The drive for continuous improvement is just part of doing business for the food industry. Not only is it a major keystone for most companies, it’s commonplace to receive requests for higher-performing products from our customers, elevated requirements from auditing schemes and most everyone has been involved in evolving food safety systems as part of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) compliance. We’ve, in turn, raised our expectations from our raw material suppliers: an ever expanding list of documentation, tightened specs and higher quality. Shouldn’t we expect the same from our major service providers? We need to raise the bar and expect bigger and better services from our nonfood vendors, such as: IT systems, outside laboratories, pest control, chemical providers and even uniform companies.

The old mainstays of expecting excellent service, quick turn around and competitive pricing have become minimum expectations. Now we should be looking for those extra touches that will put that vendor ahead of the others and turn them into a long-term partner.

Here’s a list of essentials when evaluating new service providers:

1. Innovation
It’s disconcerting to realize that a vendor has become stagnant. They are perfectly happy with the current state and have lost the drive to improve. Is it acceptable to be satisfied with the status quo? When vetting new vendors, I always ask about their stance on innovation and ask for specific examples. Ensure that they are investing in making their product/service better.

A perfect example of this is the trend towards installing continuous temperature monitoring in carrier fleets. If there’s a problem with your product between your dock and the customer, they can provide you with a temperature graph of the trip to aid with the investigation.

2. Adding Unexpected Value
One of the greatest gifts is an offer of support, especially when you might not realize you even need it.

My oldest vendor-partner is a training service. What really sets this group apart is their pursuit of adding value to their product. Most are automatic with little fuss and no additional cost. They’ve done the research and can anticipate what you need to take maximum advantage of their product. Spanish subtitles: done. Easier way to add custom content: done. Extremely helpful insights with no prompting.

3. Keeping in Touch
The world of business is built on relationships, and the food industry is no exception. You should be on a first-name basis with your liaison, whether that’s an account manager, pest control technician or other support personnel. It really should be the responsibility of the vendor to be the steward of that relationship. Who’s the “go to” person at each of your major vendors? Who’s the person that is going to go the extra mile to make sure that your company’s needs are met?

4. Going above and beyond; tapping into their expertise
We are often called upon by our customers to be subject matter experts when it comes to our products. We are members of supplier councils and offer advice on everything from policy to better ways of handling our product in the field.

I recently audited a facility in Asia and received blank stares when I asked to see their chemical supplier’s visitation report. Having a chemical company or pest control company send periodic experts to evaluate your processes and give you support is part of our basic expectations in most of North America. It made me think about what other vendors could be offering a similar service.

Another example is the new trend for many companies to offer complementary webcasts. These often delve into hot topics and current challenges facing the industry, lining-up a plethora of expert speakers to outline changing expectations and offer solutions. Often the vendor sponsoring the webinar sneaks a little advertisement at the end, which is a small price to pay for such excellent information.

So as part of your New Year’s resolutions, take a look at your service providers to make sure that they are meeting your expectations. If they aren’t, have a conversation and outline additional areas for improvement. It might simply be a matter of them not understanding your changing needs. Benchmark to see what others are doing and give your long-term vendors a chance to show you what they are capable of. Our customers deserve the very best, and we deserve the same from our vendors.

Wendy W. White is the director of corporate quality systems & food safety at Golden State Foods.