial and noncommercial foodservice markets. Our goal was to find out how these operators get the information they need to make E&S purchasing decisions, how satisfied they are with their product-buying experiences and how dealers are seen to add value (or not).

Fielded in March and compiled in May, our Operator Purchasing Process study told us that 31% of the surveyed sample turn most often to dealer sales reps for pre-purchase information, compared to 13% who typically speak to reps and 10% who choose to do research on the internet. (Print advertising was consulted most frequently by 19% of respondents, 76% of whom considered ads to be their best source of product information.)

Although some 97% of the operators we sampled professed themselves to be somewhat or totally satisfied with the number of options (or channels) available currently for purchasing foodservice equipment, they also ranked price, product features and purchasing convenience as the three top factors influencing their buying decisions - all, notably, concerns that can be effectively and economically addressed by web sites and e-commerce.

Our survey elicited several responses that highlight the importance operators continue to put on dealer personnel's advice and services.

In fact, an impressive 31% of our operator sample confirmed that they had already purchased kitchen E&S on the internet (the figure was 60% among hotel respondents) and nearly 40% of surveyed operators said they would be more likely to buy more often from E&S dealers if they could do so online.

All of these findings should offer fresh inducement to the many dealers who have not yet fully developed their internet sites or extended their brands onto the web to move forward with the knowledge that growing numbers of end-users are looking to make web-based equipment purchases. However, our survey also elicited several responses that highlight the importance operators continue to put on dealer personnel's advice and services.

First of all, our respondents rated DSRs as providing positive purchasing experiences, listing them ahead of (respectively) manufacturers' reps, broadliners' reps, service agents and factories' customer-service staff. (Interestingly, internet customer service was ranked last in this category.) In addition to providing the highest overall satisfaction to operators looking to buy equipment, 85% of those who had made purchases on the 'net said that DSRs provided the best after-sale support. What's more, fully 49% of surveyed operators credited dealers with offering the best prices, compared with only 40% who felt they had bought best on the internet.

There was more significant news for dealers in the answers we received when we asked our operators to rank different post-sale services by order of importance.

Respondents cited the availability of replacement parts for newly purchased equipment as most critical, followed by speedy delivery, installation services and a simple returns policy. Our operators rated all of these support activities as critically important, indicating their readiness to do business with suppliers of these sorts of services.

Getting closer to your customers requires regular input from the field.

End-user-derived data can reveal emerging trends such as shifts in the ways customers go to market and highlight existing practices and programs that are perceived to add value. After all, the only thing worse than being unable to confirm your competitive strengths is not knowing anything your customers think about you at all.