Personal Contact in an Impersonal Age


Personal Contact in an Impersonal Age

Chip Chism


If you are like me you get about 18 billion emails a day. Most emails are boring and innocuous–simple replies from co-workers saying “Ok” or “yes, we should do that” or “I don’t know what you are talking about, I did not eat that donut you were saving. I wasn’t here that day. I swear!” Some emails are from desperate captains of industry looking for someone who will give them access to a bank account so they can safely sneak 700,000 million dollars out of a foreign bank. Normally, I scan and delete with speed that cannot be measured with existing stopwatch technology. But I got one the other day that was unique.


I am the director of Parking at a college in Pensacola, Florida. You can imagine my surprise when I got an email from a man in South Florida asking for help with a parking citation. Florida is a huge state. The driving distance from Pensacola to Key West is about the same as it is from Pensacola to Kansas City, MO. South Florida is a long way from Pensacola. 


The email described the problems a man was having appealing a citation issued by some parking authority. Apparently, the man had paid to park via an app and was cited anyway. I suspected the email was a scam. But I noticed there was a phone number so I decided to call. It was not a scam. It was a real email from a real person having a real problem.


When I called, a nice man answered and I introduced myself. I said I received his email and I was calling to see how I could help him. I explained how I was in Pensacola at a university. He said he knew where I was and who I was. I asked him why he emailed me about a problem he was having in another city hundreds of miles from my office. He told me he found my name on the Florida Parking and Transportation Association website so he took a chance and emailed. 


He said he was having no luck getting in touch with a real person at the agency who issued the citation. He said he had emailed and left voicemails, but no one had contacted him. I could sense his frustration. I told him I would make a few calls and call him back. He thanked me, and I went back to deleting emails from people eager to give me millions of dollars if I would just send them my account number.


Later, I got to thinking about automation, accessibility, and customer service. There’s no doubt technology has improved and streamlined the parking industry. I’ve been in the business since 2004 and the changes I have seen have been incredible. Contactless parking is an amazing thing. The ability to pay for a parking space on a phone from your couch is truly a wonder. But when there are problems with the technology there should be a way to (easily) reach an actual human. 


The man I spoke to found himself in an endless loop. He said a website was directing him to a phone number and the number was directing him to the website. I understood his frustration. I’ve been in that situation myself and it is never pleasant. Sometimes people just want to speak to a person. Someone who will take an interest in them and their problems. Even if you can’t help them there is a value in conversation. Connections matter. 


Even the best system can be confusing to users. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that we understand our own parking systems because we helped build them and we deal with them daily. Additionally, people who grew up with the internet sometimes forgot not everyone did. There’s a segment of the population that finds technology confusing. We do not need to go back to the old days of the Cool Hand Luke parking meters and sacks of quarters, but we do need to make sure we are accessible.


I try to be as accessible as possible. When my phone rings, I answer it. My department does not have a voice mail directory. If you call us, we answer. I realize not every organization can employ the same level of accessibility we employ. I admit sometimes I get too many phone calls. But each person I talk to, even if they are angry about something, is a connection and an opportunity. Every call is important to me, even the ones eager to sell me an extended warranty for a car I don’t own. 


I never heard back from the man who emailed me. I hope he was able to resolve his problem. Even if I wasn’t able to give him the answer he was looking for I hope I was able to let him know I cared. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I just got an important email from a CEO in some foreign land who needs my help sneaking 3 million dollars out of his bank. All he needs is an account number!


Chip Chism is Director, Parking and Transportation Services, University of West Florida. He can be reached at jchism@uwf.ed

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