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FE&SEditorial Archives2005 — December — Feature Story

2005 DSR of the Year: Dawn Ragsdale, Strategic Equipment and Supply, Nashville Division

An unwavering customer focus and solid team approach serve as the cornerstone for Ragsdale’s success.

2005 DSR of the Year: Dawn Ragsdale, Strategic Equipment and Supply, Nashville Division

To ensure the various installations go smoothly, communication flows freely between Ragsdale and Dilleha (right).

Maintaining client satisfaction requires a team effort. (Right to left) Ragsdale; Becky Burton, project manager, national accounts; and Logan’s Roadhouse’s Mushenski review the plans for one of the chain’s prototype units.

Tommy Hale, a manufacturers’ rep with Independent Agents Group, joins the conversation.

Strategic’s Parts Department helps maintain service levels and deepen customer relationships. From left, Tommy Norvell, Ragsdale, Rian Hollister and Brian Moyer review a client request.

Robertson (seated) becomes the “go to” person for individual stores, helping them manage any service aspects associated with a piece of equipment during its first year of operation.

Amy Cipriano is part of Strategic’s national accounts team that provides seamless customer service to their chain clients.

Despite an inauspicious introduction to and a brief hiatus from the foodservice industry, Strategic Equipment and Supply Corp.’s Dawn Ragsdale has emerged as one of the country’s top dealer sales reps. The secret to her success? Remembering what it was like to wear the operator’s shoes and working with her team to make sure wearing those shoes remains as comfortable as possible for her clients.

By year’s end, Ragsdale, who serves as national accounts group manager for Strategic’s Nashville division, will generate an estimated $20 million in sales and manage more than 75 store openings. Her track record as a salesperson and the high regard her clients view her with, have made Dawn Ragsdale FE&S’ 2005 DSR of the Year.

Ragsdale’s foodservice career began as a server in a Bonanza restaurant and she worked her way up to manager. In an attempt to spend more time with her son, Ragsdale left foodservice to pursue a career in the banking industry. Several years later during a chance meeting with one of its employees, Ragsdale learned that Tennessee Restaurant, another Nashville dealership, had a sales opening. Ragsdale applied for the position, went in for the interview and was hired on the spot. She would spend the next 15 years with Tennessee Restaurant before coming to Strategic four years ago.

“There was no transition. I was just sort of thrown into it,” Ragsdale recalls of her return to the foodservice industry. “So, I had to learn day by day.”

Cracker Barrel was Ragsdale’s first account and at the time it was considered a small one for the dealership because the chain was adding only eight stores per year. “So as they grew, I grew in my knowledge and how to do my job,” she says.

Organization Is Key
When a DSR continues to evolve and reaches an elite level as Ragsdale has, organization becomes a critical aspect of navigating their day-to-day tasks. Ragsdale is no exception, as her office would make the inventor of the three-ring binder smile. In general, Ragsdale has three collections of binders: a set for each client, a set containing information about Strategic and one for their buying group affiliation.

Ragsdale’s desktop reflects the organized chaos that goes along with managing multiple chain accounts. To her left are a series of colored folders, one for each client and one uncharacteristically labeled “miscellaneous.” All of the folders contain pending orders or information for each of her clients and she begins each day by reviewing their contents. What she finds inside helps set her priorities for the remainder of the day. After resolving or processing a pending item, Ragsdale quickly moves to store them in one of the two file cabinets in her office.

In addition, for each store one of her clients opens, Ragsdale maintains a job folder that serves as further testimony to her attention to detail. While Strategic processes all of its supplier invoices at a central location, Ragsdale keeps a copy of every one, including those submitted by other related vendors, in the thick job folder. Tracking these expenses ensures that Ragsdale and her team are prepared to answer client questions or participate in an audit of any given job.

Client Focus
Spend only a few minutes with Ragsdale and her unwavering client focus becomes readily apparent. Her office is dotted with memorabilia from her various clients, some of it in the form of awards recognizing Ragsdale’s role in their continued success. “She’s as protective of the Cracker Barrel brand as I am,” says David Sailer, equipment purchasing agent for Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores.

In addition to the items from her various clients, Ragsdale’s office also pays homage to another of her passions: the Tennessee Titans, the local entry into the National Football League. Ragsdale has had season tickets since they first arrived in Nashville.

This fall, FE&S traveled to Nashville to spend some time with Ragsdale and get a better idea of her approach to serving her customers. In this instance, Ragsdale’s week begins by having to “value-engineer” a project for one of her chain clients. The need to do so came about as a result of the client working with a consultant to increase the number of times its average restaurant turns its tables over the course of a given day.

A faster turnover was achieved, but one of the unanticipated effects is a more expensive equipment package. As a result, Ragsdale will spend the remainder of the week working with a myriad of manufacturers’ reps to prepare a menu of options that will bring the total equipment costs more in line with what the client wants to spend.

During her almost 20 years in the business, Ragsdale has seen the role of the DSR evolve to that of a manager rather than a customer service provider. Ragsdale serves as a consolidator of information for her projects. And in this case, she develops three options to present to her client. The first will be an equipment package that features a slightly scaled-back version of the products originally proposed and currently being used throughout the chain. The other two options will feature lower cost equipment alternatives from other manufacturers.

All told, this value-engineering project spans more than 170 items, so it will test Ragsdale’s coordination and organizational abilities. Another aspect of this project that adds to its complexity is the fact that Ragsdale has negotiated pricing based on the combined volume of all the chains her client’s parent company manages and not on the individual concepts. So if one concept decides to go another way in terms of their equipment, it could impact their sister stores.

Team Approach
Projects like these tend to arise with little or no warning, which means that Ragsdale had to clear her calendar of all remaining appointments for the week to be able to make this deadline. “Whatever the challenge, we try to respond to their needs as quickly as possible,” Ragsdale says.

Of course, the key word in that statement is “we.” In her role, Ragsdale leads the national accounts team in Strategic’s Nashville office. “I am very active with the customer, but I could not do it without our team here,” Ragsdale says. “They are a huge part of our success. Everyone has their area of responsibility, but if someone sees a teammate working late, they will try to find ways to help out. You never hear them say, ‘It’s not my job.’”

The team has evolved under Ragsdale’s vision for serving customers and deepening relationships between them and Strategic. “It’s all about customer service,” Ragsdale says. “Anyone can sell the equipment, but it’s what you do after that allows you to keep the business.”

Once a client is ready to move forward with a sale or an installation, Ragsdale turns things over to Debbie Dilleha, a senior project manager who has been with Strategic for nearly four years. Dilleha works with various vendor representatives to ensure the terms on the purchase orders are correct and to follow through on all scheduling-related tasks. “And when odd things occur, I discuss it with Dawn,” says Dilleha, who adds the communication flows freely between her and Ragsdale. “She comes to me on a regular basis to get my opinion on things.”

Approximately three weeks before an installation, Kay Robertson, sales and warranty coordinator for Strategic, gets involved by reviewing the job to ensure that all of the equipment has been delivered and is ready to roll. This allows the Strategic team to correct any problems that arise, such as if an item becomes damaged in transport, or be flexible if a client moves up the installation schedule by a week.

For the 12 months that follow a completed installation, Robertson becomes the “go to” person for the individual stores when they need warranty work or other types of service. They simply place a call to her and she takes it from there. “I take their problems and solve them,” she says. “And anything you can do for them you do.”

When a customer calls about making a warranty claim, Robertson does not lose sight of what’s most important: fixing the problem as quickly as possible on the first try. “Getting it fixed is our No. 1 priority,” says Robertson, who has been in the industry for six years, including the past three-plus with Strategic. “Then, we can all determine who pays for it.”

At Ragsdale’s recommendation, Strategic added a Parts Department in its Nashville location. Three staffers now provide customers a centralized point of contact when they need casters, shelves or any other removable parts from the equipment they have ordered from Strategic. “Because I have been on the other end of the phone, I know what it is to run a restaurant and the panic situations you get in,” Ragsdale says. “That’s why we added the Parts Department here, so we could have some control in how we service them.”

While not a high-margin aspect of the business, this does allow the dealership to deepen its client relationships. “We do this to help our customer. We sell the equipment to them so when they need a part, we know what they are asking for,” Ragsdale says. This leads to fewer customer returns, which saves the operator time and money. Along those lines, Strategic also warehouses equipment for some of its chain clients.

“We want them to want to do business with us,” Ragsdale adds. “Anything we can do to make it easier for them to operate their stores is a win-win for both of us.”

Ragsdale has high praise for Strategic’s installation teams, so much so, in fact, that she tends not to visit the job site when they are plying their trade. “We as salespeople can sell it, but the installers are the last people the client deals with and they leave the last impression,” she says. “Our team is strong and passionate about our work, from the initial prototypes to make ready for store openings.”

That’s not to say that Ragsdale does not participate in the quality-control aspects of an installation. She randomly visits installations and remains very hands-on when helping a client launch a new prototype.

Much like its leader, the entire national accounts team goes to work each day with a singular focus on their clients. “Everyone here is a family and we are all working toward the same goal, so there are no conflicts,” Dilleha says. “We don’t have to say we are customer-oriented, our clients know we are by our actions.”

The notion of support within Ragsdale’s team is two-way, with FE&S’ DSR of the Year regularly showing a willingness to help out at any turn. “She knows our customers so well,” Dilleha says of Ragsdale. “If I run into an issue, chances are she’s already experienced it.”

All of this fits into Ragsdale’s vision of providing seamless customer service. “Our customers know that someone will help them if they call in with a question or a problem,” she says.

This is not an aspect of Strategic’s relationship with its clients that goes unnoticed by the customer. “People have to take a day off or travel,” says Dorothy Mushenski, purchasing manager of equipment for Logan’s Roadhouse. “We know that if she is not here, there is someone who knows our business so there is never a gap. We always feel like we are her only client and it’s very hard for a dealer rep to do that.”

Ragsdale adopts a realistic approach about serving her clients. “She is the first person to say that she does not do it alone,” Mushenski says. “And that whole team tells you the truth. If they can do something you ask of them, they tell you. And if they can’t, they say so.”

In many instances when a relationship rests on solid footing, the line between client and vendor can blur to the casual observer. Such is the case with Ragsdale and the client who initiated the value-engineering project. Her conversations with client contacts take on a very comfortable, almost collegial feeling and resemble nothing of the traditional vendor/client communication.

“She partners with us and does a lot for us that your normal rep would not do,” says Mushenski, who had previously worked with a dealership for more than 10 years. “You never feel like it is a sales situation. She feels like a part of your business.”

The same can be said when Ragsdale works with the various reps that will feed her information for the value-engineering project. One face-to-face meeting with an independent manufacturers’ rep has the feeling of two co-workers hashing out the details of a project.

Ragsdale is quick to point out that when a DSR works with chains, they need to establish a good network of manufacturer reps with whom they will consult on a regular basis. That’s because given the large volume chains represent — both potential and actual — the way the manufacturers price their orders tends to differ. So DSRs need to be able to call on their manufacturer rep partners without a moment’s notice to get accurate and up-to-date pricing for these most coveted clients.

“That’s why the people in this industry are so important,” Ragsdale continues. “Not just the customers and co-workers but the reps and the manufacturers are important, too. They have taught me so much. And if I did not have an answer, they helped me find it.”

One attribute that makes Ragsdale a key partner is her honesty, Mushenski says. “If it is good, bad or ugly, tell me the truth,” she says. “The news can’t always be good.”

But it’s this honest approach that helps mitigate any conflicts that arise during the natural business cycle. “It comes down to the two of us to assess the facts, define where it went wrong, fix it and move on,” says Mushenski. “I tend to be more critical because I have been there. I have the insight that most customers don’t.”

A “can do” attitude is critical, too. “We are in an environment that changes every day and it never seems to shake or upset Dawn,” Mushenski says.

In addition, Ragsdale has an intimate knowledge of her clients that continues to add value to the service she regularly provides. “We consider her a Cracker Barrel employee,” Sailer says. By that he means that Ragsdale will regularly participate in meetings with the concept engineers, construction department and facilities.

“We are not calling in all of our vendors for these meetings,” Sailer adds. “Dawn has an intimate understanding of Cracker Barrel culture and what products we have used and tested in the past. So, she will be the first one to question things because she has been a constant for us over the past 15 years.

“Dawn understands that Logan’s and Cracker Barrel are different and value different things,” Sailer adds. “Dawn is my first point of contact for new projects.”

To keep abreast of the latest industry developments and to recruit new clients, Ragsdale monitors chain activity and reads industry magazines. And when she sees an opportunity, Ragsdale pursues it. “You ask a lot of questions to find out who can make purchasing decisions,” says Ragsdale, who notes that the sales process can take some time because with chains you are not selling to one person but to the whole company.

And, of course, there’s no substitution for networking. “At The NAFEM Show, I ran into a contact with a chain we are not doing business with yet and asked if there was an opportunity to work with them,” Ragsdale says.

In addition to her efforts, Strategic has an entire team supporting chain clients. Occasionally, a new or prospective chain client will give Strategic one store to service as a trial. If the location of that unit is a good fit for the dealer’s Nashville office, then Ragsdale and her team will take the reigns and help Strategic earn the business.

“Actions speak louder than words, so every day we try to prove ourselves to them,” Ragsdale says. “We deliver and that’s how you gain client trust.”

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