Jim Proebstle, business consultant, believes measuring customer satisfaction is a key principle for business growth.
Prof. Bonnie Knutson recommends measuring end users expectations and experiences to get the clearest picture of satisfaction.
Prof. Bill Donohue suggests operators use social media to interact with customers and measure their satisfaction levels.
Consultant Tom Britten warns operators to plan carefully before and after surveys.
Former vending operator Tom Siciliano promotes focusing on the location manager with shorter questionnaires.
“Veronica Vendor” offers vending promotions and nutritional comments. End users at the location can be her “friend” and make a comment.
Photo credit: Social Media: A New Tool to Measure Satisfaction (sidebar)
All operators promise quality customer service. This may mean quickly responding to service calls, always having a friendly, likeable demeanor, or having products that fit customer requests.
But being committed to good service isn’t enough. Operators must know if customers are satisfied with the service they are providing. This is the only way to ensure the account will stay with the current vending provider.
There are many ways to measure satisfaction, from a phone call to a written survey, but benefiting from it depends on how well the measurement quantifies the customer’s perceptions and how well the operator responds.
A powerful Web-based survey was presented at the NAMA 2003 Spring Expo by Proydne, Inc. designed to help operators understand client satisfaction with company representatives, products, equipment cleanliness, response time and more. It was used by a few operators, but many were unresponsive.
Could it be that many operators didn’t understand the value of measuring their customer satisfaction, such as how it could increase their profits?
SATISFACTION = GROWTH
Consultant Jim Proebstle, president of Prodyne, Inc. and a NAMA knowledge source partner, encourages operators to measure customer satisfaction. “Customer satisfaction is a proactive, offensive strategy in every business,” he said.
Because vending is an entrepreneurial business, many operators start small, where they know every customer on the route and the customers’ wants. Due to this understanding, indicates Proebstle, their business is successful and their company grows until it is beyond the operator’s ability to know every customer. This is where measuring customer satisfaction is invaluable. It provides a systematic understanding of what the customer thinks — not what someone believes the customer thinks. “It’s a great tool for growth and profitability,” said Proebstle.
MEASURING END USER PREFERENCES
Dr. Bonnie Knutson, professor of strategic marketing at Michigan State University, argues that to maintain long-term profitability, vendors must measure the attitudes and perceptions of the end users.
Many things go into the buying experience for the end user which leads to how satisfied they are with their purchase. Some things are out of the vendor’s control, such as the temperature of the break room or mood of the patron. But Knutson indicates a customer’s satisfaction can be identified and therefore measured with a two-pronged approach: expectation versus perception.
Common consumer expectations of vending machines might be convenience, product for reasonable price, freshness, undamaged product, and a clean machine. The perception is the consumer’s actual experience. Was the machine in a convenient location? Were the prices about what the consumer expected or higher, or lower? Were the chips reasonably whole and crunchy, or broken into bits? And so forth.
“If perception meets expectation, that equals satisfaction,” said Knutson. Logically, if the expectation is higher than the perception, the consumer is angry, and if the perception exceeded the expectation, the consumer is happy.
When incorporating expectation and perception into a survey, expectation becomes a benchmark and perception is the user’s experience. Knutson recommends surveys, such as the NAMA “At-Location Survey of Customer Reactions,” that measure both of these elements.
Knutson offers the following sample survey questions:
* How important is it that the vending company provide product conveniently, provide healthy alternatives, provide brand name products, etc.? Rate on a scale of 1 to 7
* How well did the vending company fulfill that expectation? Again, rate on a 1 to 7 scale.
Being specific is the key element of good survey questions, according to Knutson. That way, if overall satisfaction dips, an operator can look at each element to see where the trouble with perception lies, whether it’s friendliness of the route driver or product variety.
As a follow up, Knutson recommends a focus group. Go to the location and ask about the products, service and equipment. Being there gives the operator the ability to read the body language and intensity of the respondent, according to Knutson. It’s important when trying to determine how extensive that rating of “dissatisfied” on the survey is, for example.
INCENTIVES BUILD SURVEY RESPONSE
Knutson favors offering incentives to fill out the survey and volunteer for focus groups as a way to encourage participation. “I’ve found a chance to win a big prize works better than sending out a small thing,” said Knutson. She recommends a cash prize anywhere from $50 to $100, and more if operators are dealing with executives or doctors. “It’s worth the money if it increases sales,” said Knutson. Also, if the survey is done online, it can be a time and money saver since operators won’t pay for telephone interviews or paper and pencil costs. It usually means automatic tabulation as well.
Knutson recommends a pre-alert email indicating the survey is coming, followed a week later by the actual link to the survey and then a follow-up reminder that the incentive is still available for completing the survey.
Overall, Knutson doesn’t like comment cards, since they are not often representative of all users, just those with a grievance. But they are an easy tool for consumers to voice their opinion, she said.
“Today’s comment cards are Facebook and Twitter,” said Knutson. If a consumer tries to buy a soda from a vending machine and it gets stuck, the consumers’ frustration gets texted right then and there. “Smart vending companies better have someone monitoring social media on their brand,” said Knutson.
Using social media, specifically Facebook, to interact with customers and measure their satisfaction is something Dr. Bill Donohue, professor and director of sales communication at Michigan State University suggests. In the sidebar above, Donohue describes how reaching location consumers on Facebook and giving them an opportunity to interact with their vending service is invaluable marketing for the whole industry.
AFTER ASKING ABOUT SATISFACTION, TAKE ACTION
“No company should deploy a survey if they intend to do nothing, or very little, in reaction to the findings,” said Tom Britten, founder of Britten Management Services, LLC, a vending consultant. When an operator asks questions about price, quality, service and variety, it creates an expectation on the part of the respondent. According to Britten, the questions imply the operator’s intention to improve.
Britten has seen survey systems fail because operators didn’t communicate the results back to respondents, especially when the dissatisfaction voiced by the respondents remains unchanged. “If you are not willing to address all the perceived issues that may be surfaced, do not even start,” cautioned Britten. Options to share results may be a posting on the company bulletin board or on a machine noting any action that will be taken.
Britten suggests setting goals based on survey responses as well. For example if the score on the satisfaction with available healthy choices is 49 percent, then the operator can make it clear to the client that by the next survey, the goal is to be 70 percent. The operator can then suggest ways to accomplish this goal, such as eliminating the commissions on healthy products, which would allow for a price roll back.
An ancillary benefit of customer surveys is that they can be used by progressive firms as a marketing tool, notes Britten. He’s seen operators use survey results when pitching new customers. In such cases, the operator cites the number of clients that rate them excellent on service, product variety, etc. The operator then challenges the prospective customer to survey their employees about the current service to see if the rating is the same.
Britten doesn’t think surveys are always necessary if an operator communicates well in other ways. “The best customer relations levels are often achieved by the smallest of companies, no disrespect to the big guys, but when machines are serviced by a husband and wife team that own the business, a relationship evolves that’s hard to beat,” said Britten.
DON’T FORGET THE LOCATION MANAGER
“Smart operators know it’s more profitable to retain an account than get a new account,” said former vending operator Tom Siciliano, who is also a long-term knowledge source and partner at NAMA as well as a consultant in Huntley Ill.
The key to retention is measuring customer satisfaction, Siciliano said. But how to get that information is tricky, especially for short staffed operators who struggle to find the time.
MEASURE LOCATION MANAGER’S SATISFACTION FIRST
Siciliano said measuring customer satisfaction starts with the location manager. This person ultimately decides if the vending service stays or goes. According to Siciliano, there are a number of ways to measure this person’s satisfaction.
Operators can have the route driver deliver a postage paid comment card that can be mailed back to the company. The route driver can also be trained to ask questions in person.
If seeking input through the route driver isn’t an option, or if the account is a large customer, a 5-minute phone call is best. While Siciliano believes surveys, like the NAMA “At-Location Survey of Customer Reactions,” are great tools, they are too long for busy route drivers or operators who are calling busy managers at the location. He recommends having three to five questions instead.
The key issues to ask about on the comment card or over the phone are: service provided compared to previous providers, likelihood of continuation of service, and satisfaction with product selection, equipment and service representative.
Siciliano gives the following examples:
* How would you rate our level of service compared to service you’ve received in the past?
* If you were to share your thoughts about continuing to use our service next year, would you say it’s likely or unlikely?
* How would you rate the product selection?
* How would you rate the equipment?
* How would you rate the service representative?
Any responses less than “excellent” get a follow-up phone call. “There’s no reason to ask a question if you don’t have an actionable step to follow it up,” said Siciliano.
This feedback is more important due to the current economy. “Nowadays, customers will make a change even to save 5 percent, which is unlike the past,” said Siciliano, “unless there’s a reason to keep you.” High satisfaction with service is that reason.
For more information, contact:
- Dr. Bonnie Knutson, Michigan State University, 517-353-9211
- Jim Proebstle, Prodyne, Inc., 847-381-7885
- Tom Britten, Britten Management Services, LLC, 813-469-5437
- Tom Siciliano, Integrity Recruiting & Consulting, 847-669-6723
- Dr. William Donohue, Michigan State University, 517-355-7580
Customer Satisfaction Action Plan
Know your limits. Operators interested in long-term profitability have a greater need to measure customer satisfaction than those staying afloat for the short term. Time and resources will dictate if an operator should measure the satisfaction of the location manager, the end users, or both.
Know what to ask. Survey questions should focus on satisfaction of current service and future needs. End user questions should address the product selection, equipment and service staff.
Know how to ask the questions. Phone calls work best for important locations that have a manager that deals with the vending service. Surveys, ideally done online via email and with an incentive for completing, are ideal for end users. Social media can be a way to stand out from other vendors and bring a sense of personality to the vending service.
Know your action plan. If any satisfaction falls below excellent, immediately follow up with a phone call. If reviews from a survey are negative, go to the location manager with a plan for change. Don’t ask a question if you don’t plan to do something about responses that call for change.
Social Media: A New Tool to Measure Satisfaction
Dr. Bill Donohue, professor and director of sales communication at Michigan State University, has come up with a creative way to use social media for free to monitor end user perceptions. He suggests starting a Facebook page for a vending machine and inviting all the end users to become friends.
The page should be for a specific machine at a specific location. Write things on the Facebook page that give the machine personality, suggests Donohue. “We live in an interactive world,” he said. Allowing consumers to interact with the vending machine is essential, whether it’s requesting products or responding to posts like “The importance of bottled water.” The vending machine can even ask questions about how it’s doing with service or apologize for inconveniences.
Whether the operator does the postings daily himself or has someone else do it, the Facebook page is sure to generate interest.
“Vending operators need to generate excitement about their business,” said Donohue. “They are competing with c-stores…who have a name and face at the checkout.”
Customer Review Sites
Ike’s Place, a California sandwich shop, is surveying customers on its Website for satisfaction and the possibility of moving into food vending. The company uses a consumer critic site called “Yelp” to market it sandwiches.
Posted on Ike’s homepage is “People love us on Yelp! Check out our 1500+ reviews!” It’s linked to the reviews so visitors can read them easily.