Helping Customers and Consumers: The “Special Sauce” at RSL – and Beyond

Beginning at the End

As I am about to leave RSL (Refreshment Systems Ltd) in Bradford for the final time, Alistair Balmforth, MD, bids his farewells then leans in a little closer to explain, almost confide: “SB Software take you a long way with Vendmanager, and then let you build on that yourself if you want to – however far you want to. They were not frightened to help us to go where we wanted to go. That data comes from us, and remains ours, and we have full and free access to it. It’s not like that with every technology supplier, you know.”

It’s very dense language – coded almost. And it builds on the foundations of our conversations that have stretched over two on-site visits, plus explanatory phone discussions along the way. For me, it supports an idea of “RSL Special Sauce” that is coming into clearer focus in my head as I drive away. This sauce:

– is key to delivering benefits and results for RSL clients (and their own end-users, the consumers)
– prioritises the needs of RSL customers, including needs that the customers don’t even know they have – yet
– sets the company apart, and runs prominently through the messaging now taking front of stage on the RSL website, for all to see
– is also underpinned by an additional “RSL Special Secret Sauce” – this is not made so overt (the clue to that lies in the word “secret”).

Special Sauce

The RSL special sauce helps their clients (for example site owners) to be ever better, and in turn improve the experience for the consumers (the end users). You will find high quality explanations and examples on the RSL website.

The RSL special secret sauce does this – and more. And because it is proprietary to RSL, it is not broadcast in public.

SB Software and Vendmanager strive to be a key ingredient in both of these sauces (the special and the special secret). This is alongside all the fundamental essentials of running such a successful vending operation (for example, Alistair is himself trained as a professional accountant so the precision of reconciliation now being achieved thanks to Vendmanager and Datakey has “not gone unnoticed.”)

To clarify all this, we’ll need to wind back the tape a bit, and take things one step at a time…

How Did We Get Here?

RSL and SBS. Together.

Sometimes, the best way of understanding where we really are, and where we might be going (next and beyond) is first to take a glance behind. Just so long as you don’t stare too long…

March 2019.

In this case we begin by looking back a little over a year and a half. The rollout of Vendmanager across the RSL estate was first announced on the SBS website on 26.03.19:

At the time, I (Jed – I handle communications at SBS) was struck both by the full commitment in numbers to Datakey from the outset, and by that evidence-based approach to Databridge – evaluating results to guide rollout (RSL have since invested significantly further in Databridge).

But even more, I took note of how bold that quote at the end from Alistair is: pledging to deliver innovative solutions to benefit customers. That’s heavyweight.

From that day on, I looked forward to finding out more – as soon as the right time came…

Before the Interviews.

Because Vendmanager touches on every aspect of operations, there will always be elements that take a while to “settle” into the ways and processes that prove best for each client. And after that, they will likely (preferably) continue to adapt and improve – ideally without end. Vendmanager is not designed to be static. Just like a successful vending business itself, the greatest achievement lies in adapting flexibly to ongoing changing needs and environments.

So, it was always planned to allow a bit of time to let things bed in, before asking Alistair’s permission to visit and ask/see how Vendmanager was performing “in the real world” at RSL. Were we living up to Alistair’s ambitious pledge – were we supporting innovative solutions at RSL to benefit customers?

It was not foreseen that a global pandemic would intervene to stretch that time out a little further.

Along the way, I:
– heard ongoing positive feedback via the SBS team on results in the field at RSL (particularly about improved efficiency on-site, with “Single Walk” especially paying its keep)
– understood that RSL were “quite demanding” as a client, setting very focused technical challenges, then (rightly) pushing for results as soon as possible, or preferably quicker
– did a bit of (unplanned) ultimate mystery shopping myself (when I had the chance to assess the quality of RSL end-product deep undercover: see photo below from my local A&E).

Monday 20 July 2020.

This was my first ever visit to RSL in Bradford, to meet Alistair (solo – this time).

Normally I am limited to one trip per “case study” like this. But this was luxury (for me), with two foreseen – starting with reconnaissance to discuss and understand the terrain better on the ground. One reason that this is significant is that it allows me more opportunity not just for listening, but for truly “hearing”. And that feeds into the direction subsequent questions and topics take: there’s more possibilities to adapt and respond. I can focus my laser beams better.

The date here is also significant, set against the backdrop of the pandemic. This was very soon after the first national lockdown had been relaxed. Except that the lockdown was not the same for everyone:
• Me? I had been working from home almost exclusively. Online. Shut away. Zooming. Isolated (barring interruptions when my son forgot to plug the headphones into his home schooling, aka Fortnite). Watching too many crime movies on Netflix late at night.
• Alistair (and a core team at RSL) had been going into the office, and out on the vans, throughout. Serving their customers, keeping business going:
– Adapting to a market transformed beyond recognition overnight
– Re-scheduling, and re-arranging routes: again and again
– Driving through streets morphed into a ghost town
– Keeping supplies flowing, by sharing tasks across the staff still on duty
– Replenishing and servicing those machines still in operation
– Making things work efficiently even with a greatly reduced crew.

… and throughout Vendmanager was key. Alistair told me so.

The standout quote for me (in the role that I play) was simple, clear and direct:
“I wouldn’t like to even think of what it would have been like without Vendmanager.”

I know that all of the team back at SB Software will be proud when they hear that.

The whole of the visit itself was fascinating for me throughout, as I started to understand more of what makes RSL tick, appreciate a bit more of why they are so successful, and how technology/ data (including Vendmanager) is important already, and growing ever more pivotal.

As a plot spoiler, I will share now that putting customers and their end-users first and foremost is key throughout.

That key point – and everything else – feeds into the content that follows. So, I will just leave you now with this view, of the wall that faced me throughout in the meeting room where we sat.

Sometimes the walls really can speak. It should help to set the scene.

Intermission & “Slow Cooking”?

There were some 11 weeks between my first and second visits to Bradford. That allowed time to reflect on what I had found out so far (or thought I had). And still more usefully, opportunity to consider priority aspects where I would like to know/understand more. Where were the gaps?

“Slow cooking” (like this) always gives more chance for flavours to develop than “fast food” can.

And alongside all the many positives, there were also two conflicting angles that were causing me concern:
• There was a lot of powerful material that Alistair had talked about in our first meeting that I would love to include because it was fascinating and especially enlightening in terms of the future of vending, and the significant role that technology will play – if/when deployed well – in serving customers.
• But he had also made it very clear that however much he likes SBS as a company, or Simon as our boss (and I believe that he does, for both our deliverables – the value added that we bring – and for the values that we hold dear ourselves), he did not intend to give away his “company secrets” just for our sakes.

I couldn’t see a way to reconcile these two angles.

And then came a “lightbulb” moment shortly before the planned second visit, when I was revising my notes. Checking things out. Revisiting the RSL website …. and there was a “Ka-ching” moment (or whatever the sound effect is in movies when the “penny drops” or something becomes suddenly apparent or transparently clear).

As long as I trod carefully, there was a way.

The website is whole-heartedly upfront about the benefits of technology (especially when data-driven), and its current  deployment at RSL. These were the very topics that I had wanted to cover, but didn’t know how. And they were there. Out in the open. In plain daylight, for all to see.

And the text already went further than generalised “vanilla” references. It explained key ways that RSL make a difference, especially using data and technology. In places it was more akin to a manifesto – setting out the company vision and mission.

I printed out copies of the sections I felt most relevant and potent (cut down to “just” 4 sides of A4 so that it wasn’t  overwhelming), and slipped them into a slim dossier, for easy access: now I was ready for the next visit.


Second Interview Visit: 07.10.20.

Again the timing is significant.

After the attempts to restore some normality to lives (and livelihoods) since the summer, despite the pandemic, by the start of October, it is already seeming inevitable that further restrictions will be in place again soon, whether nationally or locally.

So, I am grateful that Alistair still goes ahead with the meeting. It also confirms my belief that treating suppliers well is a part of the ethics here. Even though money only flows in the one direction (in this case southbound on the M1 to SBS in Sheffield), we are all a part of the same eco-system. I appreciate it: here “Integrity,” “Teamwork” and “Responsibility” also share wallspace with “Innovation”.

And for this session, the cast list has grown too. I am pleased that we are also joined throughout by Carl Tate, Head of Operations.

The setting is the same room as the first meeting. And this time I also get the chance to photograph these key players in front of those signs that surround us on every available inch of the wall-space. Both bring their own perspectives, specialisms and expertise to the discussion, breathing life into the words on the signs. Convincingly. They operate mostly as a tag team, taking it in turns to contribute, before combining as a duet for emphasis (or if one simply can’t wait for the other to finish).

It’s powerful. And sincere. This stuff matters to them. Deeply.

And I like that. We all spend so much time and energy at work that it’s better for everyone – especially ourselves – if we can enjoy and take pride in what we do. Their pride is evident (in the right way – I am not talking about arrogance in any way) in the portraits. Check their eyes: it’s usually a good marker.

RSL Uniques

And then there’s this diagram too (it’s also on display on the wall, titled “Our Uniques”):

Working round clockwise from top left:

1) Proactive Category Management is a topic that is covered in some detail on the RSL website, and (amongst other dimensions) makes data, products and locations work hard together to maximise performance, sales, profit and customer satisfaction. I would not dare to venture any further unaccompanied myself for risk of straying into “secret” special sauce. For more information click here.

2) I loose track of the number of times Alistair reminds me that RSL are carbon neutral during our conversations – he’s rightly proud of that. And each time he also reminds me to mention it in the article too – with good motives: he would prefer it if more in our sector followed suit.

3) I suspect that this is an ongoing discussion that never ends. When it is right to do so, RSL bring in external expertise (and Vendmanager is one example). But the preference wherever possible is to handle as much as they can themselves – to own both the challenges and the solutions. This also explains one of the key advantages they see in the SBS philosophy with Vendmanager: they are free/empowered to use the data themselves as they see fit – and they do!

The topics we cover in our conversation are both wide-ranging and in-depth. Remember that “dossier” I mentioned, that I prepared in advance? That proves handy for easily referencing matters that are now covered (more than amply) on the RSL website, including the two “selected highlights” that follow.

RSL’s Own Words

Selected Highlights (1 of 2): Product Category Management

RSL’s Own Words

Selected Highlights (2 of 2): Technology

Alongside Technology

The more we talk, the clearer the emphasis that however useful technology/data is (and it certainly is at RSL), it is a tool not the end in itself. And both Alistair and Carl are proud of the results that RSL achieve whether with or without the assistance of technology:

• Short term, that includes all the efforts during the pandemic – of everyone who has gone the extra mile to help customers.
• Longer term they are proud of the success built up over the years on firm foundations (Alistair himself took the helm in 2006, following in the steps of his father).
• And throughout it spans all the goals and values summarised by the signs on the walls around us – they are keeping these commitments (both to themselves and to everyone who comes into contact with the company).


Along the way I learn extra information, illustrating how data – managed by Vendmanager – really is proving to add tangible benefits.

We are part of the recipe for the special sauce, for example:

– I arrived fore-armed with information from SBS about RSL saving time with “Single Walk” for instance on hospital sites where machines are especially difficult to access. I left with the additional confirmation that on those very same sites RSL are also simultaneously increasing sales (because the machines are better stocked). So, this impacts profitability on each side of the balance (BOTH cost reduction AND revenue increase).
– The route planning functionality of Vendmanager has more than earned its stripes under the live ammunition fire of Covid-19. When customer requirements are so fluid, and even the ground keeps shifting under your feet, a tool that makes light of frequent updates and amendments is invaluable.
– Faced with a real-life challenge from me to illustrate their ongoing data based evaluation of product potential with segmented target audiences, RSL pass with flying colours: my 11 year old son says thank-you for the Cookie Dough Kit Kat they specify and send home with me for him: they were right. (Although his mother wasn’t so pleased, but that’s my fault – RSL also offered plenty of healthier options.)

Concluding the Interview

In case you haven’t realised, I enjoyed my time with RSL, and would happily have stayed longer. But boundaries, including time limits, also have their benefits – and in this case it felt like a very focused session together because we had a defined cut-off. So that was useful. The deadline was my friend.

I was most impressed by everything that I saw at RSL, and even more so by the words that I heard (from both Alistair and Carl). Thank you again to them. After saying goodbye (we are now back where this text begins), I drove round the corner, pulled in and wrote a note to myself:

Simply better for visibility, efficiency, profitability, and customer service

“Because SBS delivers what it says on the back of all our own business cards … RSL can deliver more of what it says on their walls.”

And as for that “special sauce,” and the “special secret sauce”? Vendmanager is an ingredient in both.

It felt good to be part of that myself.

I hope that I will be returning to RSL some time in the future, to see more of how this story continues.

Because it’s just going to keep getting better…

One Last Thing…

And finally, did I mention that RSL are carbon zero? (I know that I did btw.) Alistair believes RSL are currently the only vending operators in the country who are. And he doesn’t want to be. This is one “unique” that he wants to discard – but only because others decide to take the same route.

So, if you would like any more information on how RSL did it, or how they would go about it were they starting today, Alistair says that you are more than welcome to get in touch. I guess that’s the exact opposite of “secret” sauce – it’s a public broadcast!

As a company, RSL chose to support the Kenyan Energy Efficient Stove Project. The project builds energy-saving cooking stoves for villages in Kenya. Resulting in a 50% reduction in the need for firewood, preventing carbon from being emitted from the stoves. In addition to carbon prevention, it also provides families with a cost and time effective method to cook with.

Text and image: source RSL website.
Click here to view website.