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Posted On: 10/23/2010

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There has been a good deal of talk about making better use of operator websites as sales tools, and more recently, about the possible role of "social media" in strengthening customer loyalty and encouraging people to visit the break area.

Vending operators, unlike some coffee service businesses, cannot engage in e-commerce. This industry's primary purpose is to provide single servings for immediate consumption, and it's not possible to download a candy bar (at least, not yet.)

But vendors generally do serve affinity groups, people who regularly gather to work or study and have some interests in common. One of those interests is the vending service. Over the years, alert operators have learned that patron populations do develop a communal feeling about the vending available to them, for better or worse. Today's communication systems might influence that feeling for the better.

An ancient perception from the days when soluble coffee machines were vying with 30-cup batch brew and single-cup fresh-brew venders is as valid now as it was more than four decades ago: "If they like you, they'll like your coffee." This is an oversimplification -- there is such a thing as bad coffee -- but it has a solid core of truth. We try, whenever possible, to buy things from people we like and trust.

Back when typical full-line vending locations had large populations, a vending company could enjoy adequate sales even if a lot of potential patrons did not use the machines. Astute operators knew, though, that they could enjoy much better volume and build customer goodwill by creating a favorable impression. They sought to do this through periodic customer appreciation events, perhaps sending a supervisor or customer service representative out to stand by the hot beverage machine during a break period, offering to buy everyone a cup of coffee, tea or hot chocolate.

This method is by no means extinct, and it has been supplemented by occasional sampling sessions, often cosponsored by suppliers. And it can be reinforced by regular customer surveys, conducted by means of a form available in the break area and publicized by the offer of a free chocolate bar for everyone who completes one and turns it in to the route driver.

But operating companies today generally serve a larger number of smaller accounts, which makes the traditional approach to promotions more costly and complicated. And this is where technology might play a role.

Students of Internet marketing report that offering customers the ability to write product reviews builds credibility for an online retailer. The reason, they say, is that prospective purchasers trust their peers more than they trust the producer or the merchant. We can see how this system works well for uncomplicated products or services, but it can fail when the product must be installed or adjusted: some customer-reviewers evidently don't do that correctly. In such cases, the user feedback really should be moderated by someone who can suggest, politely, that the thing will work more satisfactorily when it's not put in upside down.

It always has been recognized that vending suffers from a lack of human contact. We are not convinced that most people really prefer to buy something from a person instead of a machine. We are inclined to believe, rather, that vending patrons simply want to know that they're using the machine correctly and that they have some recourse if it does not deliver the results they expect. What they miss is the ability to ask a question.

We can imagine a scenario in which the people in a vending location would have the opportunity to join an online forum hosted at the operator's website. Perhaps everyone would receive a password, which they could use if they wished to enroll in a users' group and participate in the forum. Incentives might be offered for people who chose to enroll. Beyond this forum, the website might offer tools for making suggestions or complaints, reporting recurrent problems, praising a route driver or technician, and participating in periodic surveys. Small premiums might be awarded to users submitting something particularly useful, or taking part in a survey. The proceedings could be summarized periodically in a sort of online newsletter. Some sort of loyalty or frequent-buyer program might be implemented.

Beyond that, an attractive and engaging site would offer a variety of opportunities for providing information on everything from nutrition to coffee quality -- and, of course, the vending industry.

We recall that, back when handheld route computers became capable of replacing paper route tickets, forward-thinking operators who adopted them found that eliminating the need to re-key information into the database not only offered much greater accuracy and speed, but also freed up office personnel -- who could be reassigned new, more interesting duties in customer service. The new time- and labor-saving technologies thus may make it possible to assign experienced people to the job of strengthening informed communication with customers. We think it's well worth trying.