During a recent elevator ride, we overheard a fellow passenger remark to his companion, “This would be a great business, if we just didn’t have any customers!” We don’t know what line of work they were in, but the observation might be made by someone engaged in almost any commercial activity, from running an airline to operating vending equipment.
There always have been problem customers, and sensible retailers long have recognized the kind of client that they would prefer a competitor to steal. It also may seem to observers with long memories that there has been a steady overall deterioration in the buyer-seller relationship over the past four decades or so.
Nevertheless, there are real difficulties about regarding the customer as a necessary evil. While it seems easy enough for some enterprises (mobile telephone service providers, for example) to regard their customers as nuisances, they do not have to deal with those customers face to face. Vending and coffee service operators do.
During the economic turmoil of the late 1970s, as the vending industry began to get serious about financial management, an expert speaker at an educational conference got everyone’s attention by making a point that seemed obvious in retrospect. He said that, if you could get a better return on investment by putting your money into certificates of deposit than by using it to buy vending machines, you not only would increase your net worth, but you wouldn’t have to get out of bed so early (if at all).
Of course, interest rates in those days were higher than they are at present. All the same, that perception did remind us that there are many people who choose a line of work because they enjoy it, although they might do as well without working as hard if they did something else.
A structural problem for both vending and coffee service is that their patrons have very infrequent contact with the providers. Alert vendors have dealt with this for half a century by taking every opportunity to personalize their service through “customer appreciation days,” newsletters, route driver of the month contests and patron surveys. Coffee service operators similarly have encouraged their telephone sales and route delivery personnel to establish the most cordial relations possible with their customer contacts.
And both kinds of operation learned, early in the industry life-cycle, that it is not enough to provide excellent service: You have to tell the client that you have provided it. Ways to deal with this have been recurrent topics of conversation. One of our favorites built on the well-known recommendation that a technician who takes a service call should complete the work, then fill out an invoice listing the corrective action taken, parts used and time spent, with their dollar value. The last step is to write “No charge” across it and bring it to the location contact, asking him or her to confirm that the repair had been made satisfactorily.
On this occasion, an audience member asked what to do if the technician answered a call for an out-of-service coffee brewer, and diagnosed the problem as someone’s having unplugged the appliance from the wall. “How do you write that on a work order without insulting the client?” he wanted to know.
The presenter, a veteran field service engineer, did not miss a beat. “Easy; write ‘restored continuity of power supply’ and get the customer to sign it,” he advised.
All these initiatives and programs designed to convey personality and professionalism to the clientele are very hard to maintain if one does not like the clientele. Fortunately, the great majority of people who run vending and coffee service companies do so because they enjoy doing so. Of course, they would like higher profits and fewer problems; who wouldn’t? But those who tire of the business usually can find a graceful way to step away, to another tier or another profession.
A perhaps unrecognized strength of this business is that operators can exercise more control over their client interactions than most retailers can. Hostile, unhelpful or obtuse retail clerks are very popular with comedians because everyone in the audience gets the joke. Vending machines and coffee brewers occasionally develop glitches, but they never exhibit a bad attitude.
In difficult times, it can be hard to remember the bright side of operations. It is, however, worth attempting.