There is almost universal agreement that successful selling starts by determining what the customer wants. This seems obvious, but as is so often the case, the Devil is in the details. Two aspects of the problem that seem to deserve more study are (1) How does one find out what the customer wants? And (2) Do customers really want what they say they want?
The methods most widely used to answer the first question are either simply to ask people what they want to buy, or to watch what they actually do buy. Alert operators have known the value of periodic customer surveys in assessing customer satisfaction, and such surveys often ask whether something should be in the machines that isn’t there now. The second approach, widely used by high-volume retail chains like supermarkets and drugstores, is becoming much more practical in vending as machines and management systems develop the ability to capture and interpret line-item sales information.
It is worth keeping those methods in mind when considering the second question posed above. Every time vending machines get tarred with the “junk food” brush, operators report patrons insisting that they want “healthier” items. Much of the time, though, the customer’s expressed desire did not carry over to purchasing behavior. This may be changing now, as many attitudes that have been under assault for a quarter of a century begin to yield to the unrelenting pressure.
On the other hand, it is worth recalling the discovery, made by more than one vendor over the past two and a half decades, that many customers really do want to see more nutritious items in the machines; knowing that they can buy something that’s better for them reassures them – while they buy what they’ve always liked.
This is not duplicity on the patron’s part. Most people have contradictory desires that fight it out when a purchase decision is to be made. It is worth devoting some study to devising a product mix that will permit the sale to be made, one way or the other.
And operators who have made effective use of questionnaires will explain that simply sending a supervisor out to ask people for suggestions of items to add is not a workable solution. Many people – perhaps most – just don’t spend a lot of time thinking about vending machine menus. If suddenly asked for suggestions for items to add to a machine they use frequently, they are likely to name the first three things that come to mind. We have spoken to operators who believe that a perverse sense of fun sometimes kicks in during this process, leading to suggestions like, “Why not put in a column of chocolate-covered ants?” This is why survey forms that can be completed at leisure have proven to be a more effective tool for eliciting actual patron desires.
It also is important to remember that what the customer wants almost always extends beyond the product selection. Customers obviously want machines that are “clean, filled and working;” they want easy-to-follow procedures for obtaining refunds when something does go wrong; and they want to know that their satisfaction is important to the purveyor. Much of the anger directed at airlines, cable television providers and the telephone companies is based on the customer’s indignation (wholly justified, in our opinion) at being regarded as a featureless interchangeable component, a mere input into a business plan, or cannon-fodder in a desperate battle waged against iron economic laws.
Vending customers can feel that way if insufficient attention is paid to their wishes. Some operators speak as though low-volume locations cannot expect to get new equipment and frequent service, and we all know that there is an important sense in which this is true. At the same time, the patron does not know that he works in a third-tier or marginal location. If he knew, he would not think it mattered. In his view, his money spends the same as anyone else’s, and he is just as entitled to be treated as a customer.
He is, of course, right. Successful operating companies always have instilled a customer-oriented attitude in their sales and technical personnel. Older equipment that’s well-maintained and well-cared-for can deliver reliable service. Attention to the load plan can reduce the likelihood that the patron will be inconvenienced by an out-of-stock when service frequency is reduced. Above all, customers need to know that they are dealing with a service provider who listens to them. The operator can deliver this assurance to them, whatever the volume of that particular location.