Magazine

The Operational Partnership: Create the Atmosphere of Trust

Richard Decker

We at Minneapolis -St. Paul International Airport (MSP) seek improvements in our operations, our revenues and our effectiveness. We try daily to solve many more problems than our decisions and actions create. We seek these improvements while our time, our energies and our thinking are immersed in day-to-day analysis and decisions.
We have little time to plan for the future, research projects or network solutions with our professional peers. We try to plan or research while under the stress of urgent procedures and projects. We end the day with some small victories, some movement toward reducing a few issues, but well aware we need to accomplish more tomorrow. We feel that if we could just focus our thoughts or get some help to plan, to think, to research, we could get on top of the load.
This article describes a set of management behaviors we employ at the MSP’s Parking Enterprise that address these situations. We refer to this as “partnering” with our contractors, vendors, and suppliers.
We were facing rapid growth and many post- 9/11 changes with a shortage of staff and budgets. We recognized that change would be better than past experience on both our part and the vendor’s part. We continue to discover that change really is about learning a new method of managing, communicating, innovating and getting results.
This “partnering” is not a financial arrangement, but it leads to improved revenues and lower costs. It leads to more time to plan and network with professional peers. It takes direction, monitoring results and follow-through. It has improved our customer service, reduced stress in our operations, reduced costs and improved revenues. It has built trusting professional relationships with our contractors, vendors and suppliers by allowing all of us to focus on improving daily operations.
These behaviors must be consistently demonstrated and reinforced by our daily, respectful communication and attitudes. These encourage and empower our “partners” to meet our joint expectations and to make professional recommendations. Our parking management company, our revenue control hardware/software provider, our security monitoring company, and our towing company are examples of our “partnering.”
We highly value the experience and potential contributions of our “partners” in their professional fields to our operations. Several are companies that operate nationally. They can draw on operational experience from places we’ll never visit. By bringing that experience and those results to us, they help us anticipate and resolve operational issues before our customers even notice a problem exists. They recognize we are “partners” with the same set of customers to please.
These behaviors are a major change from the us-versus-them mentality of contract management for goods and services on both “our” side and on “their” side. Employing a defensive mentality of protecting our assets created a defensive posture in our vendors. They felt they had to protect their assets in the contract, the daily operations, and in limiting their service to our customers to a strict interpretation of the contract. They would hardly think of suggesting another operating method they had used successfully in another location. If it did not follow our contract or produce results, they would have borne the risk alone. This was not an environment that led to innovation by sharing professional experiences to improve customer service or reducing costs or customer stress.
This “partnering” begins with the written and verbal communications with our prospective vendors or suppliers in our RFP process. We detail our expectations so vendors know if they are actually able meet them. We express our desire for customer-focused operation where professionalism and innovation are valued. We then detail our evaluation procedures so the vendor’s proposals can demonstrate how they can meet our expectations. We want to be clear and hide nothing that might lead to poor performance on either our part or the vendor’s part. We even tell the vendors that if they are not making money on the resulting contract that neither of us will be happy! Our experience shows that contractors cut corners when they have under-priced a contract whether by their own mistakes or by us not communicating our expected performance. This creates hidden costs and limits the vendor’s professional recommendations that help us both improve customer services.
We have not noticed an increase in the price of services, but we have noticed vendors work better with us to meet our – now – joint long-term goals. This reduces our stress and time to manage the contract. It also encourages our vendors to accept our criticism of their performance shortcomings as they understand our desire is to encourage, not tear down. Our vendors appreciate this work environment and offer the benefit of their experience to us.
This environment allows us to identify and meet the needs of joint internal customers. For example, we discuss accounting and billing methods with our vendors so they can better report to their internal departments. They then create invoices that allow quicker payment by our internal customers.
This environment also allows us to focus on our external customers – the parking public. Our towing contractor, for example, recognized that its costs and insurance risks to tow a vehicle within one parking level were less than to tow them up the ramp to another level. They agreed to a lower rate. They also recognized that the parking management company’s staff could move vehicles on a flat surface safely and more economically using Go-Jacks. They even offer safety suggestions based on their experience! This “partner” approach had not occurred before. It reduced parking customers’ towing charges and sped the clearing of parking surfaces for maintenance and cleaning.
In his book “The Gospel According to Starbucks,” Leonard Sweet speaks convincingly that “the product is no longer king; it’s the experience that surrounds the product that brings people in the door.” He observes that customers are not interested in just an expensive cup of coffee. They will, however, stand in line (even several times each week) for “coffee as an experience.” This includes the room, the colors, the music, the smells, the people: the entire atmosphere. Customers trust, from past visits, that they will enjoy the experience each time they enter the store.
We can create this “entire atmosphere” in our “partnering” experience. We can do this by acting consistent with our contract language. We can show we respect them in our verbal and written communication. We can hold meetings in the field or in more pleasant surroundings, depending on the situation. We can ask for their professional opinions to anticipate or solve operational or customer-service issues. We benefit as we apply their experiences to our operations. They benefit as they can take what they learn from us to their other or future operations.
Their “visits” to our “store” must encourage them to gladly return. When they do, we must continue to reinforce the “entire atmosphere” and then resolve issues together. By doing so, we have improved our services and created new ones. We have reduced costs by sharing needs they can help meet, streamlined operations, improved staff efficiencies and reduced formal paperwork.

Richard Decker is Assistant Manager of Parking Operations at MSP International Airport. He can be reached at Rick.Decker@mspmac.org.

Article Abstract from April, 2008




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