We recently received an email from someone who had a complaint about his vending service, and apparently found us online. He reported that the snack machine available to him always sells out of the "better-for-you items" quickly, and they are not replenished for weeks and weeks. At the same time, he said, the columns holding the popular confections and snacks are refilled promptly. He attributed this to the operator's being mired in the past, not recognizing that tastes have changed, and giving short shrift to the upcoming health-oriented categories.
We replied that no operator can afford an empty column, since the rather limited space in a vending machine is the only source of revenue he has. It sounded to us like a failure of route supervision, more indicative of lax management than willful indifference. We recommended that he contact the operator and explain the problem, and we hope he did.
It has been recognized for half a century that vending has a great many strengths, but its glaring weakness is its lack of human interaction. "There's nothing automatic about automatic retailing" was a warning frequently heard during the great days of the full-line revolution. In the next decade, as vending and mobile catering seemed (briefly) to be moving together, companies active in both noted that they could charge 15¢ more for a sandwich sold from a catering truck than for the same sandwich sold through a vending machine. The only explanation that occurred to them was that the ability to chat with the driver about baseball was worth a human-interaction premium to the patron.
There always have been ways to establish a human face for a vending operation, from training (and treating) route personnel as "customer service representatives" to conducting recurrent patron surveys and following up on them. We've known operators who instruct their route supervisors to have lunch at a different location every day, in order to chat with the clientele and gauge their attitudes about the service.
Of course, a lot of these things were easier to do in the larger, more regimented vending locations of the past, especially those requiring daily service. But it still is possible to make it easy for a patron to contact the operating company to make a complaint (or, for that matter, bestow a compliment).
We've said much of this before, but we think it's important to repeat it now, given the intense discussion about the improvements in efficiency and productivity that minimize the amount of time the driver must spend in a location. These improvements are essential if the industry is to begin restoring its profit margins, but they can present a danger - or an opportunity.
The danger, of course, is that a location that expects to see the route driver on specific days may feel they've lost their advocate if the service schedule shifts to one based entirely on machine depletion, and so becomes unpredictable.
When handheld route computers became practical and companies that adopted them were able to do away with the need for reading paper route tickets and keying the information into a management information system, a number of operators reported that the clerical person or people freed from the keypunching tasks were happy to be reassigned to the more interesting job of customer service. Increasing automation of route ordering and stock-picking tasks may make more people available for this important function.
And the early advocates of flex routing always responded to the objection that patrons expect to see the driver at predictable intervals by arguing that, while you want drivers to be personable, agreeable and accommodating, you also want them to get into the stop, perform the necessary service and leave as quickly as possible. The better choice for customer relations, this argument goes, is the route supervisor or, perhaps, the outside sales force - even the owner. It should be possible for an operating company to arrange matters so that someone stops by every location at least once a month - preferably more often - to talk with the customers, take notes and initiate whatever changes may be needed. These visits should be publicized in advance, and, perhaps made into "customer appreciation" events with free coffee.
Putting a priority on improving communications with clients and patrons becomes increasingly important as new customer interfaces make their way into the market. While the average 15-year-old might find a touchscreen selector panel a piece of cake, we have the feeling that many other patrons will experience a learning curve. Here again, when the new system goes in, it makes good sense to have a supervisor or someone with good instructional and human relations skills on hand to introduce it, talk up its benefits, and show people how it works.
Approached correctly, new technology can make this industry more responsive to patrons than it ever has been. The idea of automation never was to replace people, but rather to free them of repetitive tasks so they can do something more important. In a world of voicemail, the plea for "real human beings" is becoming universal. Answering it can yield immense benefits.