Vendor vs. vending machine

Suppliers and vendors are treated like vending machines. People put their money in when they have to. If the coin gets stuck, they kick the machine or shake it. If more candy comes out than they paid for, they grab it, especially if no one is watching.

If the machine dispenses less than expected, they ask the manager for a refund and still expect to keep the candy. If the coin return gives them candy and a refund, that’s a bonus. It’s always the vending machine’s fault. After all, it’s just a machine.

A number of years ago, while in the advertising business, my company created a third-party promotional campaign. It was for an international company, but our client was a small promotional firm that couldn’t handle the volume and creative work on its own.

After months of work and meetings, our client closed shop, and we were stuck with a very substantial unpaid invoice for work because the end user had no clue who we were and wouldn’t entertain any proposal that it pay us directly.

Our original client soon appeared on the roster of another promotional house with whom we did business. The new company took no responsibility for the guy’s prior life.

However, whenever he saw me at trade shows, he did an about-face rather than risk getting into a discussion about it. After all, nobody wants to find out that the vending machine he or she robbed has turned into a human being.

This got me thinking about how to put a human face on business. So many times I’ve heard someone say, ”ABC Co. is so big that it won’t notice that it didn’t charge me,” or ”XYZ Co. deserves to lose this money because of the way it treated me.”

Why do some of us feel comfortable with this? Because these bastions of enterprise are faceless, stereotypical entities and, as long as they remain that way, it doesn’t matter if we kick them around a little.

Shatter the stereotype

The first step is to understand and then shatter the stereotype of the image we project if it is one of big business. Changing that image may be the hardest thing you ever do.

Customer questionnaires and market surveys are valuable, but how do you find out what customers really think of your organization? When was the last time you hired a secret shopper?

Professional speaker and trainer Anne Obarski, owner of Merchandise Concepts in McMurray, calls herself the ”eye” on retail performance. She says there are three things to remember when it comes to using a secret shopper, someone who poses as a prospective customer for your service or product.

1) The shopper must know the nonnegotiables. These are things on which you will not compromise, that you have taught your people and that you hold dear to the success of your operation.

2) Your motive must be for positive reinforcement. Don’t send in a shopper to find the negatives or build a case to fire someone. The reason should be to better your organization and find the strengths as well as the weaknesses

3) Reinforce the good stuff. When you discover the things your people do well, reward them and give them incentives to continue doing them.

Seeing through your clients’ eyes

The other step in putting a human face on your business is to force yourself and everybody in your organization to dissect the image they have of what your business looks like to your clients. The next time you call your office, really listen to the image projected by the person who answers the phone or by your on-hold message.

When you walk through the doors, be conscious of all five senses. What does the office smell like? How does it look? What do you hear? Sense the entire buying experience.

Clients no longer want to buy a product. They want the experience of buying. They don’t just want a cup of coffee, they want the experience of buying the coffee and are willing to pay $3.50 for a 25-cent cup of coffee. They don’t just want to eat dinner, they want the experience of eating dinner. What is the experience you offer your clients?

Although likening what we do in business to being a vending machine may be harsh, ask yourself this: Like a vending machine, can my customer get the same product or service from any competitor that happens to be nearby?

Or are you the vendor of choice — not because of price, but because of the vending experience? Jeff Tobe, a certified speaking professional, helps organizations color outside the lines without falling off the page. For information on local presentations and training materials, visit or call (412) 373-6592.