From time to time, we receive correspondence to which there really is no suitable reply, but that provokes thought. For example, a recent e-mail from an irate location manager wanted to know whether there is some clearinghouse for complaints against incompetent vending operators.
There isn't, of course; the market has ample power to take care of that without any such agency. And the difficulty about these complaint-department ideas is that incompetence often (though surely not always) is in the eye of the beholder.
Over the years, we have spoken with a number of operators who reported receiving a request for a proposal from a local business dissatisfied with its present vending service. They all responded in the same way: they contacted that service to warn it of the imminent loss of a client. The consensus was that the same thing could happen to any of them, if somebody assigned to a jump route neglected to change a burned-out fluorescent tube, or someone forgot to pass along a complaint. And their unanimous view was that any operator confronted with this situation deserves one chance to set up a meeting with the account to set matters straight. After that, a dissatisfied customer was fair game.
We're sure not everyone agrees; but those whose policy is always to go for the jugular seldom talk much about it. In any event, we think it is a commendable approach that can help build vending's image. Telling customers that one's competitors are worthy of respect may seem old-fashioned, but perhaps for that very reason, it can distinguish this industry from more contemporary retailing media.
At the same time, everyone hopes that this kind of thing does not happen to him or her. And people running a business, in this industry or just about any other, can forget that the everyday problems that loom large to those attempting to provide a service almost never are recognized by clients. This, of course, is as it should be; the clients take that service so that they won't have to deal with the problem.
The situation offers opportunities, as well as challenges. The increasing use of new tools that can warn of impending faults before they deteriorate into service calls can add a new dimension to some tried and true methods of avoiding unpleasant surprises.
One of these, of course, is handling service calls. Customer-oriented operators have known, almost from the industry's birth, that when a machine stops working, it not only becomes an immediate expense item, but an obstacle to future profits, too. For that reason, they always have made detailed plans to respond quickly when something malfunctions, and to keep records of each stage of the response. If, for some reason, a repair that was supposed to be made yesterday is being made today, they want to know about it to prevent a recurrence. And those records can provide unexpected insights into problematic equipment -- and problematic customers.
It was soon recognized that a service call also provides an opportunity to reinforce the company's professional image. The usual method is to instruct technicians to report to the location contact when the repair has been completed and ask him or her to confirm that the work was done satisfactorily, usually by making a couple of test vends and handing out the product. A refinement is to do this by means of a work order that the technician fills out, listing the cost of labor and any parts used, writing "no charge," and asking for a signature. This calls further attention to the truth known to every operator, but recognized by few customers, that keeping equipment working in the field is an expensive and demanding job.
This method also has been applied to preventive maintenance. Again, it is part of the industry's received wisdom that setting up a PM schedule that gets every machine visited twice a year or so can save a lot of money in the long run, not only by avoiding the need to replace burned-out compressors, but also by bolstering the confidence of the patrons in the reliability of the equipment. And, as with service calls, it is beneficial not only to make the visit, but to make sure the location knows it has been made.
These proactive practices were developed in a day of electromechanical controls, when equipment was a good deal more fragile than it is now. But they are as valuable as they ever have been. And an operator considering the addition of remote machine monitoring might start by making sure that present service and maintenance procedures are up to snuff. A client sensitized to the prompt appearance of a technician reporting the successful resolution of a service call will be prepared to appreciate the advance represented by the appearance of that technician to report that an impending problem has been corrected before it took the machine out of service. Once more, much of the overall value of the technology is the good impression it makes on the client; but making that impression takes work.
Some people always will find a reason to be dissatisfied. The best we can hope to do is to make sure that it's a silly one.