Engagement Starts With Customer Satisfaction

Posted On: 11/27/2018

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There seems to be general agreement in online marketing circles that "engaging" customers is essential to selling things to them. When done trivially, this tends to be ineffective and/or annoying. It might be done carefully and intelligently, but much of the care and intelligence needs to be devoted to recognizing the overall context in which the engagement occurs.

We think about this when we consider "beacons" as potential sales-builders for vending. The idea is to equip a machine with a transceiver that can detect the proximity of possible customers, alert them to its presence and location, and perhaps make a promotional offer.

What we haven't heard discussed is the difference between types of prospects. If you're in an airport at an hour when most of its foodservice concessions are closed, you probably will be glad to learn that there's a vending bank nearby. However, if you work in that airport, it seems likely that you soon will look for ways to avoid receiving those notifications every time you pass within 50 feet of the beacon.

This has been the problem with vending machines equipped to talk and/or produce sound effects. In the right kind of public location, those features certainly can arouse interest and elicit a positive response. However, if the site's population doesn't change much from day to day, the regulars soon will find them irritating.

Historically, some of the most engaging vending machine features have been those that give the patron the option to participate, but require no particular action. An example is the classic "poker cup" theme, which proved durably popular in hot beverage machines four decades ago. The attraction of this concept is that like-minded vending patrons, lining up during a coffee break, can choose to make small wagers about the "hands" they will be dealt, but no one is solicited to play. These cups built engagement, but didn't rub the customer's nose in it.

As vending machine controllers became increasingly sophisticated, manufacturers began offering features that the operator could activate in order to build engagement. Things like time-of-day pricing adjustments did not gain much traction, because they made auditing more complicated. Today's more capable data recording systems might breathe new life into the idea. One optional engagement-builder that has found considerable favor is the "winner" mode, in which the machine dispenses a free product (usually a hot drink) at random, with the frequency of free vends pre-set by the operator. Here again, no action is required of the customer.

While it's challenging to persuade people to "interact" with a vending machine in any way other than making a selection and paying for it, there is considerable scope for applying contemporary technology to strengthening customer relations. Alert operators have known for at least five decades that periodic customer surveys bolster loyalty. The usual way of conducting one has been to stand in the vending area at a high-traffic time of day and hand out one-page forms with 10 or so questions printed on them. A patron who fills one out and turns it in is rewarded with a free product. There are other ways to distribute and collect the questionnaires – and we think today's wealth of telecommunications choices should suggest more. Customers like to be heard – especially when their suggestions elicit an appropriate response. When the suggestion is for a way to solve a problem or resolve a complaint, a satisfactory and friendly response is even more effective.

This point is easy to overlook, but it's central to any discussion of engagement. Customers like to know that their desires are, at least, being considered by the companies with which they deal. At present (and probably for the foreseeable future), the company's human beings need to handle that. This will be obvious from the present state of "digital assistants." They can be very useful for retrieving a fact, but anything beyond straightforward searches and list processing is beyond them.

There surely are ways for a company involved in several enterprises – vending, micromarkets, office refreshments, etc. – to present a uniform, customer-friendly image to its varied clienteles. In environments where several of those endeavors coexist, it's worth looking for ways to cross-market. With the explosive proliferation of noncash payment systems today, it should be possible to cooperate with other retailers in joint promotional programs that can be good for everyone.

But when all is said and done, the interaction that a customer wants with a vending machine is simple: I approach a well-maintained machine stocked with a good variety of products, at least one of which I want. I insert money and make my selection, and my product drops into the bin. Students of behavioral psychology will recognize this as "positive reinforcement." It's possible for us to move beyond "clean, filled and working," but not unless we start by perfecting that.