While writing this column last month, I discovered that it was starting to turn into two columns, and I didn’t have room for both. So I wrote the second one too, because I think that the value of staying in close touch with customers is related to the wider subject of communications, and that’s a topic that needs close attention right now.
Why is it that with today’s modern communications, we know less about our customers? We need real-world details, not just gimmicks that distract us from the task. The “information superhighway” doesn’t deliver nearly as much information as many people think. It’s useful for getting a fast overview of what’s available, and it certainly is a great aid to writing term papers. Of course, this has very little to do with sales.
The Internet as a general-purpose medium still is very new, and many companies don’t have the time or resources to expend on developing a website in-house. Unfortunately, too many of them apparently leave all the decisions about design and content up to the people they hire to do the job for them. At the least, the visitor hopes for a telephone number – and I think you may be justified in questioning the legitimacy of an enterprise that tries to make it impossible for prospects to call them.
And a surprising number don’t update their sites often enough. We get a lot of press releases about new products from suppliers who haven’t put those products up on their websites. We also get press releases whose preparation seemingly was contracted out to someone who didn’t see the need to include contact information for the supplier! But press releases of any sort are becoming scarce, and we’re grateful for what we get.
It sometimes seems that, during all the “rightsizing” and “core competency focusing” that has taken place over the last decade or so, the need for effective public relations, for communicating with prospects and customers, has gotten brushed aside. Suddenly, accountants and lawyers are making marketing decisions, and most of them know little about customers. They have no way to correlate marketing communications with bottom-line results, so the PR and sales functions gets short shrift. In particular, PR too often is turned over to a marketing department that doesn’t have the time, the resources or the skills needed to do it effectively. (Remember my warning last month about getting too involved in day-to-day details to remember why you’re in business in the first place?)
In public relations as in advertising, the qualities needed to attract the attention of an impulse-driven teenager are quite different from those required to arouse the interest of a commercial buyer. It may be helpful for an operator to know that an item is scrumptious or ultra-trendy, but not nearly as helpful as knowing how it is packaged, shipped and stored, or where to get it – or better yet, how it can make him or her money!
And again, in advertising as in public relations, you often can get much better leverage by addressing your message to the commercial customer, even though it takes more work and it may not be as much fun. As I pointed out last month, where else except vending can you reach so many customers with such little financial exposure? A relatively small number of vending operators can display a new product to a very large cross-section of the adult away-from-home public. Placement in a vending “merchandiser” is one of the most cost-effective ways to launch a new product and test the marketplace. It can be a lot more prudent than going after the big retail chains, with their demands for promotional and shelf allowances. Once you’ve tested the market with vending and demonstrated consumer acceptance and repeat sales, then blitz the market in the retail channel.
Our editors tell me that exhibitors at trade shows not directly aimed at vending and coffee service operators have begun to show a gratifying interest in vending. Twenty years ago, producers of specialty or niche products either didn’t know that there was a vending industry, or dismissed us as purveyors of low-cost goods to low-end patrons. Today, many of them respond eagerly when asked about the vendibility of their products. This is a very positive development, and it will only get better as pricing technology improves and, more importantly, operators recognize that we now operate in a much wider market than the old industrial workforce or the traditional street location.
At the same time, though, many suppliers seem unwilling to make much effort to communicate with vending operators – and, I sometimes think, with anyone else. They may believe that a website is all they need, whether or not it conveys useful information. Sometimes, they seem constrained by upper management. We’ve encountered suppliers who appeared to regard questions about size, shelf-life and distribution as industrial espionage: if they told us, their competitors would find out. Of course, a really secret product wouldn’t be offered for sale, for fear that a competitor would buy one.
Or, as some industry old-timers have complained, they may just share the modern aversion to risk. Too few people are willing to commit to anything whose outcome is uncertain, or whose results can’t be quantified. Here’s a news flash: getting out of bed in the morning involves risk! I read an article in Oprah magazine that said, change is movement and movement always generates friction. Change always involves risk, and so it’s uncomfortable.
Retailing pioneer John Wanamaker used to say that he knew half of his ad dollars were wasted, but he never could find out which half. Publishing titan Arthur (Red) Motley famously said that “nothing happens until somebody sells something.” I could go and on and…
From some perspectives, sales may be less exciting than counterespionage or corporate infighting. And it does involve expense, uncertainty and exposure to risk. But selling is needed to bring in the revenue that keeps the organization going. And communications, both “hot” (advertising) and “cool” (public relations) is essential to sales. So is showing the product to prospective purchasers.
The two key channels for getting your message to coin machine operators are the trade associations and the trade publications. And, as you may have guessed, here comes the commercial message: At the risk of tooting our own VT horn, we are your voice! That’s what we do. (Okay, I can’t resist. Why not take advantage of all the resources available to you – and Help us Help You)?