The present economic situation may turn out to be a temporary aberration, like the “energy crises” of the mid-1970s and early ‘80s, or a symptom of an underlying structural change. It is too early to tell; temporary aberrations often look alarmingly permanent at the time. Whatever the outcome of this one may be, there is a consensus that the vending industry must make some fundamental changes. Discussion of those changes has centered on making route operations more efficient. A recurrent theme is, “if we keep doing what we’ve done in the past, we’ll keep getting the same results” – or, on some analyses, worse ones.
There certainly is a sense in which this is true, but it may be helpful to keep in mind that an industry really can’t continue to do what it has done in the past. All the inputs change. We could continue to do what we used to do if we were serving the same kinds of customer, hiring the same kinds of people, running the same kinds of machine and the same kinds of vehicle – and paying the same prices for products and fuel. But, of course, no one is.
When it becomes necessary to make radical changes, it is important to keep in mind the things that do not change, and the ultimate purpose of the enterprise. Amid all the recommendations for dramatic rethinking, we have heard the occasional quiet suggestion, “Maybe we’ve lost our focus on the customer...”
Four decades ago, we had the pleasure of interviewing a number of operators who represented the first generation to implement full-line vending successfully. We recall asking one of them about the company’s route drivers, and he replied that he didn’t have any route drivers. “We hire customer service representatives,” he explained. “That’s the title on their business cards – we give them all business cards – and it describes the job. They represent us; they are our company in the eyes of our clients and the general public.”
In those days, many vending companies had a full-length mirror near the door, often with a sign that read, “This is how the world sees you!” Drivers (or customer service representatives) were encouraged to listen to customer suggestions and complaints, do what they could to rectify the latter, and relay both to management upon their return from the route.
Over the ensuing decades, successful operating companies never quite lost sight of this aspect of route sales and service. However, there was a growing sense that getting drivers in and out of their stops as quickly as possible was more important than having them schmooze with the patrons. That sense was heightened by the increasing length of time required to fill a modern vending machine.
At the same time, early proposals for flex routing, sometimes based on remote machine inventory monitoring (Motorola proposed such a system in the mid-1980s) attracted interest, but provoked the objection by many operators that, while they recognized the potential advantage of servicing a machine only when it was about to sell out of a popular item, they also recognized the actual advantage of having drivers visit locations on a predictable schedule.
Over the past decade and a half, some operators have found that increasing automation has freed office personnel from tedious data entry tasks, and have given those people an increased customer-contact role. This, of course, is what technology is supposed to do: enable people to concentrate on what’s important.
There seems no reason why methods for improving route efficiency cannot be matched with methods for improving customer communications. Some operators have made effective use of their websites to post newsletters; we think much more might be done along these lines, at modest cost. Customer surveys always have been effective tools for operators, too, and can be done online.
The pioneer full-line operators also gave their route supervisors responsibility for staying in touch with patrons, often encouraging them to have lunch in the vending area of a different account every day. As it becomes possible to obtain audit and functional status from networked machines, it may be that spot-checking locations by supervisors can shift toward stronger customer relations.
Vendors always have known that “there’s nothing automatic about automatic retailing,” and that ways must be found to personalize vending services. There surely are ways to do this better, while making the changes necessary to improve efficiency.