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EDITORIAL: First Things First

Posted On: 4/14/2009

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The vending industry today is on the threshold of a new era. In fact, it has been on that threshold for more than a decade. There seems to be a certain impatience, in some circles, over our apparent unwillingness to move forward into the bright future made possible by information and communications technology.

This is not new. Vending certainly is not more resistant to adopting new technology than most entrepreneurial business are -- probably less, in fact -- but vending operations face some practical problems unknown to (say) shoe stores. A vending operation requires a more intricate set of controls than does a retail store, so changing the audit and inventory control procedure is more difficult.

Perhaps more importantly, a vending operation does business through a large number of machines in the field. The operator may be persuaded that upgrading to multi-price coin mechanisms or bill validators will increase sales and customer satisfaction, but installing those things is a costly, time-consuming and laborious task that must be taken in many small steps.

When the improvement calls for changing both the accountability system and the hardware (for example, advancing from single-price to multi-price coin mechanisms), the difficulties are compounded.

Nevertheless, vending does move forward. This can be hard to recognize, because everyone moves at a different speed. A well-financed startup company able to buy all new equipment fitted with contemporary information capture, retrieval and communication technology and supported by current management software would be able to hit the ground running. A well-established operating company, however, almost always will have to plan and execute a lengthy, methodical process, usually starting with the management software and involving extensive retraining along the way. The process has been described repeatedly at National Automatic Merchandising Association technology seminars (see, for example, the one we reported on in our December issue). This would appear to give the startup enterprise a competitive edge.

In the real world, though, it might not. If the newcomer were not familiar with the vending industry, the experienced operator with an outstanding customer service approach would possess some real advantages that the startup would have to work diligently to overcome. Cutting-edge technology alone will not do it; it must be used in the context of a well-thought-out approach to service.

What this means is that an operator who always has striven for close and cordial customer relations may find that this effort has bought time for an orderly adoption of the latest technology, and built goodwill that can smooth the rough edges of the transition to a new way of doing things. For these reasons, we think that analyzing customer service with an eye to making whatever improvements are needed is an important initial step in planning a comprehensive upgrade of technology and operating procedures.

Nearly every "best practice" in vending customer service was developed during the early days of the full-line revolution, half a century ago. As machines ceased to be novelties and became essential providers of refreshments to people at work, public expectations for them naturally increased, as did public resentment when those expectations were not met. The pioneer operators recognized this problem as critical to their success, and their solutions are as applicable as they ever were.

Those operators recognized that their route personnel were their eyes and ears in the field, the front-line troops. We recall a company that explained, repeatedly, that it did not employ any "route drivers" -- the people it recruited and trained were "customer service representatives," and they were taught to regard themselves as such. They carried appropriate business cards, too. And the office in which they started their workday contained a full-length mirror, like an Army orderly room, with a sign reminding them that "This is how the world sees you."

The drivers, or CSRs, were debriefed at the end of the day, and were encouraged to report everything the patrons had asked them, or told them, about the products and the service. That information was written down, considered carefully and acted upon, in one way or another.

The pioneers also recognized service calls as an opportunity to reinforce their professional image. Technicians were trained to follow a set procedure: After correcting the problem, they were instructed to fill out a form listing the cost of any parts replaced and the value of the time spent on the work, then write "No Charge" across the bottom. They then brought it to the customer contact at the location, who was invited to come try the machine, offered a cup of coffee, and asked to sign the form, verifying that the repair had been made to their satisfaction.

Today, a fully implemented remote monitoring system can take this approach to a whole new level; but the traditional method still works very well. New technology will work best when it's used in this way: to delight a clientele that already knows it is being well looked after.