Pumping Gas: Transfers to Parking
I can well remember my first employment. Back in the early 1970s, and right smack in the middle of the energy crisis and gas rationing, I coupled my high school career with a job as a gas station attendant at Ken Sanger's Union 76 Station in Westwood Village, Calif. I was 15 and I could not believe my good fortune. I was to make $1.35 an hour and, based on my schedule, expected to take home almost $25 a week.
I was given a key to the cash drawer out at the pump island -- this was many years before the advent of debit cards and even self-service -- and told to listen for the chime (remember those rubber tubes stretched across the driveways that dinged when your car drove over them?).
The inadequacy of my orientation was woefully driven home that first evening when a patron asked to have his tire pressure and transmission fluid level checked and I had no idea of how to do either or even what to check for. I spent several minutes at each tire making a lot of noise with the air hose and then poked around blindly under the hood for good measure.
Then the following week brought the oil embargo and gas rationing and odd-even days. I was cursed at and spat upon and heard words so profane that I have only just recently learned the definitions. Yet no additional training was offered. My co-workers and I weren't given any formal orientation because, well, we were just gas station attendants. Perhaps no one thought to train us or, more likely, it was deemed unnecessary.
The same lackadaisical approaches to hiring and training that I experienced more than 30 years ago as a budding gas station attendant are still commonplace in today's parking industry. I have witnessed valet attendants, who will quite possibly be very soon behind the wheel of someone's $100,000 vehicle, hired after being asked only "Can you drive a stick?" or the always popular "Can you start this Friday?"
Customer service standards are often summarized and delivered by telling new hires to call a supervisor if a customer has a problem.
There are inherent operating difficulties with these most cursory of orientation and training programs. Fostering a sense of allegiance is definitely hampered. More important, opportunities to impart wisdom, experience, and a unified preferred approach are lost. A sound new hire orientation should leave new employees with the belief that they are part of a team, and that their responsibilities and duties are designed to support that cooperative effort. New employees also will likely be exposed to gratuitous behavior from some customers, yet with appropriate training, be able to come away prepared for the inevitable confrontation with an understanding as to how best to react.
All organizations, whether they are an enormous government system or a small family-run parking enterprise, have a mission and a core set of values and goals. Some organizations emphasize customer service over all else; for others, a quality product is the driving force. Others care foremost about profitability. And still others incorporate all three into their credo.
Since most employees (with the obvious exception of family members in a family business) are not born into an organization but, rather, come from another organizational background, it can be a complicated transition process to adjust from one set of values to another. Employees with no work background -- and many parking attendants and cashiers fall into this category -- also need an introduction to the organizational culture. A solid orientation process is effective in delivering the organization's belief system to new employees immediately as they begin their employment. Explaining the company philosophy sets the tone for the employees' future contacts with customers and with others in the organization.
Some parking cashiers who have worked for two different organizations with different guiding principles display completely different approaches to their customers depending on whom they are working for. One cashier whom I will use as an example was quite abrupt and wholly lacking in manners while she worked for a national parking operator in a Los Angeles shopping center. Several years later, she was employed in the same position but for a five-star hotel's in-house parking operation. Her demeanor had become gracious and pleasant. Same employee, same position, different attitude. The hotel's concentration was on customer service and a sense of pride in person-to-person contact. The parking company at the mall had had a different focus. How was this employee able to make the transition? The hotel had a strong commitment to its new employees and demonstrated this by a vigorous new hire orientation program that set its expectations squarely in front of these employees before they ever saw a customer. Had this hotel not done so, they would have placed an employee in front of customers whose belief system was that cashiering is an adversarial task, at best. The orientation program created an excellent employee to the benefit of the customers and the organization as a whole.
"I just wanted to park for a short while, not buy the place."
"Hey, now, shouldn't that fee include a car wash?"
"My car isn't even worth that much."
"I just spent $450 inside and now I have to pay another $5? You're out of your mind!"
There's not a parking employee who hasn't heard one of these wiseacre customer cracks or belligerent comments. And they're not always presented in a humorous fashion, either. It takes a particularly thick skin for a minimum (or slightly above minimum) wage employee to shrug off one of these and not take its harshness personally.
How does a parking employee handle these? A good start is to tell employees before they ever staff a cashier station that these insults and unpleasant remarks are coming. Presenting them in a comfortable setting followed by a careful explanation that the employee should not take these personally nor get discouraged will go a long way. It's reassuring for employees to discover that others have experienced the same negative comments and that it's almost a rite of passage to be slighted in the same way.
In addition to preparing employees for the worst, orientation programs should focus on positive customer service, etiquette, proper appearance, acceptable work habits, revenue integrity, attendance policies, housekeeping and safety. Successful orientation programs involve the upper echelons of management in material presentation as it demonstrates to new employees that they're part of a team and that the team wants them. At the conclusion of orientation and training, new employees should be able to understand just what is and what is not expected of them.
On the flip side, valet parking patrons experience a lot of disappointing contacts:
"What's your car look like? Are you sure you parked here?"
"Do you have another set of keys?"
"You know, your car's really fast" or "Your car's got a really great sound system."
"I don't make the rules; I just work here. Call my manager if you got a problem."
"Next time, don't park here."
"Six dollars!" No "please"; no "thank you." No "have a good day"; no "drive safely." Just an outstretched hand from a cashier booth without a smile or even eye contact.
Each of us has encountered at least one of the above. They're definitely poor reflections on the particular parking operation that has employed the individual. Unfortunately, to the general public, they can be indicative of the industry as a whole. The parking industry has not benefited from a good image since time immemorial. Movies and TV shows have often portrayed parking facilities as places where unpleasant acts are committed.
And as a nation, our collective psyche is governed by associating parking with all sorts of misfortune. What was the shoot-out at the OK Corral? It was actually a gunfight in a 19th century parking facility. Where did Mrs. O'Leary's cow start the fire that burned Chicago? In what would be now considered a garage. How did Jack Ruby get in to the Dallas police station to shoot Lee Harvey Oswald? Through the garage, of course. And of what did Joni Mitchell sing about replacing newly paved paradise? A parking lot.
A thorough and comprehensive new hire orientation and training program helps to counter these. If the parking industry can't devote a small investment in both time and commitment to thoroughly train and provide direction to its new hires, the industry can't expect its reputation to improve on its own. The public's perception of parking will not change until the parking industry is able to portray a new image.
And finally, in case you're curious, when I started at Ken Sanger's Union 76 Station in Westwood Village, Calif., gas was 36c a gallon and everyone complained. Parking prices in Los Angeles at that time ranged from mostly free to 25c per hour, with a $2 daily maximum. And just to demonstrate that the more things change, the more things stay the same, I still make about $1.35 an hour -- I just work longer hours. And, at times, when a client arranges for services from our firm, there still is the old refrain of "Can you start this Friday?"
Parking consultants Michele Krakowski and Richard Raskin work for Walker Parking Consultants. Krakowski is based in Indianapolis and can be reached at (317) 842-6890 or by
e-mail at Michele.Krakowski@WalkerParking.com. Raskin is based in Burbank, Calif., and can be reached at
(818) 953-9130 or by e-mail at Richard.Raskin@WalkerParking.com.
Side Bar 1
An Orientation Program:
Annual budgets should contain money allocated specifically for orientation, and an orientation program should be incorporated into the new hire checklist. When establishing and implementing such a program, consideration should be given to company or organization philosophy, training and procedures. Plan for the orientation to take a minimum of two full days.
The first day should be devoted to immersion in the values of the organization. Special attention to the basic guiding principle -- whether it is "The customer is always right" or "These are the rules; there are no exceptions" or "When in doubt, call a supervisor" or some other policy -- is an important start. This key tenet should be reinforced throughout the session to ensure that it is instilled in the new employees and that they do not dismiss it as an artificial or contrived catch phrase.
Senior management, including ownership, if possible, should have active roles in the initial phases of the training. They should introduce themselves and explain their positions within the company and how the new hires' positions relate to their own responsibilities. This helps the new hires to recognize their own importance in the organization and establishes a relationship between new hires and the executive level. It means a lot to brand-new employees to go home after their first day and boast to family that the company president met and welcomed them. And often, senior management inspires new employees when it is learned that a company executive began his or her career in the very same position as the new hire. (And as this is probably more prevalent in the parking industry than just about anywhere else, it should be capitalized on and utilized as an implied incentive.)
Additionally, the first day of orientation should contain thorough explanations and examples of the following:
* Behavior, both expected and unacceptable;
* Dress code;
* How to greet, address and thank customers;
* How to appropriately answer the phones;
* Proper responses to a variety of inquiries;
* How the parking rates are structured;
* How to handle an angry, belligerent or intoxicated customer;
* How to handle damage claims or requests for refunds;
* Attendance and on-time policy;
* Job performance standards;
* Regular and exception transaction handling;
* Cash handling procedures;
* Filling out paperwork.
The second day should consist of a full day of one-on-one hands-on training by a supervisor or senior employee. The new employee should shadow the instructor for the beginning portion of the shift and then take over for the remainder of the shift with the instructor observing closely. At the end of the shift, a critique should be conducted and the new employee made aware of any deficiencies. At this time, the new employee should be ready for work on his or her own; or if needed, additional training may be required.
An employee handbook should be created and made available to each new hire. After orientation is complete, new employees should sign a form indicating their receipt of the handbook, their completion of the orientation and training, and their understanding and acceptance of what is expected of them. This form, along with the formal evaluation of the new hire's performance during training by the supervisor or senior employee, should be retained in the employee's personnel jacket.