Although there is a consensus that the American economy is sound at heart, predictions for a third-quarter upturn have been muted by the continuing lack of investor confidence provoked by well-publicized financial scandals involving large corporations. In general, it may be said that these organizations have come to grief by losing sight of the primary objective: to develop and market something that will please their customers and keep those customers coming back. Creative financial people were chosen for leadership posts, rather than creative sales or product development people. The results might have been predicted.
The vending industry traditionally has worried about its image, and progressive operations of all sizes long have been active in local public relations and community goodwill-building activities. While operators may take some grim satisfaction in reflecting that they, at least, are not engaged in the energy or telecommunications businesses, we do confront a danger that the National Automatic Merchandising Association has set out methodically to avert.
Historic discussions of the vending industry's image have revolved around the perceived impersonality of machines, the difficulty in convincing patrons that vended products are fresh, even if they did not see the route driver stocking the machine, and issues such as refunds, mechanical reliability and equipment functionality and appearance. All these topics are important, and all segments of the industry have made steady progress in dealing with them. This has paid off in growing public willingness to use vending machines by choice, not just by necessity.
Less widely discussed is the widespread knowledge that a few vending operators always have been less than straightforward with their clients regarding their contractual obligations. The industry leaders who drafted and approved NAMA's Business and Ethical Standards had before them the evil vision of an attorney general somewhere, on a slow news day, launching a probe of the vending industry's business practices. It does not require much imagination to grasp the problems that this kind of thing would present to the vast majority of honorable vendors, who are outraged at losing business to marginal competitors' unethical tactics, and who certainly do not deserve to be tarred with the same brush as may be applied to those fringe operators.
For that reason, we think the vending industry should welcome the NAMA Board of Directors' decision to make endorsement of the association's eight-point Business and Ethical Standards Code a condition of membership. NAMA president and chief executive officer Richard Geerdes announced this decision in mid-July, and the announcement could not have been more timely.
Operators who evade their responsibilities to clients are making the same mistakes as the corporate high-rollers who now are being summoned before Congress and the courts, albeit on a smaller and more local scale. They are devoting too much time to playing with numbers, and not enough to building strong relationships with their customers through quality products and flexible, responsive service.
To be sure, every industry has its bad apples, and none ever will be rid of all of them. However, every step taken to isolate and marginalize them, and to emphasize that they are not at all representative, is a step in the right direction.
Given the content of today's headlines, we think that NAMA member companies who have embraced the Business and Ethical Standards code have something to talk about that their customers, and the media, would like to hear. The core philosophy of the mainstream vending industry always has been founded on ancient principles of commercial honor: that your word is your bond, that you pay what you owe, that a handshake agreement is morally binding on both parties, whatever loopholes a legalist might find in it. Those principles are often overlooked by the current generation of fast-track business school graduates.
The old adage, "honesty is the best policy," can only be understood fully by recognizing that those who coined it meant by "policy" a strategic approach to dealing with others (the usage survives in "foreign policy"). NAMA is to be commended for giving its members the opportunity to make explicit, in this explicit age, what long has been the foundation of the vending industry's success.