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Building Customer Centric Organizations…Together.

July 13, 2021

Brian Wolff

It’s a funny thing, how adversity can be a crucible to help individuals and businesses metamorphose themselves into something bigger, better, stronger. The stories are as old as time: great businesses are built and dominate for years, only to be disrupted by technology and choice. Some companies never make it back from the brink, and some don’t just come back, they prosper in their second act. Today, I’ll focus on this revival, because it can serve as a roadmap for success in the digital transformation of the parking industry. The stories will be familiar to you, but at least one of the changes might surprise you. It was a mystery to me until I dug deeper.


The stories that are compelling to me, and applicable to the changes that are disrupting our industry now, are the stories of how Lou Gerstner turned things around at IBM, and how Steve Jobs did the same when he returned to Apple. Both companies had their own version of “near death” experiences in the later part of the 20th century and made dramatic changes to rise from the ashes. They both deployed a “silver bullet” that won’t be easily replicated in parking, but might serve as a sort of a proxy for the mindset we can adopt to help this industry transform itself and keep service levels high. First, I must digress.


Recently, John Van Horn sent a note with the following challenge “Parking is becoming an industry dominated by venture capital and consolidation. There is a school of thought that when a company is absorbed by another, the industry loses, particularly in areas like service, which is greatly needed in a tech intensive business. And yes, every day we become more tech intensive. The prediction is that each of us now carries a device that will transcend traditional parking controls. Are we losing our way and what, if anything can or should be done about it?” Great question!


When I read John’s question, it immediately sent me in search of examples of companies or industries that had ridden the wave of technological change and found a way to transcend the disruptions to the benefit of their customers. IBM and Apple are where I landed.


IBM, arguably one of the most technologically advanced and iconic businesses of our time, lost its way in the late 80s, and Lou Gerstner wrote about the turnaround in his book “Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance.” In the book, he describes a business rooted in fiefdoms, turf wars, siloed organizations, fierce internal battles, a lack of coordination and an organization mired in draconian processes that squandered resources and ground progress to a halt. Wow, they could have been describing the parking industry, right?


At Apple, Jobs returned to a company with very similar issues, where leaders in the organization were “running their own show,” building hundreds of products in silos and hoarding resources in their own business units without regard for what others were doing inside the company. 


One of the first things that both leaders did when they arrived: abolish division and line of business profit and loss statements (P&Ls). I found it interesting that each leader saw the exact same thing – as long as the company leaders were measured on their own individual performance, there was absolutely no incentive to work together. Their customers were confused and exasperated because there was absolutely no continuity between products and services. Sound familiar?


Of course, we can’t expect all of the companies serving the parking industry to consolidate P&Ls, but the behavior these actions drove at IBM and Apple can serve as a beacon for companies to help parking transcend our digital transformation. Something I’ve argued for from these pages before – to work together, leveraging the relationships and trust inherent in our “small” industry to push for interoperability and coordination of our solutions to the benefit of our customers. 


Turning our attention to customer-centric and integrated solutions is exactly where both Gerstner and Jobs went next. After getting everyone “on the same sheet of financial music” Gerstner and Jobs turned their organizations’ attention back to the customer. They argued that customers didn’t care about the technology, customers cared about solutions that helped them solve their business problems. After six years in the industry, I can absolutely confirm that my customers care MUCH less about what the technology does and much MORE about how the technology can help their customers reserve, park, pay and leave as quickly as possible. 


Our success in this transformation is rooted in interoperability – we must put our customers at the center of every solution and find ways, without the financial levers, to build interoperability and an open architecture into our products. One of the foundational blocks to this effort is to embrace the standards, movement and work within our industry to build solutions that are more easily connected. On that front, our company could do better, and I’m committed to contributing and aligning our solutions to standards that make it easier for our customers to deploy disparate solutions from different companies for a better customer experience. 


Beyond standards, the realization that Gerstner and Jobs had at the start of their respective turnarounds was that customer choice was growing, and purchasing power was being taken out of their hands and transferred to the end-user. And that end-user was not the same “traditional buyer” with whom they had always interacted. We’re experiencing the same challenges in parking. JVH referenced the cell phone as one of the most powerful and disruptive tools in a parking patron’s hand. It’s transforming parking.


Why? Because the phone and other technological advances have the ability to shift choice away from pure proximity and flashy signs to much earlier in the customer’s journey to find parking. It’s forcing parking operators to think more about the consumer than ever before, and deal with the myriad choices being forced upon them, as parking consumers choose the platform they prefer to use when booking events and paying for parking. 


Think about the best technology centric customer experience you’ve had recently and reflect on how high your expectations were for a seamless experience. One of the best examples I can think of is when I interact across my various Apple devices to read a book, listen to music or interact with a third-party app. Before Steve Jobs took the reins back, I couldn’t move between my Macintosh, Newton and Palm Pilot as seamlessly as I do today when I transition between my iPad, iPhone and Mac. When Jobs returned to Apple, he put structures in place to make sure all platforms and products worked together. That did not happen by accident, and it wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t changed the expectation of collaboration inside the company.


Gerstner did the same thing, creating incentives and reward systems for IBM products, services and support to work together to the benefit of the company. Gerstner and Jobs knew that interoperability, collaboration and seamless transitions between products and services was the killer app that would drive market share and success. We have to find a way to do that in parking, too. 


I’m not saying it will be easy, but I already see signs of it happening through collaboration and consolidation. Consolidation is inevitable in any industry because the allure of “scale” and market dominance is as basic as the need for humans to breathe. What Lou Gerstner and Steve Jobs did that was most transformative is that they built strategies to put their customers first and structures to make their organizations collaborate and work together for their customers’ benefit. I’m signing up to do both and I’m inviting you to join me. Will you?



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