Not long ago, a bulk vending operator confessed to me a growing uneasiness concerning his business. "Sometimes I feel like a rat in a maze," he said. This is a successful operator who has been in the business long enough to know the game. If I had to describe him, I'd say he was a good, pragmatic businessman -- not susceptible to existential moments or the contemplation of larger questions surrounding the meaning of life. He wouldn't know Samuel Beckett from a bucket.
It was also an interesting analogy. People often reference the "rat race," but you don't hear much talk of mazes. On the surface it is easy to see where he got his wording. After all, he was an operator who spent most of his time in the field. And a route does have maze-like qualities.
What he was most likely referencing was not only the turns and stops of his route, but also the short time horizon that made up his daily routine in the office. To expand on his analogy, a maze compresses the time horizon. One makes a left turn, right turn or continues straight ahead. Each decision is made on the spot as a choice arises.
It seems to me that this is a dangerous approach when it comes to business. Putting out fires and micromanaging is all well and good. I would argue that micromanaging is an integral part of bulk vending. However, I'd just as strongly argue that big-picture management is also an integral part of bulk vending. In the latest business jargon, I believe this is called the 30,000 foot view. And that seems plenty high above the maze.
What is there to see from 30,000 feet? I suspect a lot of bulk vendors would see their businesses more clearly -- where the business is heading and how to plan for future successes. They might also get a glimpse of their own management style. At a more objective distance, they might just see some of their own mistakes, such as confusing the expedient with the pragmatic when it comes to business decisions.
The question then becomes how to get to the height necessary for looking at a business. I'd say that more data is the answer. That would include data about their own business, and data about their locations' businesses, the towns they in which they operate and the current state of all the variables that go into a bulk vending route.
I would also add constant testing and evaluation of new technologies to that list. That means new equipment, as well as hardware and software for back-office functions. It's been my experience that few bulk vending operators regularly check out the new business software or portable apps that arrive on the market with increasing frequency. By the same token, few invest in their own continuing education at local colleges.
In the grim "boots-on-the-ground" march toward ever-greater efficiencies, businesspeople tend to discard whatever is not of immediate utility or use. For many, greater efficiency also means narrowing their focus and expertise. What may seem like a competitive and profitable advantage today can turn into a devastating deficiency in the not so distant future. There is a maze-like quality to this kind of strategy that leaves businesspeople with few options when problems unexpectedly arise. They can turn left, turn right or run into a wall.
The view from 30,000 feet is far more scenic and potentially more profitable.