Gifts & Garbage

AUTOMATED COLLECTION may have revolutionized the way the waste industry conducts business, but machines won't give you a big hug and a bottle of whiskey at Christmas. In many communities, technology has replaced human labor to collect people's trash, which some haulers say has made operations more cost efficient. However, it also has placed companies farther from their customers.

“Automation alone cannot guarantee efficiency; it requires customer cooperation,” says Michael Hoyt, field operations director for the city of Glendale, Ariz. For an automated system to work, customers must be educated on what receptacle to use, and be willing to work with haulers on its placement.

And to improve customer service where automation has left off, Hoyt says his department now takes larger strides to communicate with customers — using strategies such as the Internet to publicize services and attending town meetings to gather public feedback on how to improve routes and collection.

Why such devout focus on customer service?

Because it can pay off. Let's face it, improved customer relations makes the waste industry's job easier. And if you're lucky enough to live in Hawaii, every holiday season, haulers are showered with gifts, as well.

Local residents leave presents for their collection crews — anything from juice, peanuts, hams, turkeys, whiskey, beer to aloha shirts — to show their appreciation for a job well-done. The tradition has been around for more than 30 years. Thus, when the city of Honolulu implemented automation in the majority of neighborhoods in 1999, the city refuse division administrator thought gift giving would decline.

But because Honolulu's haulers take the time to get to know their customers and handle problems quickly when any arise, their loads are still abundant. In fact, drivers receive so much from residents that they often must arrange with their families or friends to follow them on their routes to store all the gifts. (The city does not allow alcohol on garbage trucks, but even excluding those items, there still would not be enough room in the cab for everything, drivers say.)

As savvy business professionals know, good customer service can give a company a competitive edge, increase customer loyalty and subsequently increase profits. So although residents typically like to forget about their garbage, it is better for a hauler's bottom line, and the entire community, if home-owners know they are working in partnership with haulers to toss out their trash and tackle any problems. And as a bonus, haulers picking up the garbage may receive it with a little extra gift of gratitude.

The author is the editor of Waste Age