In today’s hyper-competitive retail food environment, suppliers have to offer their retail partners great products. But often that’s not enough. With labor and other concerns top of mind for retailers, a supplier’s customer service capabilities can often be the difference-maker between who gets the business and who doesn’t. There are a few things that make up what Kay Cornelius, vice president of sales at Niman Ranch, Westminster, Colorado, calls “traditional” customer service: order accuracy, making sure fill rates are correct, making sure orders are filled on time, keeping the lines of communication open.

Niman Ranch does all of that. But the company also does a lot more, Cornelius says.

“We have a very personal hands-on customer service dept. We’re more of a specialty company, and if our customers are buying a premium product, they deserve a premium delivery and order experience.”

One thing that separates Niman Ranch from many traditional meat suppliers is the company’s ability to consolidate customers’ orders for their convenience.

“With most companies, you order your pork from a pork packing plant, your beef from a beef plant, and each one requires a minimum delivery, and it’s cumbersome and hard,” Cornelius says.  “At Niman, you can order your beef, pork, lamb, ham, sausage, deli meats and other products all on one P.O. with one order and one delivery.”

If a customer wants one box of lamb racks and five pallets of chuck roast, that’s what Niman Ranch will give them, she says.

An outside-the-box approach

Customer service is also a differentiator for Woburn, Massachusetts-based Verde Farms, says Dana Ehrlich, the company’s CEO. Much of that has to do with Ehrlich’s outsider status in the industry.

“I didn’t come from the meat industry so I didn’t know any better — I just assumed that strong customer service was a part of it,” he says.

Most meat companies, Ehrlich says, focus on the product and its price. Obviously that’s important, but for the grass-fed niche meat products that Verde specializes in, you have to provide other services to get customers to take notice.

“Grass-fed is rapidly growing, but it’s still only 10 to 15 percent of the category,” Ehrlich says. “The category manager and potential purchasing agent don’t have a lot of time for it — they have the other 80 to 90 percent of the category to cover.”

Because of that, Verde is almost like an “assistant category manager” for its retail partners, Ehrlich says. “We’re able to manage the category on their behalf as much as they’re willing.”

Not providing those services can be costly. Ehrlich says some retailers are puzzled why their grass-fed beef programs aren’t thriving when it’s clear that demand for grass-fed is. 

“It’s really about execution at the retail level,” he says. “Once we’ve gotten into a retailer, there are very few customers that we’ve lost.”

Service beyond the store

In just the past few months, Niman Ranch has upgraded another crucial aspect of its customer service: transportation.

Due in large part to soaring transportation rates and restrictive trucking mandates in recent years, what was true of freight logistics a decade ago isn’t true today, Cornelius says.

Niman Ranch wants to make that process as smooth as possible for its customers. To that end, the company recently hired a freight and logistics manager.

“In the past, we’d say, ‘Here’s the order, trucker, now go take it to our customers.’ Our freight and logistics manager really can help our customers on a constant basis to make sure they’re getting the best cost for delivery and getting their delivery in the shortest amount of time.”

Another way in which Niman Ranch delivers top-shelf customer service is by assigning regional managers to areas of the country where the company has particularly strong market saturation.

“They’re constantly visiting retail stores, not just to merchandise the stores but to add that added level of service and education,” Cornelius says. “We often have them do tastings with the staff or trainings with the meat department. We want that meat staff, when they’re talking to customers, to be able to say, ‘Did you know this was raised by small family farmers and raised without hormones or antibiotics?’”

In addition, twice a year — once for beef, once for pork — Niman Ranch invites its retail partners to on-the-farm events with the producers of its meats. Farm tours are held the first day of the event, educational sessions the second.

“They walk on the farm, have dinner with the ranchers, and they’re able to take that back to Detroit or San Jose or New York or Sarasota and say, ‘I’ve been to the farm, I’ve met the farmer, this is the real deal.’”

Niman Ranch also finds ways to bring the farmer to the retailer. The company has a group it calls its “farmer ambassadors,” who make regular visits to some of the supplier’s retail partners for instore events.

Cleveland-based Heinen’s Fine Foods, for instance, does a promotion once a month where one of the company’s meat cutters sets up shop in the middle of the store and cuts pork butts or another Niman Ranch product to order for customers. A farmer who produced that very meat is on hand to talk to customers as their meat is being custom-prepared about their small family farm, the humane ways they treat their animals, the heritage breeds they use and other topics.

Niman Ranch also provides to its retail partners, free of charge, a full lineup of case dividers, rail strips, coupon books, hats, vests, gloves and other items that tell the company’s brand story.

And on social media, Niman Ranch supplies content that retailers can customize for their own purposes on the different attributes of Niman Ranch meats that help separate it from the pack.