What to Do if You Have the Newest Ė and What to Do if You Donít!
By Barbara J. Chance, Joseph P. Scuilli, et al
In the broadly defined parking and transportation industry, you can’t go to a conference or open a publication without being inundated with presentations and articles about technology. So, in the spirit of “there is always room for one more,” here is ours.
We hear two kinds of technology laments these days:
• How do we get the most out of our technology investment, and show the “powers that be” it was worth it to spend the dollars?
• We can’t afford all the new technology; how can we run good programs without it?
Both of these are crucial issues in the industry right now.
As we considered approaches to each end of the technology spectrum, we reached out to colleagues from public and private entities to obtain their thoughts on the best and worst things about technology these days. Their good comments will be sprinkled here and there in this article, and their insights are most valuable.
If you have the newest technology (or can afford to buy it):
Hopefully you figured out in advance why you needed some of the latest technology and what it would do for your customers and your program. That would put you ahead of many. In any group conversation about technology, you can always identify the folks who bought the “latest and greatest,” because it was there and they could acquire it, although they really didn’t determine in advance what they needed and why.
1. Take the time and make the effort to determine the technology you will really need, and why. Purchasing parking technology is a little like a sophisticated version of selecting a washing machine these days. Just because one manufacturer puts 25 buttons and 17 selections on the machine doesn’t mean that you either need or will use all of them. If you don’t anticipate how you want your program to operate in the future, you may make a large investment in technology that will not meet your requirements and will not suit your customers. As Wayne Mixdorf wrote to us: “The pace of change in technology is accelerating, and making purchasing decisions is becoming more difficult as a result.” A further concern, expressed by Gary Means, is “What vendor will still be with us in 2016?”
2. Learn how to use the data your system produces! Good data allow parking programs to provide better customer service, foster continuous improvement, and enhance operations. Unfortunately, both first-hand observations and discussions with parking professionals reveal that most program staff do not use the data produced by their technology. Moving from being fascinated by all the data that can be created to actually using it seems to be a difficult process in most organizations. Peter Lange expressed it well: “The amount of data that we are getting out of our systems can be a double-edged sword . . . It does provide very useful insight into operations, but it does require resources, both financial and human, to extract, visualize, analyze and make it actionable for the organization.”
No doubt some of the problems with using data are related to the fact that many staff are not trained or accustomed to analyzing and mining data for insights. The parking industry’s transition from “cigar box” operations to sophisticated technologies has not necessarily resulted in analytically adept employees who are capable of turning data into “actionable” information. If your organization does not employ analysts who can weave your “straw into gold” (Rumpelstiltskin), it is time to rethink the organizational structure and positions that are crucial for the future. Specialized education can help, but be prepared to make the investment in staff, time and education.
3. Remember your customers. With all of our data, apps, fancy payment methods, and the latest technological advances, sometimes it is hard to remember that a primary purpose for tech advances is the customer experience. That is what drives revenue, satisfaction with institutional programs, willingness to pay increased prices, and decisions to park in one location or another.
While analysis of occupancy, turnover rates, parking duration, payment patterns, use of online programs, and many similar functions can provide great understanding, it is still necessary to find ways to see how pleased your customers are with your programs and technology.
Surveys, tracking customer complaints, looking at adoption rates of new apps – these can all give you indications of customer satisfaction. But nothing beats a few focus groups or meetings with representative individuals (faculty, staff, students, downtown merchants, etc.) for finding out where the “rubber meets the road.” Trying pilot projects and evaluating them prior to making significant program changes is another winning way to assess how successful the eventual change may be, and what program aspects need to be “tweaked” to work in your environment.
4. Commit to what it takes for data security. We all are continually learning how important data security is, and how many ways information can be hacked by an ever larger set of “bad guys.” It is crucial that staff members understand what is required, why it is required, and what their role in data security is. We have moved far beyond the initial parking management programs in which a security staff was responsible for monitoring cash handling. Now security must deal with remaining cash issues plus the much more complicated issues of credit cards, debit cards, pay-by-phone apps, and EMV standards. In addition, parking programs often must integrate with a larger organization’s data security requirements, such as a municipality, university or hospital.
Most parking organizations, whether large or small, need assistance in assessing their security issues, understanding upcoming standards, addressing both process and technology requirements, and dealing with liability issues. Data security is at present an area fraught with lack of knowledge, incorrect conclusions, and varying definitions of what is necessary – all obvious if you have been attending any parking conferences lately. It will be crucial for most program directors to confer with their colleagues who understand the issues, find experts who can provide guidance, coordinate with their umbrella organizations, and create an ongoing education program for themselves and their staff.
If you don’t have the newest technology, and can’t afford it:
If your organization is not on the cutting-edge of technology, the reasons may be an inadequate budget, lack of understanding among decision-makers as to the value of technology, inadequate infrastructure support services, or all of the above. Technology does not solve all problems, nor is it the answer to all questions. As Wayne Mixdorf notes, one of the worst aspects of technology right now is “the difficulty of convincing people that technology is not the solution to every problem.”
So how can you improve your program, enhance your customer service, gather and analyze data if you don’t have great technology in your organization?
• You don’t need sensors in the street to find out turnover, duration and parking patterns.
• You don’t need an online system to track the types of customer complaints, understand if you have patterns or recurring areas of aggravation, and figure out what to do about them.
• There is more than one way to track typical occupancy in a garage.
OK, so you don’t have a multimillion-dollar grant to install on-street sensors or credit card-enabled meters. Maybe you don’t have the parking volumes or rate structures to make them a viable alternative. Or if your off-street operation suffers from a weak local economy, perhaps your rate structure and reserves wouldn’t support the latest access management software or hardware.
What’s a parking manager to do? How will you survive being tech-less or old-school in the modern age of parking?
There is such a thing as “Back to Basics.” How did parking operate before the time of Twitter and pay-by-phone, before handhelds and LPR? Certainly, technology was always present and evolving, but good parking program managers “back in the day” still did things such as walk patrol beats and perform daily inspections of their surface lots and garages – and they made decisions that raised revenue and improved service without hundreds of thousands of dollars in expensive technology infrastructure.
So here are just a few tried and true tactics that today’s managers can take – in the absence of the latest tech-y gadgets – to make fast, deep and long-lasting improvements.
1. Confirm your basic data. Garbage in, garbage out. Even the fanciest of systems can have inaccurate information if procedures aren’t followed and records aren’t kept up to date. So get out on the street, or up on the garage floors, confirm that your space counts agree with your data files, and resolve differences. Although this sounds really low-tech, you would be amazed at the discrepancies that exist in basic data kept by many programs both large and small.
2. Maximize your field time and interaction with employees!Spend a full day (horrors) walking a beat with an enforcement officer. Ride patrol with supervisors on an evening shift. Schedule a two-hour visit with your cashier in the booth. Spend time with a collection crew or a maintenance technician. Observe a coin count if you still have coin-operated meters. You’ll learn firsthand the problems staff members face in providing service, but you’ll also hear a lot of practical solutions to fix and even prevent problems. Your presence in the field will boost morale, and you just might see some things you’ll want to correct.
3. Collect some parking activity data yourself! And then have your staff do so. Knowing how to do something yourself is a key to having it done properly by another. Yet (unfortunately) we know of program directors who can’t quote their on-street turnover or violation capture rates. And chances are, some managers haven’t personally observed and timed exit lane queuing at peak departure times, either. The point is, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure” (a business concept attributed both to Deming and Drucker), and there are many low-tech ways to measure parking activity and performance.
Collect and analyze on-street data on a block-face, or in an area or a patrol beat. Quick capture-rate studies can be done in less than an hour on a decently sized beat. Then instruct your staff in doing the same. In short order, you will have enough data to refute parking critics, educate your stakeholders and your employees, and measure your program efficiency and effectiveness – all without a large capital investment.
Conduct a midday or midnight ticket audit; observe end-of-shift cash reconciliations and transfers, and transports to the bank or counting agency. Do a self-mailer survey of your customers and report your findings to staff.
4. Audit early and audit often! Even in the age of multi-space and credit card-enabled meters and pay-by-phone parking, nearly all cities have a substantial number of single-space, coin-accepting meters. Can you and your program afford the public embarrassment from internal theft of cash made possible by the lack of strong physical and administrative internal controls, diligently applied? If not, then conduct, confirm and establish your inventory of all revenue-sensitive equipment.
Ensure separation of duties between those who store and issue keys and those who collect, maintain and count the revenue. Perform random samples of deposit tickets and bank statements, as well as unannounced cashier / parking ticket reconciliations.
And here’s one perhaps few have tried, though all should: Open and physically inspect each and every parking meter (top and bottom), multi-space and ticket vending machine. Look for signs of pilferage, missed collections, loose coins, jammed bills, coin box doors that open too easily, etc. Hopefully you’ll find your system is “clean” – not being cleaned-out.
Need more information on low-tech?
The few points we’ve mentioned above just scratch the surface of what a motivated parking manager can accomplish with minimal resources, regardless of the program’s technological sophistication. Additional ideas and techniques can be found in past issues of Parking Today, as well as other industry publications, online training modules and past presentations of CMA (http://chancemanagement.com/res_presentations.html).
Gretchen Rubin, a writer on habits and human nature, observes that “technology is a good servant but a bad master.” As you make your way through more technological sophistication, or make do with the technology you have, remember it is a means for improving your program and a tool to be used. It will never replace the thought and creativity that you and your staff bring to your work.
Barbara J. Chance and Joseph P. Sciulli are with Chance Management Advisors Inc. Contributions to this article came from:
Peter Lange, Executive Director for Transportation Services, Texas A&M University.
Gary Means, Executive Director, Lexington & Fayette County (KY) Parking Authority.
Wayne Mixdorf, City Parking Manager, Lincoln, NE.
Rich Stoddard, Manager of Parking & Transportation, East Stroudsburg (PA) University.
Tom Wunk, Vice President of PARCS Solutions, T2 Systems.
Clyde Wilson, CEO of Flow Through Technologies and