A supplier asked me the other day: “How do I connect with my food scientist R&D clients and get them to buy my ingredients versus someone else’s?” He started asking me about Facebook and LinkedIn and Twitter, or about organizing IFT parties or fancy dinners.
How to connect with your client really depends on what generation they are from. A food scientist graduating this year is quite different from the Baby Boomer food scientist, who is different from a Gen-Xer (like me).
Let’s start with the Millennials (age 28 and younger) the youngest generation of food scientists. Many are just graduating, in entry-level positions or still attending graduate school. These are the new guys, the children of the ingredient company’s future. So why are you ignoring them? Suppliers often will skip over this younger entry-level crowd because they don’t have buying power or they are not part of the top-level decision making crew. Well, just because they have no say now doesn’t mean they won’t have any say later on. I will never forget that National Starch (now Ingredion) and CP Kelco were the only ones who invited me to anything at IFT 1991. I was just a student wearing ugly shoes and collecting free expo floor stuff and they handed me an invite and said “we love having all the students come by our hospitality suite!” Another way to connect is to actually go to the local universities and give a seminar to the graduating seniors. Sponsor an event, bring goodie bags, talk about your products and then take the whole Food Science Club out to the local brewery and talk yeast shop with them. Offer up scholarships to their departments and try to make your mark on them while they are still in school. Follow them on Twitter, connect with them on LinkedIn and, if you really want to make an impression, read their graduate thesis and have a discussion with them about it. They won’t forget you, I promise.
Moving into Gen-X (that would be me, the 30 to 44 year olds). We have all been working for a long time. We have been to the parties and done the shows and, at this point, many of us have families and kids so we don’t have time to go out to eat or network the way we used to. There is one thing we do like though: We like our suppliers to be extremely responsive all the time. When we request documents, send them immediately or at least reply and tell us it’s “on the way.” We want you to support us by showing us ingredients in application and feeding us literature with trend ideas. Anything to make our job easier will make us want to call you more. But please make sure that your support is applicable. If we make salsa and you sell flavors, show us those flavors in a salsa and not in a confectionery product. We like culinary presentations and we prefer to “do lunch” instead of dinner. At the trade shows, we probably have serious research to do so contact us well in advance and find a time to meet that is convenient for us. Don’t try to bribe and don’t try to “sell” us anything we don’t need. Don’t go over our head and try to get procurement to convince us to buy your ingredients. And, if you have to increase prices, we need a really good explanation, because most likely we are going to be stuck doing a cost-reduction project. If you really want us to do dinner at a trade show, pick a place that has meaningful food; we are the foodie generation and we want every meal to be worth it.
The last group is the Baby Boomers (ages 45 to 63). This is the generation that may be retiring soon, are probably in higherpositions and have been reading hard copies of the technical food trade journals since the 1960s. They probably don’t tweet, they may or may not be on LinkedIn, they probably won’t join your company’s Facebook group page. They are responsible for managing whole teams of food scientists, are rarely on the bench and are leaving the nitty-gritty ingredient decisions up to the bench jockeys. The Baby Boomer food scientists like research and reading materials and are probably more interested in research trends and the latest world disaster that is having an impact on commodity ingredient prices. They want the bottom line information in bullet point format. They might have a corner office with a view, and it is probably overflowing with journals and seminar binders. They have been at their company a long time and are experts in their field. Brush up on your food science when you meet with this generation and ask intelligent questions. Baby Boomers will be at the trade shows, but since they have probably done this 50 times before, they don’t want to spend the whole day at expo; they probably want to have a quiet dinner at a traditional steakhouse that is not too trendy and has good wine.
I may be focusing on the networking here and the schmoozing parts, but honestly, there are a million ingredient suppliers out there and many of them are quite good and competitive in pricing. You need to do more than just offer a premium product at a reasonable price. You need to be our friend, our trend advisor and, most importantly, prove yourself to be our “supplier partner.”
I am stereotyping all the food science generations here. There may very well be Baby Boomers who spend all day on the expo floor and hit seven supplier parties in one night. They may be developing on the bench and doing pilot runs at 4 a.m.. Or, there could be lots of 20-somethings who have no interest in networking with you and just want samples and price. But, the bottom line is there are not that many food scientists in general (only about 300 graduates per year in the U.S.) and it should not be too hard to maintain a constant presence in their working life, regardless of their generation. Be fun, be helpful and be smart. Know your product, send ingredients quickly, get us the documentation. Stay up-to-date on culinary trends in both retail and foodservice and please stop asking us for our Fed Ex# and just overnight us a sample!