How Can we Improve our Industry and the Quality of our RFPs?
By Pierre Koudelka
During the last seven decades, our parking industry has gone through many market changes, some of which you may or may not agree with.
In the early days, we had manufacturers whose job was to make and sell parking equipment, but they never wrote system specifications, as did their counterparts in Europe.
Then we had parking consultants whose job was to write requests for proposals (RFPs). After all, they were engineers with proficiency in structural design, precast concrete and equipment, and provided studies and analyses of all kinds.
Then we had parking operators, independent firms that provided the manpower to run a carpark. They invested in real estate, and collected the money on behalf of the owners, be they cities, hospitals or universities. We also had private owners that occasionally ran their own facilities.
In hard times, architectural firms entered the marketplace of carpark design to keep staff busy. The results were not always the best.
Such firms often forgot the complexity of carparks. For example, exposure to the elements makes them act more like bridges than buildings, so the dynamics change considerably. Also, dealing with traffic flow, column placement, revenue control systems and drainage further complicated things.
In other words, designing parking facilities should be left to the experts with experience. I would define an experienced expert as one with more than 100 satisfactorily completed carparks to their credit.
In the parking world, revenue control is paramount. Even in this age of credit cards, parking is still a cash business, and the temptations for shenanigans are great. Still, overall, the industry was pretty well-balanced, with operators managing and consultants firms writing impartial specifications on revenue control equipment so that their clients got their proper due.
This resulted in a fairly good system of checks-and-balances throughout the PARCS process. The hen house was secure from any wolf-like interference.
Then, toward the end of the last century, we started to see operators take the role of equipment specification writers away from the consultants. This was due, in part, because consulting costs for specification writing increased beyond the owner’s willingness to pay.
Another reason was that operators could do it for far less, given that their income stream was not predicated on the cost of writing specifications, but rather on obtaining the operational contract that they would get at the end of the process.
This strategy worked well, and the operators, for a time, were able to distinguish their services in this way from their competitors. In time, other operators had to do something similar in order to stay competitive. This lowered pricing, as other outside firms started to write specs as well.
With due respect, this strategic action brings up the question of who should write specs? Should an operator write the specifications that ultimately control them when the management contract is awarded? Then again should architect firms or parking consultants write specifications, or for that matter, the PARCS manufacturer?
However well-intended, the question remains: “Who is best at guarding the chicken coop?”
Lowered pricing has happened because owners continually try to drive down the price of any parking service. It’s unfortunate that the industry has had a hard time justifying the price of their services. Many in the industry feel that our services are undervalued and we should do more to promote and legitimize them. I agree.
This constant push-back on price by owners ultimately affects the service they get in return from everyone. We may have become far too price conscious, and consequently, I question if owners are getting their fair due, or did they get more for their dollar years ago?
Writing system specifications is an art form. Good writers should all get praise as it’s not an easy task. I have written many, and staying current is essential. Of late, too many Johnny-come-latelies muddy the waters. This hurts everyone, causing delays, misunderstandings, rebids and sometimes legal actions.
The RFP process has not changed for decades, and the results are specs that often are outdated or overly biased. Bad equipment specifications happen because the art of “cut and paste” has taken over. It’s just too easy to take a little from every supplier and throw it together with another, and think you have a working system.
Systems today require fiber backbones, working networks and computer redundancy that are often not clearly defined in RFPs.
Some just don’t understand what the manufacturers have to offer, or they get sold on an idea that’s not ready. Anyone consulting on revenue control equipment, for example, should visit every manufacturer at least every two years to understand their products and, just as important, to know the firm’s quality standards, equipment lifecycles, maintenance costs and company solvency.
Misunderstandings of systems result in an inability for anyone to truly comply with every aspect of the RFP. This results in judgment calls on behalf of the spec writers and owners in determining winners. Too often it boils down to just “price” and not quality or true compliance, nor product life expectancy. The owner is often not getting what he thinks, and that’s inexcusable.
Some RFPs, in an effort to show fairness, break down the decision process by percentages such as 40% for price, 20% for local service, 40% for compliance, etc. But it’s still a toss-up as to who really meets the spec. When have you seen a specification that calls out for quality parameter, lifecycle data or expected maintenance cost over the term period?
How can anyone make an informed buying decision without knowing these facts?
I have visited far too many installations, after the bidding and installation processes, to recognize that what was installed was short of what was specified.
The parking industry has to find a better way to write RFPs that are more current, accurate and compliant.
What is also lacking in the specification service is there is little follow-up with clients of good suggestions three or four years down the road as to how these clients can continue to improve their revenue stream and services.
Whatever happened to the philosophy of continual improvement? It’s as if once the original specification is installed, the status quo becomes the norm. It’s usually left to the discretion of the owner or director of operations to envision improvements on their own, time permitting.
Why aren’t these parking professionals all energetically perusing and recommending new innovations on a continual basis that will make their clients’ management simpler, improve customer convenience and increase their revenues?
Is it complacency, lack of fees, a dislike for change or simply a lack of awareness of what is new? Why are we so hesitant to accept innovations?
We in North America are more reluctant to accept innovation because of the way our acquisition process is set up. There are too many fingers in the decision pie. There are too many preconceived notions in a corporate culture that is more self-serving than client-serving.
Manufacturing firms here have always shown state-of-the-art products well in advance of acceptance, but it always seems to take an average of 10 years, and more, before they become accepted. Why is that?
Why aren’t we all continually promoting and advising owners of better ways of doing things beyond just the trade shows? Can it be that we in North America are too conservative or too short-term-oriented? Are contractual obligations holding us back or budget constraints?
We are on the cusp of new technology, with everything changing once again. Technology, such as cloud-based systems, data warehousing and web-hosted staff-less carparks controlled from a thousand miles away, are around the corner. So are new phone apps, reservation systems and vehicle identification systems – all of which will require special attention when writing RFPs.
The manner in which we write and respond to these new RFP challenges will determine not only pricing, but also how we are perceived going forward and the general wellbeing of the industry. We have to do better.
Pierre Koudelka, an independent freelance consultant,
has 45 years of parking experience globally as a manufacturer, consultant and author. Contact him at: