Magazine

Why I Have a Commercial Operator at My University

By Robert Milner

Some have asked why our University chooses to use a contractor for its cashiering operation; since it was already implemented when I started my career here, I can only explain the benefits I have observed. Of course, the benefits I describe in this article are my opinion, and not necessarily those of the University of Maryland, Baltimore, where I work.
Our parking operation here at the University is a benchmark for a lot of other operations; we have heard from numerous parking facilities that ours is one of the most successful in the United States. I attribute a major portion of our success to the great staff that takes providing great customer service very seriously.
As a clarification, the University staff includes those directly on the University payroll while the contractor staff is made up of those employed by and paid by the contractor of our operation.
My parking background includes over 20 years experience in both the private and University sectors. I have held executive positions in two of the nation’s top parking organizations; I have also run the parking operations in over 14 cities throughout the U.S. I am a self-proclaimed customer service fanatic; besides being a certified customer service trainer for the IPI, I am also certified in many of the Disney University service courses as well.
Now for our great staff, over 60 percent of our office staff came from the private parking sector with day-to-day field experience. This is an interesting fact because in some cases this vast amount of private parking experience in a university, municipality, and/or airport setting is unheard of.
As for our operation, the University has 7 garages along with a few small lots, in total it comes to over 7,000 spaces. What makes us somewhat unique is that our 7 garages have 38 lanes each with revenue control equipment installed. I’ve calculated that this means that over 90 percent of our operations involve a possible human interaction. Based on statistics our department has kept in the past, we believe there are over 15 million human interactions with our personnel.
A successful aspect of our arrangement here at the University between the contractor and the parking management is that we treat the overall operation as a joint partnership. By partnership I mean we support them and we make them a big part of our team. If there is a problem or issue, it is dealt with by all of us; nobody is ‘thrown under the bus’. In a partnership both parties are motivated to find the best solutions and to assist the other in ways not typical in the parking industry.
First and foremost in utilizing a contractor to run your operation is to have a good RFP process. While this topic could be an entire article by itself, it is important for your RFP to contain the tools to allow the relationship to flourish.
Expertise
In many cases, an experienced contractor will bring an array of knowledge to your operation. This knowledge can be in the form of ‘lessons learned’ from other operations they manage. Typical improvements include streamlining your operation with rate increases/decreases/early-bird specials for financial improvement as well as implementing valet operations to improve both space utilization and customer service.
The contractor can also assist in other job duties usually outsourced as well, i.e. maintenance and garage layout.
Customer Service
Many contractors are well versed in the importance of customer service; but since I truly believe this is the key to any successfully run operation, we have worked together with our contractor to design additional customer service classes for their staff to attend. We have also sent our contractor staff to off-site service training at our cost to improve the operation. As additional reinforcement, our contractor provides its staff with ‘in house’ training curriculum.
Ease of hiring
In many cases, contractors are able to bring aboard new employees in a much quicker timeframe than in the public sector, i.e. Universities and airports operations. An additional plus in this area is if the contractor operates other locations in the area he can manage the staffing levels more easily; bring in additional staff during peak operations, special events, and vacation time.
Ease of replacement of the bad apples
As with the case above, replacing operation staff can be handled immediately if needed, if the RFP contains the correct language. Finding the right staff members for our locations from the pool of employees is a more ideal situation.
Costs Savings
In many cases, utilizing a contractor to run your operation can save money in the long run. These savings may be in the form of labor costs and benefits savings. Unfortunately, the recent economic conditions are causing many public entities to review their current benefit packages offered to their staff. At UMB we have minimums the contractor must pay regarding wages and benefits.
Additional savings may come, but not necessarily, from the savings in expenses such as insurance, uniforms, cleaning services, etc.
Accountability
With a properly written RFP, contractors can be held responsible in areas regarding the accountability and collection of revenues. They may also be held responsible for levels of customer service, maintenance schedules and other information needed by the client (i.e. overnight car inventory reports, garage tours, lamp outage reports, etc.).
In an effort to keep this article (somewhat) brief, I have only touched the surface in each of the categories a contractor may be a favorable choice to run your parking operation. In hindsight I realize each area mentioned above could be its own stand-alone article.
I believe to get the best benefit from having a contractor run your parking operation is to form of a strong partnership to ensure your operation’s success. In the case of UMB, our partnership takes many forms; beginning each day at a 9:00am “What’s Happening Meeting” where our contractor’s resident manager and our department managers discuss all the current issues and plan the coming day’s activities and responsibilities.
This is the main reason our contractor is never “thrown under the bus,” because we outline responsibilities to minimize failure; we believe if anyone fails the customer will ultimately be the one to suffer.
The University and our contractor also hold joint manager lunch training meetings where not only new topics are covered, but each lunch concludes with a walking tour of garages including both the contractor’s Vice President and myself, the Director of Parking and Transportation Services. What better training method for the lower management than the two Top Dogs, so to speak, providing insight on expectations and shared experiences to those newer to the parking industry.
While there may be many reasons and advantages for having a contractor run your parking operation, in the end, the partnership is what must last the term of the contract.
Robert Milner, MS, CAPP is the current Director of Parking and Transportation Services at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. He can be reached at rmilner@af.umaryland.edu

Article Abstract from November, 2011




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