Sometimes There is No Tomorrow ...
Although unwilling to share the location of the following "situation," I am all too familiar with the scenario of a customer being given less than ideal service.
After spending the entire night in the emergency room with his wife, whom he had rushed to the hospital complaining of chest pains, an elderly gentleman was exiting the parking garage. Upon his arrival at the cashier's booth, he was asked for a parking voucher so that he could receive the discount rate. Unfortunately, the gentleman did not have a voucher and proceeded to explain that, at the time of his arrival, there was no one available to give him one. The cashier, being the rule follower and having had to pay for previous tickets with no vouchers, offered to forgo the $25 charge (the day rate without a voucher) and charge the gentleman $12 (the patient visitor's rate after 2 p.m. each day) -- this is $6 more than if he had had a voucher. If these parking rates sound confusing, try being a cashier for a while. The cashier also gave him the parking office number should he want to contact someone about this "situation."
A few hours later, around noon, the gentleman returned to visit his wife, who was scheduled for heart surgery later in the afternoon. When he tried to enter the same parking facility to which he had just paid $12 a few hours before, he was informed that the facility was full. For some unexplainable reason, the elderly gentleman was not told that he could park in another facility, which was across the street. He turned around and went home. However, it was at home that he decided to call the number the cashier had previously given him.
The telephone call was directed to a manager who patiently listened to the events that had taken place. After a sincere and sympathetic apology, the manager asked the gentleman if he would be visiting his wife later in the day. He responded affirmatively and noted that his adult children would also be visiting. The manager told him that he would leave five passes for him, and he could retrieve them from the cashier's booth. Early the next day, the manager asked a staff member to follow up to ensure that the gentleman had received his passes. After successfully contacting the gentleman, the staff member was told that he had, indeed, received the passes and appreciated all that had been done for him. Unfortunately, he and his family would not be using the passes as his wife had passed away the evening before.
This customer had three contacts with this parking facility, and only one contact was successful in providing good customer service. Sad but true.
In essence, it should be noted that providing customer service is not like producing accounting reports or designing software. The principles involved are not so pragmatic as those used in engineering or in other technical areas. As a result, there is sometimes a conflict between the "soft" skills requirements of the employee providing the customer service and the "hard" skills focus of the organization.
I am well-acquainted with a director who cringes each and every time their engineer or accountant becomes involved with customer service. Mind you, both are excellent in their chosen fields; it is simply that customer service is not their forte. These individuals are rules/process followers (i.e., if it is not the rule/process, then the customer must be wrong).
Now let's return to our earlier "situation." The auditing department in this organization is responsible for ensuring that every ticket transaction results in the organization receiving the proper fee. So, if a transaction comes through without a patient voucher (as was this case), then the visitor fee must be applied. Now, over at customer service (ya know, the cashier booth), the cashier handling the transaction had a pretty good idea that not too many non-patient visitors leave the garage at around 4 a.m. (trust me on this one!). However, because of past experiences of having been charged for tickets without proper validation, this cashier was going to charge the person regardless of the excuse provided. I am sure all of you "smart readers" out there (you know, the ones "that get it") are now saying to yourselves: Why don't they just empower their employees and save the day, as well as many future problems? Keep in mind that in parking, time is money, and, unfortunately, all cashiers are not honest, so this is not as easy as it sounds. Besides, I am sure the editor of this magazine would like to see empowering your employees as a topic for a future article.
At this point, it would be fair to say that even when management is customer-focused, they should understand this conflict has a tendency to occur and ways must be found to minimize the consequences. Hence, my constant preaching that everyone in an organization should have to go out in the field, so to speak, and work a front-line position! I firmly believe that this practice should be repeated more than once so that the organization stays fresh in understanding what business they are really in.
It is said that professionalism is upholding the highest possible service standards by employing methods, conduct and qualities that will lead to customer satisfaction. Therefore, every organization claims they have standards for implementing customer service policies. In most cases, these are formal statements of policy or service goals and are topics for ongoing discussion. Unfortunately, in many cases, service standards are happenstance and unclear. As a result, the expectations regarding the performance of customer service employees are sometimes equally vague, and attention is given only when there is a problem.
In a previous article, I mentioned my familiarity with an organization whose auditors could not last very long in the cashier's booth performing the very work for which they are responsible. So, I ask once again, when was the last time you or your management staff worked in the field?
There is something to be said about the clichE about treating customers as if it will be your last encounter with them. I know in this case that everyone involved would have changed had they only known. But, then again, we never know, do we?
Robert Milner is Assistant Director of Parking for the University of Maryland, Baltimore. He can be reached at