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Using High-tech to Bring Back Human Touch to Operations

November, 2014

Guidance, collections, reservations all add to a parking aura

By Patrick Ryan

The decidedly “set in its ways” U.S. parking market is changing. Finally. And it’s changing with the help of technology, although perhaps not quite in the way you would expect. Spurred on by a perfect storm of dramatically increasing wages and ever-decreasing technology costs, parking operators are making the most of the situation and bringing their systems into this millennium.

But it’s not about using machines to replace people. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Operators have realized that it’s all about the people. And they’re leveraging technology to bring humanity back to parking.



The imperfect circle

We’ve heard it repeated, and we’ve repeated it ourselves: Up to 30% of street traffic may be drivers circling, looking for a parking space. If it’s true, that’s a big, frustrating number for drivers.

And until now, we have had but two tools to use to alleviate that imperfect circling: Price and Period. We could either jack up the rates or toy with the length of stay until enough people were “dis-incentivized” from parking where they wanted.

Not anymore. Now there is a third “P” in town: Position. Customers who previously may have driven around blindly looking for parking can now locate the exact position of the type of parking that suits them.

Drivers can make instant decisions on where to park, and operators can use Price, Period and Position to balance congestion across multiple locations.

Operators have invested considerable time and money building advanced databases of their entire parking inventory. From up-to-date information such as the address, GPS coordinates, number of spaces and clearance height to “dynamic data” such as live rates and the number of spaces available — all this is now collected and maintained in data warehouses.

Why? Cars and mobile phones have GPS sensors in them. But those sensors don’t do much good without accurate, up-to-date information. Thanks to the work of local teams of people in garages and parking lots around the country, this information is quickly and efficiently updated any time anything changes. And when published to a web-based map, or sent via API to an online parking finder, these data are available in real-time, for customers to make their own decisions about where to park.

A little guidance

Congestion isn’t restricted to just city streets. We’ve all seen the person who blocks the drive lane in a garage, indicator flashing, waiting for a prime spot, while the clueless occupant of that space chats on the phone. Fortunately, technology has gone a long way toward solving this one as well.

Parking guidance systems sense which individual spaces are available, listing the results by way of variable message signs on each floor. Parkers can see at a glance how many spaces are available on that floor and can decide whether to stay there or head up to the next level for more free spaces.

Some new, simple and cost-effective systems show each space’s status with a colored light above the space, and even more sophisticated systems that can recognize license plates.

After spending three hours getting turned around in the shopping mall, customers can simply enter their license plate number into a kiosk and be directed back to their parking space. Of course, the real-time occupancy data from the system are streamed back to the database, allowing customers searching for parking to see what’s available and make an informed purchase.



Serious reservations

Until recent years, parking meant making sure you had an ashtray full of cash or coins, or (quaint as it may seem) buying a pack of gum to get the needed change. Since the advent of credit card equipment and pay-by-cellphone, customers have had convenient ways to pay as they parked.

But these days, paying once you’ve parked just isn’t customer-friendly enough. Customers want to be able to pay in advance and have the peace of mind of a space waiting for them when they arrive.

Operators who track their inventory can list their spaces available online, and customers can search for parking near where they’re going. They can pay for parking using various online or in-app accounts without ever taking out any cash or a credit card.

These newly catered-to motorists can receive offers and rates, redeem online coupons, and get “early bird” or special event prices. Parking passes are sent via email, and the operator sets aside the spaces. When the customers arrive at the garage or lot, they simply open the parking pass on their smartphone and wave the phone under a barcode scanner, just like boarding a plane or going to a movie.

This technology is even making its way into that most customer-service-intensive parking operation – the valet stand. Guests can reserve or pay for valet parking online, too. When they arrive, the valet uses a standard smartphone with a scanner and credit card attachment to scan the customer’s smartphone or printed parking pass, the valet ticket and the vehicle’s VIN. When the customer is about to check out, or is polishing off the last of their soufflé, they can send a text, and the valet will have the vehicle ready and waiting. If the customer stayed longer than the reservation, any additional charges and tips can be handled with a quick swipe of the credit card through the smartphone.



Can I please speak to a human?

We all know that even technologies aimed at greater customer service can fail. And when things do go wrong, it can be infuriating to deal with yet another machine. Ironically, that’s where more technology comes into play.

Just like phoning a friend, some garages and lots now have sophisticated VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) systems integrated into the parking equipment. At the press of a button, a customer with an issue can speak to a friendly, well-trained service agent at the Customer Care Center. The agent can speak with the hapless motorist, watch them over a video link and assist with, say, a credit card transaction, or something as simple as see that they are inserting the ticket upside down.

Via a web-based console, the customer service agent can also interact with the revenue control equipment, clearing issues, and raising the gate to let customers go happily about their business.

What great assets!

But how do you find great talent and teach them how to help people? You utilize technology to carefully attract, select and train them. “Laz University,” is an example of an industry-leading program featuring a full, formal curriculum of in-person and online courses, video learning content and online group video lessons.

Students use an internal social media platform to share coursework and homework and to cross-pollinate ideas and strategies among themselves. They all learn from one another’s experience on the job, even if they are in different places around the country. Utilizing the latest in human technology allows an operator to use the best of everything that they’ve learned in other markets and be a truly national provider.

For a growing parking operator, identifying and nurturing talented people from within reduces the risks and expense of hiring new, unknown employees for important roles. Using an advanced talent management database leverages technology to ensure that clients and customers are supported by our most important human assets.

While in some cases automation and technology are performing the jobs that people once did, the most successful operators will use technology to improve the role that their people play in interacting with clients and customers.

Technology can be leveraged to help employees give customers the best possible service in the location, at the valet stand or over the phone. After all, technology is only at its most effective when it’s used to improve the human touch.



Patrick Ryan, Vice President, Innovation and Marketing at Laz Parking, can be reached at pryan@lazparking.com.


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