Back when full-line vending was still a new, fast-growing business, a charge often leveled at it by sympathetic observers was that vending operators tended to be excellent technicians, devoted to customer service; they did not promote the business the way most retailers did.
This was a generalization to which there were a great many exceptions. But many operators did, indeed, believe that their job was to make sure the equipment was in good working order, clean and stocked, so the customer always would have a positive experience (and this, long before the idea of "experience marketing" had been conceived). The ideal was an operation that worked so well that it was invisible to its customers.
That model has a lot of appeal, and we wish it would be adopted by today's providers of online services. And it was attractive to large organizations in an era when the prevailing doctrine was "don't make waves." There is much to be said for that doctrine, too; but its time is past. And even in its heyday, alert operators knew how to get credit for providing excellent service and found ways to call patrons' attention to the service.
Nowadays, though, a few moments spent with a television set, a newspaper or the Internet will demonstrate that blatant self-promotion not only is no longer considered to be in bad taste, but actually is welcomed by a generation of consumers who respond favorably to those who go out of their way to attract attention. We think this can go too far (and that it already has), but it can be understood correctly as a continuation of an old retailing tradition.
Vending has developed a variety of mechanisms for reminding locations and customers that it is a valuable service. We have recalled a number of them in this space, ranging from customer appreciation days to a procedure for making sure the location contact signs off on the successful completion of a service call.
The Internet offers an expanded range of possibilities, and the widening adoption of wireless networking expands those possibilities to the limits of the imagination. The ability of a vending machine's payment system and the network services behind it to process noncash transactions offers access to the full range of contemporary promotional tools, from multiple-purchase incentives through paperless coupons to loyalty programs. Remote monitoring, especially cybernetic response to fault conditions by sending an alarm before a failure occurs, further expands the horizon.
However, operators need not wait for these possibilities to be fully commercialized to take a fresh look at their programs for ensuring that, when they do something right, customers know it. There are many ways to do this, and they have been part of the industry conversation for five decades.
The coffee service industry traditionally has paid more attention to calling attention to itself, partly because the industry in its formative days was very attractive to people who loved to sell. Back then, nearly all OCS operators offered pretty much the same thing, and this put a premium on thinking of highly visible ways to differentiate one's business from the competition. Also, OCS route delivery personnel more often enter their stops through a front office, which gives them more opportunity to develop a cordial relationship with a receptionist or office manager.
As the two segments of the workplace service industries continue their long coalescence, it is very likely that operators will become familiar with the distinctive skills of both. Coffee service companies today increasingly must develop the expertise in technical service and maintenance that always has characterized the vending industry. Vending companies can benefit greatly from the OCS talent for building personal relationships to reinforce customer loyalty.
And it never has been more important to become ever more expert in both of these fields. We think that a major contributor to the present sour mood is the revolution in things that the digital revolution has effected. A population whose national mythology has celebrated the can-do spirit and Puritanical thrift -- "Use it up, wear it out/Make it do, or do without" -- finds itself surrounded by automobiles that cannot be repaired without access to computer diagnostic software that the manufacturers refuse to provide, and small appliances that cannot be repaired at all. And things increasingly tend not to behave predictably, and no one can explain why this is.
Vending industry observers often have complained that the dramatic improvements to equipment have not altered the basic size, shape and presentation of the machine: a rectangular metal box. But this characteristic has its advantages, too. People know what to expect from a vending machine; it is an island of stability in a world of disconcerting change. There is real value in giving patrons additional payment options, more attractive interfaces and so on, but it is essential above all to provide ongoing reassurance that the machine will continue to deliver speedy satisfaction. Technicians and route drivers are the key players in this process. They always have been, but it never has been more important to train them for the task.