Not long ago, a bulk vending operator told me that nearly everything he needs to know about his business is a product of software: Numbers go in and numbers come out. You won't find a more enthusiastic proponent of technology than me, but the operator is dead wrong. Even the most sophisticated technology can only provide one or two pieces of the data puzzle, when it comes to business.
Managers, from bulk vending operators to C-level big shots of multinationals, depend on data. In my experience, the more data a manager is capable of consuming and assessing, the better they are at the job. This is no small thing. Businesspeople are flooded with data everyday from an enormous number of sources. However, for the purposes of this piece, let's look at "feedback."
I define feedback as anecdotal information from the field. That means chatting with location owners and management, comments from route personnel and even gossip from other operators. Unfortunately, for an increasing number of operators, these soft data are underrated, and can't be quantified. They can't easily enter it into spreadsheets, nor can the numbers be crunched. In many instances, it's nothing more than a vibe. Given the squishy inexact nature of such data, is it any wonder that many people discount it as worthless?
Yet businesses have a long tradition of seeking out such information. Large corporations spend tens of millions of dollars to acquire, compile and present such data to their top management. Consulting firms have reaped millions by acquiring just that type of data from focus groups, telephone surveys and even field interviews. Corporate managers don't receive this kind of data in a flood of disparate sources. I've been told that it is presented in nicely organized reports in expensive folders. Charts are also rumored to be involved. Even with this type of window dressing, it still remains feedback from the field and a very expensive version of the much-maligned suggestion box.
For bulk vending operators and other small business owners, feedback is largely dependent on organizational culture. Owner-managers who run their business with a "my way or the highway" or "kill the messenger of bad news" management style are unlikely to receive much in the way of feedback from the field. Employees are prone to simply tell them what they want to hear. Sadly, this attitude is prevalent in bulk vending.
Conversely, owners who make it known they want news from the field, regardless of whether it is good or bad, tend to make better business decisions. These are the owners who are constantly "taking the temperature" of their businesses and their markets. These managers also tend to have workforces with better morale.
The second component of feedback is acting on incoming information. What exactly does a manager do with the informal data flowing in from the field? Well, that's the tricky part, isn't it? One businessperson I know likened it to panning for gold. That is to say, you have to sift through a lot of mud and rocks to come up with a nugget. Is it worth it? For those who have mastered the skill set, I believe it can pay off richly.