A captain of airborne infantry under whom I served in the Army used to emphasize that, in his experience, the majority of undesired outcomes result from failure to communicate -- specifically, negligence in sharing important information. “Keep your superiors and subordinates informed,” he would insist. “Get the word down to the man who does the job.”
I thought of him when a very knowledgeable colleague reported on her latest adventures with vending machines in the real world. She travels with children who are eager consumers of vended products, and she often experiences the problems that generations of operators and sympathetic industry observers have striven to overcome.
This adventure involved a closed-front cold-drink machine in a hotel lobby. The purchaser had an urgent request for a particular product, part of a line whose flavors have very similar names but different formulations: call them A and B. She wanted A, and the machine's flavor strips indicated that A was available. However, when she initiated the vend, she got B. And B was unacceptable to the end-user.
Our heroine immediately recognized that the route driver had made a perfectly understandable mistake, so she wanted (at least) a refund. When she communicated this request to the desk clerk, he explained that the machine was entirely the responsibility of an outside company and he had nothing whatever to do with it.
She replied that she knew all of this: The hotel had seen the need for vending as an amenity, and she was delighted that it had had the good sense to contract with a vending specialist rather than trying to run the machines itself. But under this arrangement, she pointed out, the location only gets the benefits of the service for which it has contracted if it works with the operator to ensure customer satisfaction. This usually involves a small refund bank left with the location contact, and a system by which that contact communicates problems to the operator or a supervisor who then can resolve them.
Apparently, all this was news to the desk clerk, who apparently subscribed to the well-known “I don't know, I only work here; besides, it's not my department and my job description doesn't cover that” school of thought. But after a struggle, he very reluctantly agreed to make the refund, implying strongly that this was done entirely out of the goodness of his heart, and he would eat the loss. They parted with hard feelings on both sides.
Without prejudice to any of the parties making the original arrangement for service, we can suppose that the hotel requested proposals from contractors able to provide vending services, and this operator made a sufficiently attractive presentation to win the account. We imagine everyone shaking hands all around and scheduling the installation. But we also suspect that insufficient attention was paid to making sure that everyone understood the arrangement, and their role in making it work as well as possible for both contracting parties by focusing on the determinant of success -- the customer -- and the not very complicated procedures needed to keep that customer happy. Someone did not get the word down to the man who does the job.
Back when full-line vending was new, operators were aware that many people were entirely unfamiliar with sophisticated new coffee, cold drink and fresh food machines. Thus, a new vending installation was accompanied by an orientation, which the vendor tried to make as festive as possible. The process included identifying the location personnel who would provide liaison between the account population and the vending company, setting up a refund bank and establishing a simple procedure for reporting problems and complaints to the route driver or supervisor. Those contacts would receive periodic tokens of the operator's appreciation, and every effort was made to make sure that the route drivers and account contacts knew one another and had a good working relationship.
It is becoming possible, with today's increasingly capable hardware and software, to imagine a vending machine that can identify every item loaded into it and adjust the product and pricing displays accordingly. A system already has been demonstrated for doing this in snack machines. But it takes considerable time for even a transformational advance to make its way down from first-tier locations to the older machines serving secondary accounts.
In the meantime, it is a good idea to maintain (or revive) the traditional practice of using weekly route driver meetings to introduce and describe new products -- perhaps especially those that are niche extensions to already large lines. And it is an equally good idea for vending operators to take a leaf from the coffee service book and devise simple programs for introducing location contacts to the people who are going to service the account.
As we've noted often before, the real value of technology is not that it can replace people, but that it can free them from tedious repetitive tasks so they can focus on more important ones. And no task is more important than customer service.