Editor’s Note: Although there may be a pandemic-related slowdown, there’s no stopping new product development for the commercial and non-commercial foodservice sectors. To help readers with new product development strategy, Prepared Foods asked Jeff Miller, founder and CEO of Cutting Edge Innovation, to create a thought leadership series connecting R&D strategy to foodservice sales. Cutting Edge Innovation advises on foodservice strategy, sales, business development, and innovation. Miller also created an online course, “Turbocharge Your Foodservice Sales.” 

Miller has more than 20 years in the food and beverage industry and most recently was vice president and executive chef at Dunkin' Brands, Inc., one of the world's leading franchisors of quick-service restaurants with over 20,000 locations in more than 60 countries. In this capacity, he led a team of 22 chefs, food scientists, bakers, and coffee experts. Miller led global innovation and product development for all Dunkin’ and Baskin-Robbins product categories.

Here is the third installment in a six-part series.

Welcome to my monthly series where we cover the most common mistakes suppliers make when calling on national foodservice accounts. This month we’ll discuss mistake No. 4, which is, “Not asking for feedback.”

I present these suggestions from my own research with R&D as well as from other professionals in the go-to market process at major national chains. My insights also are rooted in my own experience leading R&D and innovation for both Dunkin’ and Baskin-Robbins.  

Unfortunately, I have been in supplier presentations where I felt as though I was simply watching a recording. It’s as though someone hit “play” on a video and it instantly became a one-way transaction. As the prospective customer, I may have found a particular new product interesting—yet I didn’t feel invited to participate, or even to ask questions. And then—by the time it came to group discussion—I may have run out of time or even just lost interest in the prospective supplier. Sometimes, I felt as though felt that they didn’t even try to “get me” or even connect.

Unfortunately, this approach is all too common. The main idea is to move from a presentation mindset to a discussion mindset. In order to do this, you have to ask for feedback! And what does it mean to ask for feedback?  It is more than just asking what your prospective customer thought of your latest round of samples (although that is important). 

You have to ask questions to confirm that you understand who your customer is, as well as where they are going with strategies and goals.

Ask More Questions

I’ll share an example from a recent presentation. One of my new clients was presenting their capabilities to a prospective customer. They asked me along for the ride to evaluate their approach.

My client had a standard “capabilities” deck and had done some research on the customer as well as the potential fit for the business. That part was good. They did some of homework and came prepared.  Yet after introductions, my client launched into their presentation and then didn’t take a breath for more than 50 minutes!  I’ll say that again, it was 50 minutes into the presentation before they asked the customer a question.

I was taken aback that it took so long to engage in a discussion and, at minute 50, I was actually the one to ask a question (because I couldn’t take it any longer). As it turns out, my question opened up an entirely new line of discussion, which was led by the customer. It involved an area that where they were struggling and disappointed. Fortunately, my client was well positioned to help with this challenge and it changed the dynamic of the presentation.

Sometimes we’re so wrapped up in how great our company is that we forget that we’re presenting to someone else. It makes sense. We’re thinking about why our company and products are different and better than the competition—and we naturally want to share those points. 

The challenge is that customer has a different mindset and they are viewing your company through their lens. They are equally concerned about their strategies and challenges, their products and business goals. And most likely, they are more interested in themselves—than in you!

Have a Discussion Mindset

How do you change your style and shift from a presentation mindset to a discussion mindset?

It starts by doing your homework on the customer (Mistake #5 from the last article). Summarize this in an early slide and intentionally ask if you have correctly summarized the customer’s business. This effectively starts the presentation by asking questions—versus just jumping into your solutions.  

What’s important is that you genuinely care about their biggest challenges.  Additionally, you should build questions into the presentation to encourage further discussion. For example, instead of jumping into a slide about your company’s sustainability efforts, you might first ask: “We have a question, how important is sustainability to your business and your end-customer?” 

If you get little feedback you may skip that section entirely.  If you’ve done your homework and you know it’s a fit, then you’re setting yourself up for a great solution.

Invite Constructive Feedback

Of course, not every meeting is a first meeting. Once rapport is established, you have to ask more questions to deepen your understanding. In every meeting, there’s opportunity to ask for feedback and learn more about your customer as well as how they view your company’s products and solutions. 

This can be as simple as prompting the customer and asking them for honest and direct feedback on your product. Ideally, you’re showing products and solutions in an application that is relevant and works for the operations of the target customer.

The challenge here is to get them to be honest about everything from taste to performance. It’s imperative you find out early if your product is not meeting their needs. Sometimes people don’t want to give negative or constructive feedback because it could create an uncomfortable environment. Your role is to help create an environment where they are honest and you have the opportunity to improve.

Asking for feedback is critical to learning more about your customer and helping to create stronger relationships with open lines of communication. If you implement this approach, you’ll build trust. Your customer will thank you for it and think of you more as a partner rather than a vendor.

Jeff Miller is the CEO of Cutting Edge Innovation and creator of the Turbocharge Your Foodservice Sales online course. 

Access the first installment in this series.

Access the second installment in this series.

Learn more about Cutting Edge Innovation.