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Let the Parking Experience Produce the Money

March, 2020

Turn Conventional Wisdom on its Headů

David M. Feehan

In the January issue of Parking Today, John Van Horn asked a provocative question: can you separate the parking experience from the money? I know the answer to that question, and it is an emphatic “yes!”


Let me illustrate my answer with a real-life story. Several years ago, I was recruited to lead the downtown organization in a mid-sized midwestern city. The city government had a parking problem. The parking system was losing close to $100,000 per year. The deficit had to come from the general fund budget. 


Furthermore, local residents hated parking downtown, and merchants were constantly complaining. To cap it all off, the city had just purchased a full set of EPMs (electronic parking meters, first generation) and these meters were just not working correctly.


And most of all, the enforcement staff were told, “The customer is always right if there is a dispute.”


What could I do? My organization had negotiated with the city a management contract to take over and operate the entire downtown parking system – on street, off street, enforcement, and equipment repair. The local newspaper had just conducted a survey, and sure enough, parking was the number one complaint by downtown visitors. 


I assembled a small task force of downtown merchants and, with a flip chart and marker in hand, posed one question: How would this parking system feel if it were run by Nordstrom? At that time, Nordstrom was the epitome of customer service – legendary for empowering employees to do virtually anything to please customers. Well, the task force loved the idea and started brainstorming.


First came the easy ideas. Customer had a dead battery, we would jump start for free. Flat tire, we would change it for free. Lock your keys in your car, no worries, we would get you in for no charge. Then we started making other changes. We dressed our staff in bright green blazers, not police-type uniforms. 


We equipped all on-street staff (no longer calling them enforcement officers; they were now downtown ambassadors) with fanny packs filled with maps, schedules and other helpful information. Our exit booth staffers had a dish of hard candy with our logo on each piece and offered each exiting customer candy and a wish for a “sweet day.”


We installed a car wash and oil change service in one garage, but any customer could just leave their keys and a valet would make sure that the car was washed and the oil changed by the end of the business day. 


We empowered our staff: one booth attendant kept a small book lending library in his booth, and he developed a group of customers who were extremely loyal to his lot. All in all, our “amenity package” totaled more than 30 different services.


We also changed the rules. No tickets before 9 a.m. (We want you to hold breakfast meetings downtown.) No tickets after 4:30 p.m. (Stay downtown for drinks and dinner.) No tickets within six blocks of the downtown park on major festival days (We love having you in town and don’t want you to leave in a bad mood.) Pay your ticket the day you receive it and get a 50 percent discount. And most of all, the enforcement staff were told, “The customer is always right if there is a dispute.” 


You’re thinking, we must have lost money, right? Not exactly. We reduced citation issuance by over 60 percent, reduced customer complaints by 80 percent and moved many customers into our cleaned up, spiffed up garages. This freed up on-street spaces for merchants, who loved suddenly having turnover. 


Overall, within the first three years, revenues were up 50 percent, uncollected delinquent tickets were down from over 80 percent to about 40 percent, and with the additional revenue we were able to bond to build a new structure and repair the existing structures. 


We turned the classic parking management dilemma on its head. Do you focus on enforcement, revenues, or customer experience? Counterintuitively, by creating welcoming, pleasant customer experiences, we made more money than if we had emphasized enforcement or revenue generation. 


So, if the mayor, city manager or other official complains about lack of revenue from the parking system, try what we did – bend over backwards to be nice to people. You’ll generate more business, more money – and you’ll sleep better at night.


David M. Feehan, President, Civitas Consultants LLC. He can be reached at dadpsych@mac.com


 



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