It often has been pointed out that customers who are confident that a machine will work are much more likely to put money into it, and so it is well worth the operator’s while to establish that trust. Three decades ago, the National Automatic Merchandising Association’s public relations director conducted a long campaign to persuade operators of the benefits of installing payment systems that held coins in escrow until the vend was completed, so patrons knew they could get their money back if something went wrong. More than a few seminars were held to promote preventive-maintenance programs; the presenters pointed out that patrons who come to believe that the machines are unreliable will risk using them only as a last resort – but seldom will complain, so the operator will not know that sales are being lost.
In the present era of smaller workplace populations, no one can afford those lost sales. Establishing trust in the reliability of the machine, and the operator, bolsters the bottom line. Fortunately, today’s technology offers many ways to do this. Most dramatically, remote monitoring can flag a machine malfunction so a technician can be dispatched before the location calls for service. The customer relations benefit of having someone show up to fix the vending machine before anyone has gotten around to taping a handwritten “out of order” note on it is tremendous.
Of course, as we’ve observed before, when conferring a benefit, it is important to tell everyone that one is doing it. There’s nothing new about this. For as long as we can remember, alert operators have instructed their technicians, when making a service call, not to slip into the location, quietly fix the machine, and then slip out. Instead, they were to report their arrival to the location contact, and explain why they were there; then make the repair; complete the work order by describing the steps taken, listing any parts that were replaced, noting the time of the repair and the labor cost, writing “no charge” across the bottom, and bringing it back to the location contact for a signature, and with an invitation to try out the machine to make sure the work was done satisfactorily. This approach has proven equally successful in vending and coffee service. Not only does it provide a reminder that the operator is providing service, but the work-order serves to suggest what it might cost the location to “self-operate.” We think this procedure would work as well or better if the call had been made in response to an alarm sent by a telemetry system.
It also has been used in conjunction with preventive maintenance programs. This is another topic that has not received much attention in recent years, but preventive maintenance offers many advantages. There is value in incurring a steady, predictable cost that minimizes the sudden imposition of unexpected expense – and the value of visible service in building customer confidence is, perhaps, even greater. Again, maximum benefit results when the patrons, and location management, are aware that the maintenance is being done in the context of a professional service that strives to keep everything running reliably, and that would be difficult to do in-house.
These things have been part of the ongoing industry conversation for a very long time, although the problems and opportunities of the last decade have moved them out of the spotlight. We think, though, that they should be seen as one part of the industry’s response to the need for better communications. A shortcoming of customer relations undertaken when maintenance is required is that we only get to do it when something has gone wrong, or precautions are being taken to keep something from going wrong. Why not tell people about things that are going right?
Back when whole-bean fresh-brew coffee machines were very new, the operators who reported spectacular sales success with them generally were the ones who energetically promoted the new technology. They sent supervisors or customer service representatives out to demonstrate the new machine with its door open, give away little burlap bags full of coffee beans, distribute flyers about coffee and the variables that affect its quality, and to emphasize that something innovative was being done to give patrons a better product. An early adopter who used this approach reported that an unexpected benefit was that the people in the breakroom during one of the demonstrations now knew how the coffee machine worked, and tended to tell other people who might not have visited the vending area regularly. Not only did good information build sales among those who received it directly, but also by being passed along to others who now had a reason to buy.
There is reason to focus on this kind of thing again. A surprisingly large number of vending patrons still have little idea of what happens between initiating the vend and receiving the product. If the machine is equipped with positive vend assurance, they often are not aware of it.
The pioneers of fresh-food vending, back in the 1960s, had to introduce a brand-new retailing method that tended to arouse the suspicion of that era’s patrons, who were alarmed by the perceived depersonalization and automation of everyday life. A more satisfactory dining experience in the workplace ran counter to their assumptions about the way things were supposed to be.
It took the vending industry a decade or so to overcome this. The eventual victory was not complete (victories seldom are), but along the way, we introduced the American public to microwave ovens and demonstrated the size of the potential market for individually wrapped convenience foods. The campaign to market vended food (and vended coffee) was waged by enthusiasts who were excited about the new capabilities, and who wanted everyone to share their excitement. They did a lot of demonstrating and sampling. As coffee service and vending concepts continue to amalgamate in today’s downsized workplaces, it certainly is time to regain that enthusiasm.
Advances like cashless vending also will get off to a much faster start if patrons are made familiar with them. Years ago, the local commuter railroad installed vending machines that accepted credit cards and dispensed tickets, including weeklies and monthlies, for which the cost is substantial. We recall wishing to use one, and having to make our way through a semicircle of commuters surrounding the machines and eyeing them warily. Once we had bought our tickets, the onlookers quickly formed lines and began buying theirs; no one had wanted to look foolish by being the first to walk up to the alien machine and start fumbling around.
We still have an exciting story to tell; in many ways, it is more exciting than ever. Today’s apprehensive workforce can use some excitement, and will be glad to learn that some things work better than they used to, and provide new benefits and conveniences.
Everyone wants to be well informed, and vending patrons will be glad to learn more about the equipment they use, if they receive this information in a congenial atmosphere and accompanied by free samples. Coffee service patrons will be glad to learn more about coffee brewing, and about coffee in general. Developing procedures for interacting regularly with customers, answering questions and talking up the service will spur sales and help with account retention.
And it will do more. Back in the mid-1970s, with “stagflation” out of control, a chairman of the National Automatic Merchandising Association used to start his addresses by warning, “The engine of free enterprise is a mighty one – but there’s dynamite on the tracks.” Anyone who follows the news is aware that powerful forces are gathering, and that dynamite is back. We must make the case for reasonable taxation and the rights of citizens to make their own choices freely. In doing this, an informed public can be our friend, and we need all the friends we can get.