Buying a System? Advice from Someone with Experience
Your parking access and revenue control system is old. It is in constant need of repair. The system needs to be replaced, but it will be costly. This is the situation we faced for several years until we finally decided to do something about it.
The following are a few of the things that we learned about the purchasing process plus some advice that we would like to share with vendors regarding their handling of potential customers.
Advice for Buyers:
This is one process which I would not recommend entering without a consultant, unless you are thoroughly versed in putting an RFP together and familiar with the workings of the revenue control systems on the market today. It is not a "gate goes up, gate goes down" technology anymore. Revenue control systems are quite complex and some of the vendor representatives with whom you will deal will not know all of their system's capabilities.
When you purchase a parking access and revenue control system (PARCS) today, you must realize that the application of network technology is vastly different from what it was 10, or even five, years ago. As with any major technological system, you have both local and global design considerations. Connectivity issues such as: fiber optics, wireless, T1/DSL/ISDN, and CAT5, will also be a part of your decision process. Like most parking providers, we were searching for a better way to organize and maintain our contract customers, so we researched how technology could help.
Before you get started though, it is important to list and rank the key features that you want your new system to provide and which features you like about your current system that you want to maintain. This is critical because your goal is to match, as close as possible, the features you require with the products and services offered by the vendors. It is possible that the vendors may not be able to meet every requirement, so it is very important to keep an open mind and know where you can be flexible. (You will understand how important this is when you read my advice to vendors.)
Once you have selected a consultant, do not rely on him/her for everything. Talk to other consultants and talk to people who have recently purchased state-of-the-art systems. In other words, learn as much as you can about what others like and do not like about the available systems.
In your RFP, require that the vendor list three or four installations that are similar to the one you are outlining and that you will be able to visit. Plan to make site visits and to ask the tough questions. You have to make sure that what you are buying meets or exceeds your requirements. Even if the site is far away, go see it (the cost of a trip is peanuts when compared to the cost of a new system), and make sure that the members of your staff who will work with the new equipment are present to view and evaluate the vendor's proposed system.
Once your RFP is issued, have a mandatory pre-proposal meeting so that all prospective vendors hear and see the same thing.
Select a system and vendor that will provide: user friendliness, reliable data collection, data security, software flexibility, the ability to generate customized reports, compatibility with current technology (AVI, smart card, Internet, variable message signing, etc.), and service, service, service.
Advice to Vendors:
Responses to specifications in the RFP should be brief, to the point, organized, honest, and easy for the buyer to read; so follow the format of the RFP. If the buyer has numerous proposals to review, you will lose the interest of the buyer if he/she has to ask: "What are they talking about now? Where are they now in the RFP?" "What relevance does that comment have?" Likewise, do not say that you can do everything unless you can and you can show it to the buyer at an operating site. There is a fine line here though. Do not take excessive exceptions; but, if you cannot do something, say so, and if you think that you have a better way of doing it, say so and why, and say what its shortcomings are, if any.
Learn what the buyer's priorities are. There is a lot in the RFP. It is a lengthy listing of what the new system will be expected to do; however, find out what is most important to the buyer and concentrate on making sure that he understands how you answer his needs and why you do it the best. A buyer is going to have strong interest in your proposal if you show an honest interest in giving the
customer what he wants or better.
When making a site visit with a buyer, understand what the buyer wants to see and make sure that your site visit clearly demonstrates your proposed solution to the buyer's needs.
Jim Eversman is the executive director of the Wilmington, DE, Parking Authority. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org