Richard Hunt has a simple but pragmatic take on how companies can effectively engage with the customer.
“Communication has to be in any medium the customer requires,” says the managing director of Hunt’s Foodservice, the £70million turnover catering wholesaler whose customers include ice cream vendors and five-star hotels.
“It’s evident that an increasing number of people don’t want to talk but prefer to engage online, but we have to do what the customer wants.
“What digital communication should do is provide the customer with options. A website can’t just provide a contact form to be filled in. It has to allow someone to request information or a call. You have to fit it in with how the customer would prefer to communicate with you.
“I think there is less communication now, if you define it as being a two-way dialogue. Simply providing information isn’t the same thing. That doesn’t mean you’re engaged in communication.
But I would say communication is becoming more complex simply because the customer is looking for more information than ever before as a precursor to actually wanting to make contact.”
What Hunt’s Foodservice have realised is that a different approach to selling is required as a consequence. The company still has thirty sales people, but their role has changed. Those on the road now are consultative rather than order takers.
But the fundamentals remain constant, Hunt suggests.
“The three customer considerations of price, quality, and service haven’t become less important with digital communication, and it would be a mistake to think that because of the internet people are necessarily motivated to only look for the cheapest product. Similar to food retailers such as the supermarkets, we will have different ranges and price points.”
Availability is also a key factor, and with the immediacy of internet ordering, there is an expectation that delivery will be the same, Hunt says.
But the irony can be that the instant nature of digital communication can compromise the service aspects which sets a business apart.
“For example if a restaurant has a delivery scheduled for the morning and on the day they need to change it to the afternoon, how do they do that? If they are one of our customers, they simply pick up the phone - it couldn’t be more instant - and our default position is that we will try to do it.
Our website emphasises the service proposition. In the summer months, to meet the demands of the tourist industry, we operate on Saturdays. Our national competitors aren’t on the road then. “Foodservice describes what we do, and key to it is the second part of the word - making sure we do what we say we are going to do.”
Since Hunt took over from his uncle thirteen years ago, the business has developed from being purely frozen food to 50% chilled and ambient. “We helped to set up an independent buying group, and that has helped to take us into new product areas,” he explains. Today, the company has more than 15,000 lines, and has British Retail Consortium accreditation, one of 17,000 sites globally to meet the food safety standards required.
“Our business is to sell other people’s brands, and we still see ourselves as fulfilling that role rather than being a brand in our own right,” explains Hunt.
He doesn’t get over exercised about internet statistics either. A few years back, Hunt attended a lecture from a website guru. That evening he Googled foodservice and was astounded to see Hunt’s were on the front page. Investigation revealed it was the consequence of mis-hits from a US company with the same name.
“In the next ten years will see the fastest change in communication,” he predicts. “There has been a huge amount already brought about by email and mobile communications, and the internet, but I’m sure artificial intelligence for example is going to have an impact.