Change Comes Slowly on the University Campus
Change comes slowly to the world of parking, especially on a university campus. Finding solutions that meet the needs of a very diverse customer base has long been difficult; building consensus around policies to regulate parking spaces, which are usually viewed as an entitlement by all university customers, is almost impossible; and implementing unique solutions based upon different customer groups brings with it allegations of favoritism or highlights other inequities.
The potential to completely shake up the legacy parking system as an accommodation to the “new normal” is also possible.
Change takes work, and parking change is usually low on the priority list for a busy university. From an administrative perspective for parking management, there often is no incentive nor time to make difficult changes. However, there is nothing like a good crisis to energize everyone and convert the concept of change from a dreaded word to an urgent requirement. Welcome to 2020.
For our customers, we have all been applying technology to optimize existing systems and enhance the customer experience over the past several years, but the pandemic has elevated these formerly nice-to-have amenities to essential needs. The ability to provide contactless transactions is now important for customer and staff safety, and hiring staff to repeatedly wipe down meters, pay machines and PARCS becomes costly during a time when more customers are working from home, resulting in lower revenues to cover costs. With contactless comes the opportunity to eliminate cash from the field, enhancing the safety and security of your system, reducing collection costs, and providing that true contactless experience.
The world your customers are returning to will have changed as well, necessitating a review and revamp of product offerings. The future is not quite as certain as it was, and while a large majority of campuses plan to reopen in the fall, exactly what that looks like is still to be determined. It is very likely that students and faculty may only plan to be on campus part time, conducting some classes online, others in-person. Staff may be asked to continue working from home, but also may need to come in occasionally for meetings. Nobody can predict what the beginning of the new year may bring and if the virus thrives and resurges in the winter months, some students and faculty may not return to campus at all for the spring semester.
The potential to completely shake up the legacy parking system as an accommodation to the “new normal”, is also possible. The traditional full-year permit may soon be something that few want to commit to. Processing endless refunds for unused months of an annual permit is costly and time consuming (and if you don’t offer refunds, handling the angry customer calls is just as time consuming).
It’s time to either offer new, or repackage existing permit options that allow customers more control over their parking access and in turn provide enhanced value to the customer. Encouraging the purchase of parking on a daily basis instead of up front for a year is reported as a viable option to encourage customers to consider alternative modes of transportation depending on the day. While buses and subways are a bit out of vogue presently due to physical distancing requirements, the early part of fall semesters make walking, biking, and “scootering” quite viable.
For campuses where the “one size fits all” or legacy parking program is not working well or has long been targeted for change, the break between before COVID and returning for fall, plus the new accommodations that are being implemented outside of the parking realm, can provide enough distance from what was in place to what is now needed to mitigate some of the feared customer backlash towards change.
Communicating changes to the products offered and physical distancing from your customers does place an added importance on the ability to clearly communicate information quickly and succinctly via web, email, tweet, mobile application, text or phone. Tuning up the website, retraining customer service staff, and rethinking process is a must.
In addition to customer-focused efforts, there are opportunities for change within internal processes as well. The university parking world is filled with legacy policies that, in most cases, were implemented for very valid reasons long before enhanced technology was available. And while it is no longer politically correct to actually say out loud “we’ve always done it that way,” I would challenge almost any university parking director to conduct a deep dive review within her/his shop and identify those practices and policies that are still occurring for outdated reasons.
For instance, look closely at any policy that was dependent upon enforcement to ensure compliance. Before LPR and other technologies, employees had to literally walk or drive the parking lots looking for expired permits (or permits that should have been returned, but were not). Today, these can all be linked electronically to minimize the opportunity for use and penalizing those who try. This also removes the need for the old fashioned “exchange” of physical permits at the end of each permit year. Is your staff using the technology they have properly? Many long hours are wasted in gathering accurate data when staff implements well-intentioned “work-arounds” to achieve a specific result that, in reality creates, inaccurate reporting.
A new set of operating conditions is also a great opportunity to actually use some of the data that is collected. Understanding more about your customers helps drive better products and services. Implementing reviews of all scan data for more than just citations, such as gaining insight into who is parking where, where problem spots may be, and how your customers move around campus throughout the day provides powerful insight that can be useful in campus planning.
Despite the extremely challenging and devastating impacts of the recent pandemic, use the “new normal” opportunity to examine your policies and processes and drive change to achieve enhanced customer satisfaction, optimize operational efficiency, and identify new offerings to enable a more streamlined and effective future.
Sarah Blouch is President and Chief Executive Officer of CampusParc. She can be reached at email@example.com