Proper servicing of foodservice equipment can be a very demanding and rewarding proposition for both the service agent and the operator.

For many members of the supply chain, working with chain restaurants tends to be very desirable because of the high volume and cache this can generate and the service agent segment is no exception. But in order for the service agent and the chain operator to have a mutually beneficial experience, both parties need to come to the table understanding a few fundamental aspects about their relationship.

To explore the complex working relationship between chain restaurants and service agents, FE&S spoke with Rick White, president of Tech24, an Alexandria, Va.-based service agent. Tech24 generates 70 percent of its revenues from chains, according to White, who also serves on the board of directors for the Commercial Food Equipment Service Association.

Three Considerations for Chains When Working with a Service Agency

Dependability: It is the number one thing chains should explore, White said. How trained are they? Do they know how to service a variety of equipment, including high tech items? Can they do what they say they will do? Do they have the ability to service multiple stores on the same day? "Back 20 or so years ago, only the three or four man operations would serve the chains," White said. "Now those companies are going away and the chains are starting to embrace a more regional approach to service."

Understand That Each Market Is Different: What works in Denver may not work in Miami, White pointed out. From parts availability to traffic to state regulations, each place is different and chains need to understand and take that into account when it comes to working with their service agents.

Have Higher Standards: Chains demand a high quality product and strive to deliver that to each and every customer in similar ticket times. In other words, providing the customer with a consistent experience from one location to the next is an integral part of the chain's value proposition. They should demand that on the service side in terms of quality, response times and the like, White said.

What Service Agents Should Consider When Entering the Chain Market

Be Flexible: "If you are not a flexible, 24-hour business, do not chase chains," White said. "You won't be happy and neither will they." Calls from chains come in at all times of the day, seven days a week and when working with a chain, the service agent is expected to respond. "If the call comes after 5 p.m. or on New Year's Day you go. You have to know what you are getting into," he added.

In addition, each chain handles billing, invoicing and other aspects of the transaction and they expect the service agent to work with them in this regard. "To serve them you need to adapt," White said.

The Physical Demands: Working as a restaurant chain's service agent is not an eight hour job that spans five days a week. For example, Tech24's building is open at 6 a.m. so the service technicians can get to their first job before rush hour. "And the restaurant is doing the same thing because they are getting ready for the day," White said.

When the doors open at 6 a.m., it is not uncommon for a tech to already be on a job or even as his second appointment, White said. "If work was set on Friday and we promised to deliver on Monday morning, that tech can't go home right away because we have to honor that commitment." When this happens, the management team needs to be able to adjust the day's workload to meet customer needs and get the tech the rest they require. "From the owner to office staff to technician, everyone has to be flexible," White said.

It is important for service agents to understand the flow and intensity associated with the restaurant chains' business. "The chains are typically busy for all three dayparts and in many instances half of their revenues are made from Friday lunch through the end of the weekend. So if something broke, it was not a matter of if they would call you," White says.

While no operator is happy to have a piece of foodservice equipment go down, it is more likely that a B&I or school foodservice provider will be more willing to find a temporary solution until the service agent can arrive. That's because the primary business taking place in a school, for example, is education and not foodservice.

Restaurant chains offer a stark contrast, though, because serving food is their primary business. "If you are a franchisee for a burger chain and you do not have fries, though, it is a big deal," White says. "The laid back giants in the chain business are just not there anymore."

Billing Cycle: When it comes to invoicing and receiving payment from chains, the process moves at a different pace when compared to other foodservice operators, according to White. That's because the service agent is dealing with a very large company that probably is based in another market.

While it is common for a service agent to have a new customer complete a credit application, many chains refuse to do so, White said. "As a matter of fact, you might have to fill out their credit application, he added. One chain required White to complete a 12-page questionnaire before doing work for them. "They make you promise you can't sue them, and if you go to arbitration it's in their own state."

But there are other nuances to the billing cycle, White has experienced. "You can expect them to pay a little slow. It is not on purpose. It just takes time to get your bill paid," he said. "You are used to getting paid in 25 to 45 days by most customers but in a chain it will take that long for the invoice to get to the right person. So it might take 60 days or more to get paid. As a result you need to have a credit line or cash on hand to be able to react to this."

Despite the challenges inherent, chain restaurants and service agents can cultivate mutually beneficial relationships. In working closely with their service agents, chain restaurants can remain efficient as they strive to deliver a product that is food safe and of consistent quality.

For service agents, "If you do meet their needs you will get loyalty and volume back. You benefit, too, by having the association with the chain," White added. "So when you market your company and you can start naming the chains you work with it portrays you as a company that can meet high standards and accommodate high volume."

And at the end of the day, that's a winning combination for both parties.