As we evolve our businesses, many of us look for ways to diversify and become more profitable. This may mean adding additional services to broaden our exposure to our clients.

In earlier days, in order to become more diverse a consultancy might have added management advisory, menu design or other services to its basic design offerings. To the same end, factories added new products, reps took on additional lines and dealers expanded their product offerings. That was the natural flow of business.

Things, however, have changed. Whether it is because of economic trends or simply a need to survive, some of our industry's players have crossed over onto each other's turf. Today, we see some consulting firms selling equipment, manufacturers' representatives marketing directly to architects and dealers designing and bidding projects. When we decide to change our identities to include parts of others' roles we create an adverse effect on the industry in general. Complications arising from these role mutations alter how we conduct our individual businesses, creating a domino effect as more firms jump on the bandwagon. Partnership among manufacturers, reps, consultants and dealers is no longer the standard. Instead, businesses are finding that their traditional competitors might now include their own customers or the reps who are supposed to call on them. What's becoming obvious to consultants and, I hazard to guess, all other professionals in foodservice E&S is that we are all being forced to work ever harder for a smaller piece of the pie.

Given today's muddied waters, foodservice associations, such as FCSI, MAFSI, NAFEM and others, are constantly looking for ways to foresee the future and help their members jump ahead and beat the competition. The problem is that competition is no longer clearly defined. As a consultant, then, should I spend less time serving my clients and more time adapting to the new roles we each play? This would mean determining which manufacturers' reps are designing projects for clients, thereby providing direct competition to my services, and whether they are charging a fee. It would mean educating my clients to the detrimental effects of rep-designed projects, in addition to making them aware of the clear conflict of interest these projects present.

Understandably, manufacturers select representatives to sell their products in a marketplace increasingly teeming with competition from both at home and abroad.

Steps taken to increase manufacturers' profit margins most often include increasing the number of sales channels. However, I wonder if this is actually increasing profits or are they falling? Another issue is posed by dealer buying groups. As a consultant, I can no longer see their worth and often wonder if they are not actually hurting my clients, the "end-users." A popular step taken by some manufacturers is value engineering. This serves to make products cheaper but almost never more valuable. Truthfully, however, what else can factories do? Perhaps if manufacturers insisted on receiving service from dealer buying groups, the current landscape might change and buying groups might become more beneficial to their dealer-members, manufacturers and, ultimately, my clients.

Whether it is because of economic trends or simply a need to survive, some of our industry's players have crossed over onto each other's turf.

Another of my concerns is that dealers and broadliners now give the impression of being hesitant to train sales personnel. This is possibly due to employee turnover, since being a dealer salesperson seems to be a natural stepping-stone to manufacturers' rep positions. Buying groups seem to offer their dealers the same programs regardless of annual sales, company stability and marketing habits, which also discourages investment in sales training. Further, because of low margins and small staffs, many dealers are starting to opt out of public bid work. Thus, our clients are presented with fewer product choices depending on the buying group membership of a diminishing number of bidding dealers.

I am unsure if consultants selling equipment is a new or an increasing trend. It is not one, however, with which I feel comfortable. Maybe it is a lack of imagination on my part, but I do not see how I could offer my clients an unbiased design package if I am distracted by the details of equipment marketing. Although foodservice consultants vary from niche design to creating projects for widely diversified client bases, what should unite all of us is the unvarying need to serve the goals of our clients.

Numerous consulting firms operate with high ethics coupled to a true talent for design and planning. I justly admire these companies. Their clients depend on them for guidance and support and seem never to be disappointed. There are, likewise, dealers who make it such a point to maintain a consultant's vision for a project that they virtually become an extension of the design. These dealers are protective of a design's outcome, the client's satisfaction and their bottom line, all at the same time. Consultants are relieved when such dealers are awarded one of their projects.

I also know manufacturers' representatives who are knowledgeable about the design/specification process and are careful to recommend only those of their products that will perform well enough to meet or exceed the criteria of their consultant customers. These reps are also held in high regard within the industry because of their integrity, service and follow-up.

On the manufacturing side, there are many E&S makers who continually come up with creative solutions to the challenges faced by consultants, dealers and, ultimately, end-users. These factories expend their time, energy and money to improve their products constantly and the ways they are offered. These are the manufacturers we look to first when specifying equipment.

The bottom line is that there are still a lot of companies doing it the right way. They have evolved to fit the times and strive to do their jobs smarter and better, not just easier.

Since this is my viewpoint as a consultant, I am allowing myself the extravagance of wishful thinking. It seems to me that we are all rushing ahead in a "lock and load" posture, readying ourselves for a more competitive future. Is it possible that commitments to true partnerships have become merely sales slogans or do we still have the courage to consider that progress is not all it is cut out to be and just maybe the good ol' days were indeed better?