Magazine

The Customer Is Always Right?

Remembering many years (maybe too many) in the parking world.

Greg Leean

Now retired for more than a year and a half from daily operations of large public parking facilities, I believe enough time has passed to recall some of the amazing customer encounters I've had.
Although names have been changed to protect the innocent, the events described are true. Sometimes strange, but true!
To properly maintain a parking facility, it's periodically necessary to close various floors for cleaning, maintenance and painting. I recall one time when we were closing each floor of the parking structure, working down from the roof, cleaning, power-washing and repainting the stripes. On one floor, the gate from the helix was closed and signs were in place noting that routine maintenance was in progress.
I was on the floor early one morning to see if the power-washing from the previous night was complete and if the paint crew was on hand to begin the re-striping effort. I noticed a car drive up to the gate arm and seem to wait, expecting the closed gate to open. There was not a car in sight on the floor that held 575 spaces. One might get a clue from that barren site.
But not this guy. He backed up and drove two wheels up onto the island curb to go around the end of the gate arm and enter the floor. Seeing a two-man paint crew working with walk-behind paint-striping machines also didn't provide this guy a clue. He was intent on parking on that particular floor, as close to the elevator tower as he could.
When I walked over and advised him that this floor was closed for maintenance and painting and that he would have to leave, his only response was that we had better not get any yellow paint on his tires or he would sue us. The painters ended up skipping the stripes right around his car to avoid any overspray. I guess the customer was right.
Another time, I received a letter from a customer who demanded a full refund of parking fees paid. It seems her twin sister had parked at the facility and left on a trip. The letter went on to explain that the twins were extremely close and did favors for each other. The sister making the trip had parked and then mailed her keys along with the location of the car (Level 5, Row B) to her sister so that the car could be retrieved after a day or so to avoid our "outrageous" parking fees. Well, the sister who was to pick up the car came with keys in hand and looked for the car. Looked for hours, according to the letter. Never could find the car. Obviously, it had been stolen, which of course was our fault as we must have lax security. Well, when the sister returned from her trip, she decided to look for her own car, and sure enough, she found it. On Level 6, Row B. One floor above where she had told her sister it was.
I should note that we had numerous signs directing people to emergency phones for assistance. We had license inventories to locate where the car was parked -- if the sister searching for the car had only asked for help. Of course, if she had called the police or even mentioned the "missing" car to the cashier on exiting the facility, we could have helped. But when nothing is said and no one is asked to help, we don't know what is taking place.
Of course, the fact that the sisters had miscommunicated the car's actual location was through no fault of their own and we owed them a full refund for the 10 days of parking fees. Obviously, it was the operator's fault, and a full refund was expected immediately, or their lawyer would be contacted. (Why do threats of lawyers always end up in complaint letters?)
We had in excess of 10,000 parking stalls in multiple facilities, but due to the online license inventory, we were able to watch for abandoned cars. Letters were sent to the last known registered owner of every car parked for more than 14 consecutive days to alert the owner that parking fees were accruing. Completing this effort allowed our police department to make sure no stolen vehicles had been left in our facilities.
Well, in this one case, letters had been sent to the registered owner of a late-model luxury car. No letter had been returned, and none had been acknowledged in any way. Under state law, a vehicle sitting for more than 90 days can be auctioned to recover parking and storage fees.
We typically undertook a public auction once a year, so many of these cars would have been sitting for close to a year before being auctioned. A separate notice of the pending auction is sent to the registered owner, allowing a last opportunity to contact us to try to work out a deal to reclaim the car.
In this case, a few days before the auction a letter came in from the luxury car's owner. It said he had received the previous letters and tried to get family members to pay the costs and claim his car. But they were estranged from him and no one would help him.
You see, he said, he was currently being detained in a correctional facility in another state, for a period of three to five years, and he would come back and claim his car as soon as he was free. Please hold it for him, the letter continued, and, oh by the way, could he have it back for free when he got out because he wouldn't have any money? As I recall, we set a record for the amount we sold that car for at auction.
Of course, when you operate a large parking facility at a transportation hub, you draw all kinds of customers. Sometimes they come from small towns and likely don't travel much. Such was the case with a customer who wrote after returning from a weeklong trip and wanted a refund. You see, he wrote, he didn't expect to have to pay to park when he went on vacation. Why, in his hometown, you could park right on Main Street all day, for free. Why should he need to pay to park here just because he traveled?
Yes, the customer is always right, but sometimes they need someone to explain things to them, just a little!

Greg Leean is the former head of parking operations for Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. He currently holds forth with the Consulting Engineers Group. He can be reached at Gregleean@charter.net

Article Abstract from March, 2004




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