Developing solid working relationships with each and every member of the supply chain can help foodservice design projects progress smoothly. In this article, consultant Sean King outlines five ways he uses reps to the advantage of his projects and foodservice operator clients.

Most of us can agree: the role of the manufacturers' rep has changed over the years, from pure sales rep to more of a liaison between manufacturer and consultant or operator. A manufacturers' rep has to be an educator, a trainer, a listener, a negotiator, and an overall supportive colleague. While there is no strict rule for how foodservice designers should work with reps, the more supportive you are of them, the more supportive they'll be for you.

"It really is a back and forth relationship," says Sean King, co-owner of Culinary Consulting & Design with his wife Leigh Craig in Knoxville, Tenn. King should know — he is a former Little Caesars Pizza franchisee and a manufacturers' rep for hot and cold side equipment. He points out five key things manufacturers' reps can do to help — and what foodservice designers can do to work with them more effectively.

1. Technical Data

"I look to my local reps when I need technical information quickly," says King, who consults on both design and business operations for chain restaurants, schools, prisons and more. "Architects are always throwing something at me last minute so having a good rep to help is very important."

These days, King finds that the more successful reps have their own websites, easier access to cut sheets and other technical data so foodservice designers and MAS consultants don't have to track the actual rep down. This also comes in handy when writing very technical spec documents for general contractors on large projects.

Foodservice designers have a part to play in this relationship, too. Unless the rep is completely unresponsive or unavailable, "It's good to give your rep a chance to get you the information you need before going straight to the manufacturer," says King. This builds trust and rapport between both parties.

"Sometimes if I need something directly from the factory I'll tell the rep that I am going to be calling them as a heads up," says King. "Often, they'll connect me directly and continue to offer assistance."

2. Budgeting

Manufacturers' reps can also help with budgeting for large-scale, non-commercial projects like schools. "They can give us potential costs for equipment that we can use to calculate the overall budget for the project," says King. "It's easier to come down in price than go up."

Lately, King's been focused on working with K-12 schools to improve their scratch cooking and nutrition efforts, so he's even more in touch with manufacturers' reps when it comes to budgeting and learning how to train a school's cooking staff on how to better use certain equipment. Manufacturers' reps can also equip foodservice designers and MAS consultants with the right language to educate and explain to schools and other institutions how specific pieces of equipment, such as pulpers and disposers, can save costs over time when working on long-term budgets.

3. Holding Spec

Many foodservice designers know the challenge of getting general contractors and project leads to hold spec when it comes down to the wire. Having a good rapport with contractors and dealers plays a role in this, but manufacturer's reps can help too.

"When I was a rep, if I worked with the consultant to spec certain equipment I would work with the dealer and the general contractor to get them to hold spec," King says. "Sometimes I would hold lunch and learns or other educational sessions with the general contractor about the equipment to build good will and as another way to get them to hold the spec."

4. Education and Training

A good manufacturers' rep stays on top of the latest and greatest equipment to inform their consultant partners. While many hold regular factory training sessions or other workshops, good reps will be available for last-minute training needs when called upon.

"Every scenario is different," King says. A rep could send someone on a plane to the factory to learn more about certain equipment, or he or she could bring the equipment to the consultant directly. In other cases, the rep could bring the consultant to a nearby restaurant or test kitchen to see the equipment in action. The key is to just ask.

5. Follow-Up

Both good foodservice designers and reps know the importance of following up with a client even after the project concludes. Working with the rep to do this only builds rapport even more.

If there's a problem with equipment, the protocol with most warranties is the GC contacts the dealer who then might contact the rep, King says. As a foodservice designer, if you find out about a problem with the equipment, giving a heads-up to the rep helps build rapport and can solve the problem faster. Reps will also help conduct training after installations so the staff knows how to properly use and maintain equipment to its full potential.

Working with the rep closely on follow-up covers your back, too. "If the equipment isn't represented properly and the staff doesn't understand how to use it or thinks it's a piece of junk, that can easily come back on me as a consultant," says King. "That's when I reach out to the rep to make sure they have the best training. The last thing I want is for the foodservice or nutrition director to feel like I let them down because of the design or equipment in the kitchen. The best reps are the ones that thoroughly train and leave the staff competent and confident."

As a foodservice designer and MAS consultant, you know that providing your clients with honesty and fairness, consistency and follow-up is key. But also providing that to your rep will get you what you need, too. It's a win-win situation in the end.