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The Fuel And The Fire Of Business Technology

Posted On: 3/27/2011

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My high school auto shop teacher's favorite expression was "fuel or fire?" He simply meant that 90% of the time when a car won't start, the problem could be traced to the fuel delivery or electrical systems. Check the carburetor, check the distributor, check the battery and check the fuel pump. He must have repeated the phrase a thousand times during the school year, and I doubt it has been forgotten by anyone who took his class. (I'll add that he once told me, "Boy, there's not a single thing I can teach you about fixing cars." Unfortunately, he didn't intend it as a compliment.)

I can't imagine he would care much for today's smart cars. He'd see something immoral about using a computer for diagnostics. He was deeply suspicious of any vehicle with less than a 350 cubic inch engine and eight cylinders. While he never admitted it, I suspect he viewed automatic transmissions and power steering with the extreme wariness of passing fads that would surely vanish once women stopped driving.

He was not what's regarded as forward thinking by today's standards. Nevertheless, his "fuel or fire" refrain has stuck with me. I can see a similar concept when it comes to technology in bulk vending. To adapt it just slightly: 90% of all the fancy-pants, state-of-the-art technology serves to provide information faster and organize it in a way that helps an operator make decisions. At their best, data and technology are the fuel and fire for running a business.

So, it's perplexing to realize that many in the bulk vending field seem to eschew the full potential of new technology when it comes to managing their businesses. This is particularly paradoxical when you stop to consider that, for better or worse, coin-op is in the technology business. While traditional bulk venders may not possess any electronic components, virtually every other piece of equipment in an operator's inventory relies on more sophisticated technology. There seems to be a large gap between the way technological sophistication is applied by equipment in the field and the back office. 

Operators seem to have the technological fire, but not the fuel. Data run technology, and in the case of coin-op that includes data from the cashbox, product movement, test results and expenses, among dozens of other sources. While the vast majority of operators uses PCs and such portable devices as smartphones, only a small percentage uses them near their full capability. Many operators are simply replacing paper record-keeping with digital devices without expanding or exploring the machine's capabilities beyond its basic functions. For instance, operators tend to use the same few functions in business phones as in their personal lives. It is rare to find an operator who has moved beyond texting, email and phone calls. To be sure, those family pictures on the iPhone don't count.

In all fairness, this is not entirely the fault of operators. Like most small businesses, they lack the resources of larger corporations. They don't have full-time IT departments to evaluate new software, attend seminars and solicit feedback from end users. For most operators, just keeping up with the latest product offerings and servicing their locations keeps them more than busy.

However, not finding the time or expending the effort may be a costly mistake in the long and short runs. Underutilized technology is not dissimilar to an underutilized employee. To put it another way, it's like a car you never shift out of second gear.