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Operator Perspectives: Bill Buckholz Calls For Industry Effort To Quantify Service Call Cost

Posted On: 10/28/2011

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Bill Buckholtz, Goodman Vending, vending, vending machine, vending machine operator, NAMA OneShow, National Automatic Merchandising Association, vending machine repair, vending machine service, service call

Bill Buckholtz

CHICAGO -- The vending industry can benefit greatly from keeping detailed records of service calls, according to Bill Buckholz of Goodman Vending (Reading, PA). Ideally, this information would be combined into a national database that could be mined to establish patterns and point to techniques for reducing the substantial expense of repairing equipment in the field.

Leading one of the new Operator Perspectives sessions at the National Automatic Merchandising Association's recent OneShow annual convention, the industry veteran -- himself a former vending mechanic -- explained that he has spent a good deal of time speaking with operators around the country to determine how many service calls they dispatch every year, and how much they cost. 'I arrived at a figure of 37 million,' he reported. The actual number may be greater or less, he said, but it is important to determine what it really is. In an industry with annual sales in the vicinity of $45 billion, this represents a major expense item. 'I estimate that we get one service call for every $1,200 in sales,' he said. Given the cost of making the call, this certainly is an area that warrants much closer study.

In particular, Buckholz said, it would be valuable to analyze the sources of service calls -- customers, route drivers, technicians -- and how machine type relates to the frequency of requests for service. 'We need these figures, and we don't have them,' he warned. This has serious implications in a number of areas, ranging from productivity to loss prevention.

The speaker distributed a table he assembled from the information he has gathered during his conversations with other vendors. It breaks out service calls by the type of machine involved, the source of the call and the reported cause of the problem.

By machine type, milk/dairy venders were the least likely to need field service; 3% of calls were attributed to them. Glassfront bottled cold-drink machines were responsible for 6% of calls; closed-front bottle venders for 11%; deli food machines for 14%; canned cold drink equipment for 15%; candy and snack venders for 16% and hot beverage equipment for 21%. 'This study was done in February, which could account for the last figure,' Buckholz explained. He also calculated that cup cold drink machines generated 7% of calls, freestanding bill changers, 5% and microwave ovens, 1%.

Of service calls received by the operating companies, 42% came from customers, 38% from route drivers, 19% from technicians and the remaining 1% from other sources. A useful figure is 'failed first fixes,' service calls that did not resolve the problem and so provoked another visit; Buckholz's study found that 3.9% of service calls were in this category.

Of identifiable causes of the problems prompting service calls, 15% were attributable to route driver error, 15% to coin mechanisms and 7% to bill validators, the speaker continued. Customer abuse caused 5% of calls and electrical problems created another 5%. Part failure was responsible for 15%, and malfunctioning of the dispensing system for 17%. 'Other' causes totaled 21%.

Specific information that would be worth collecting from operators includes the answers to the questions, 'What types of vehicles do your technicians use? What is the travel time for the average call, and the farthest one? To what extent are route drivers expected to do repairs? Do you have global positioning systems or cameras on your maintenance vehicles? Do you control parts requests from technicians? How do you quantify shop work -- do you get enough 'bang for your bucks?''

Of interest to operators in general would be information on the time required to prep machines before installation, broken out by manufacturer and type; the amount of bench time required to test and repair microwave ovens, coin mechs and validators; the amount of formal training offered to technicians; and the basis on which technicians are compensated.

Buckholz introduced Goodman Vending's technical supervisor, John Walter, to describe a method that customers use to cheat modern glassfront vending machines that dispense bottles: they lean on the transparent display front to deform it sufficiently to prevent the bottle from falling, which the machine interprets as a failure to vend. The controller enables a retry or refund, while the thief simply allows the panel to spring back to its normal topology and free the bottle. This maneuver naturally deranges any kind of recording system that matches money received with merchandise dispensed, and so can prompt repeated service calls.

'Customers rock the machines, too,' an audience member observed.

'Bolt them to the wall,' Walter suggested. 'And go on YouTube; the kids will show you how to beat our machines.'

Buckholz recalled that in his two decades as a technician ('in the old days'), vending equipment incorporated relatively unsophisticated components like miniature lever switches. Today's machines have the potential for much greater reliability, but also can display symptoms that are more difficult to diagnose.

Walter recalled that Crane Merchandising Systems formed a 'technicians' council,' calling operating company technical supervisors once a month to inquire about noteworthy discoveries and problems. 'They got a lot out of it,' he reported. 'And we can do this ourselves, if we want to.'

Buckholz pointed out that many operators use their vending management software to track service calls, and this yields valuable information. 'But you have nothing to compare that information to,' he said. 'Tell NAMA that we need this industry information. Let's be bold and vocal about it.'

An audience member suggested that NAMA might establish a website that operators could use to share this information. Another pointed out that it would be easy enough to set up a Facebook page for that purpose.

'Yes; and we also could use it to swap parts, and things like that,' a third participant added.