At a recent family gathering, a remark was passed about the tone of my monthly Upfront column. I was told that I was too “warm and fuzzy,” and that operators could not relate to the subject matter. “There’s no crying in vending,” this person went on to say (a reference to A League of Their Own, the 1992 comedy-drama film that gave a fictionalized account of the real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League).
I took that comment to imply that my candor would be seen as a sign of weakness, and that readers were not interested in my personal life because it does not relate to their specific business. Surprisingly, while I disagreed wholeheartedly with the implication, I was quite confident in holding up my end of the conversation. Operators are people, too, I replied. They are entrepreneurs, business owners and managers, and it is important to remember that we are all in this together.
If these difficult times have taught us anything, it’s that nobody is invincible and we all can benefit from giving and receiving a little dose of humanity. Case in point: I recently received a letter from my financial advisor. I expected the usual reminder that it was time for a monthly review. But instead, it was an update on what the members of the firm were doing, professionally and personally. “Sally’s” baby boy has taken his first steps and “Johnny” is preparing for the marathon. It was akin to a solicitation (“we accept referrals, please”) wrapped in a holiday card. Still, I did take the time to read it, and I learned a bit more about these individuals. So it succeeded.
In a similar vein, our accounting firm publishes a newsletter with the usual tax-planning tips, but the monthly bulletin always includes a few photos of young recruits. In addition to stating their qualifications and academic degrees, it speaks of their memberships in special-interest groups, their civic and charitable activities and their hobbies. Clearly, there is a reason these firms want us to know them not just as an accounting business or a financial advisory team, but as human beings too.
Well, I’m glad they finally woke up and realized the importance of the personal touch as it relates to customer service! And while you can memorize this stuff from a variety of self-help text books (starting with Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People), you should know that the approach goes a lot further when it’s genuine. People do pick up on that.
Back in the formative years of the vending industry, a good deal of creativity was devoted to finding new ways to refer to “vending” – to differentiate vending operators from ice cream truck driver-salesmen, among other reasons. One suggestion was “Automatic Retailing,” and it had a long history. An objection that often was raised to this name was, “There’s nothing automatic about ‘automatic retailing’!”
VT’s Tim Sanford told me about a coffee salesman he met in a convention hotel lobby, back when single-cup fresh-brew coffee was new. This pioneer maintained that most people judge coffee in a subjective way. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s soluble or batch-brewed, or brewed one cup at a time,” he argued. “If they like you, they’ll like your coffee; if they don’t, they won’t.” I recall hearing something similar from coin-op amusement maven Ken Anderson when he was peddling Leland’s videogame “Pig Out,” which turned out to be a flop: “You ride the wave while you can,” he said. “If they like you, they’ll help get you through until the next big break.”
This may be a bit of an exaggeration in today’s less fruitful times, but there is a lot of truth to it. Customers usually are sensitive, and know whether or not you really care about them. Their needs are as much emotional as material; while shopping for products and services, they buy good feelings and solutions to wants that are not purely physical. The more you know about them (and the better they know you), the more adept you will be at anticipating their needs. Regular communication is vital, and customers should look forward to it.
During our recent move, I had occasion to deal with a number of service providers who had to change things quickly to accommodate our new location. Doing that drove home the point people have been making at industry seminars for as long as I can remember (and longer, as I’ve been told): the customer pays you to solve a problem, not to conform rigorously to your own internal procedures and schedule. A little compassion goes a long way. Of course, we have parted company with the offending service providers.
A wise man who co-founded this magazine once told me that if you know who you are, you don’t need to pretend or prove anything. Just be yourself, he said, and you won’t need to remember who you were to this person, in contrast to who you were to that one. It’s a lot easier that way.
So, yes, sometimes I’m scared. And sometimes I cry. But, I’m also resilient and optimistic, and – like it or not – always candid: what you see is what you get. If you’re going to engage me, be prepared. Like the victims of retired gossip columnist Liz Smith (or Sarah Jessica Parker’s fictitious Sex and the City character), you might just be the inspiration for my next column!