One of our colleagues, who finds herself navigating through the contemporary world with three small children in tow, recently told us of an experience which we suspect is widely shared. It certainly is not novel; industry observers have been concerned about it for half a century or more.
She lost money in a malfunctioning device in a local mall. Well-instructed in the coin machine industry, she looked for a label with instructions on whom to contact for a refund. The label she found did not quite tell her that, but it did provide a phone number, and the invitation to “call for service.” As soon as circumstances permitted, she dialed that number and got a recording that instructed her to leave a message stating the nature of the problem. She did, reporting the machine’s location, stating the difficulty and leaving her name and address.
Rather to her surprise, she soon received a phone call from the operator, who apologized for the inconvenience, promised to send the refund promptly (which he did), and thanked her warmly for calling the malfunction to his attention, so he could correct it.
The modern world is full of marketers – Internet service providers, computer manufacturers – who envelop consumers in warm, fuzzy promises of cutting-edge convenience and coolness, but who are wholly insensible to the real problems encountered by their customers, and unwilling to provide workable procedures for solving those problems. By contrast, many (perhaps most) operators adhere to the older tradition of doing a good job, and not telling anyone. To do so would be boastful.
We were brought up in that tradition, and we hold it in high regard. At the same time, we remember the ancient rhyme beloved of an older generation of advertising salesmen:
The codfish lays ten thousand eggs; the homely hen lays one;
The codfish doesn’t cackle to tell us what she’s done;
And so we scorn the codfish, while the homely hen we prize,
Which only goes to show you that it pays to advertise!
Part of the problem, and it is by no means unique to our industry, is the difficulty of standing back and imagining the situation as it appears to a customer who encounters a problem. Very few people have any idea of what an operating company is, or exactly what it does. When the circumstances call for “refund,” the patron may not associate that with “service.” One who nevertheless perseveres and “calls for service” would be reassured by a message explicitly stating how to request a refund.
The vending industry has worked hard for more than half a century to emphasize convenience and service. This effort has not been in vain; we do not hear nearly as many sneers about “one-armed bandits” as we did in the 1960s and ‘70s. Equipment is more reliable, and natural selection tends to eliminate unprofessional operators. On the long view, it probably is safe to say that the image of the industry has improved from exasperated tolerance to moderate approval. But there still is a long way to go.
And the effort is well worth making. Again on the long view, the vending industry is characterized by its intense locality; machines must be serviced by capable people in trucks that leave from and return to a warehouse that is reasonably nearby. And alert operators always have striven to personalize their service.
That the customer can call to report a problem, and get a human being to solve it, is increasingly rare in the modern world. In fact, it is so uncommon that it elicits pleased comment when it is encountered. We have known operators who keep and prize letters they have received from patrons impressed by the speed with which a refund was sent, or a complaint addressed.
Every era seems to provoke a characteristic discontent. The full-line vending revolution took place during a period of pastoral nostalgia; the typical complaint was that everything was becoming too mechanized, complicated and inhuman. Successive generations developed a more realistic view of complication, and a willingness to deal with machines if they received convenience and reliability when they did.
The present age, however, has learned to associate unresponsiveness with size, scope and disempowerment. Some time spent listening to the commercials run by banks will suggest the uses that can be made of that perception. Being local, personal and capable is a real asset, and operators who know how to see through the eyes of their patrons can take full advantage of it.