Nobody Likes the Parking Guy
When I first started working in the parking industry, part of my job was to check self-pay lots and issue citations to cars that did not pay. These were the days when customers paid the old slot boxes and parking citations were nothing more than a miniature manila envelope with some strongly worded language printed on it. We weren’t able to identify scofflaws with a computer, we didn’t use a collection agency, and we didn’t track citation information in a fancy database. We were old school.
Because these particular parking facilities lacked any technology other than the occasional payphone next to the sidewalk, the list of potential customer service problems was tremendous. These slot boxes did not give change and they did not give receipts as proof of payment. People could easily under- or overpay. People often put their money in the wrong slot, thereby inadvertently paying for the car parked next to them. Once they put their money in the slot, there was no way of getting it out.
Needless to say, a big part of my job was dealing with angry customers. Guess whose fault it was every time a customer became angry? Mine. I was the Parking Guy.
At that time in my career, I also managed surface lots with attendants who would double-park cars to maximize the use of the parking lot. I remember watching in horror as one of my attendants ripped the front bumper off an Acura as he was backing it into a stall. Another time I watched an attendant tear a fender off a pickup truck as he parked it too close to a pole. I guess I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, because even though I wasn’t the one driving either vehicle, I was the guy who got chewed out. Remember, I was the Parking Guy.
These experiences, among others, taught me that customers should be treated with respect, even when their faces are so red that you think they are going to explode. We must remember there is more to customer service than we usually think about, so it is important to look beyond the surface and start thinking about the things that can really make a difference in the eyes of the customer.
Unfortunately, being calm is not always as easy as it sounds, but this is the single biggest reason for a minor problem turning into a major one. When possible, give the person who is angry or upset time to calm down before discussing the problem. This way, they will be more rational and be able to communicate and listen better. The following are pointers on how to deal with customers depending on how they contact you:
• Face-to-face: Don’t raise your voice or get defensive or confrontational. Let the customer speak their mind before you speak and never interrupt them; this will only aggravate the situation. Make eye contact and be interested in what they are saying. If you don’t show interest, they’ll get angrier. Once they’ve spoken, work with them, not against them, to reach a solution.
• Telephone: Here’s a simple trick: If they call your office to speak to you and the person answering the phone can sense the customer is angry, have that person politely put them through to your voice mail. Give the customer an hour or so to calm down before returning their call. I’ve done this many times, and in most cases, the customer is much easier to talk to after they’ve calmed down.
• E-mail: When replying to an e-mail complaint, follow these rules:
1. Reply as promptly as possible.
2. Make your answer as thorough as possible.
3. Offer to meet face-to-face at the location where the problem occurred to help get a better understanding of what actually happened.
4. Offer a solution, even if it may not be the solution the customer is looking for.
Be the Customer
“Be the customer” is a simple concept that for some reason can be very difficult for people to grasp. Learn to see and approach the problem from the customer’s point view, even if you don’t agree with it. Put yourself in their situation and then think to yourself how you would see things if you were them. This allows you to approach the problem and solution in a way that the customer already understands.
Educate Rather Than Punish
People make mistakes. As a Parking Guy, thinking that everyone is out to beat the system is naive and should be cast out of your mind, because that is simply not the case. If someone who is not a repeat offender receives a parking citation and comes to you not understanding why, if possible consider offering to void or reduce the citation as long as they understand why they received it.
Get to the Bottom of the Problem
People complain or have a problem for a reason. Often, they don’t understand the way the system works or they don’t take the time to learn. There will be times, however, where someone’s complaint brings to light a legitimate flaw in your parking operation. It could be poor signage, poorly worded instructions, faulty equipment, or an endless list of other things. Use this as an opportunity to correct whatever is not working the way it should.
Around the time I was checking the self-pay lots, I remember listening to a co-worker on the phone with a customer who was disputing a parking citation. After arguing with the customer about the citation for about five minutes, he finally said “What do you mean, the customer is always right? That may be true elsewhere, but not in parking!”
With that he slammed down the phone. Put yourself in that customer’s shoes: This person took the time to call our office about a parking citation they felt was issued in error. They took the time to argue their side of the story to someone who clearly didn’t care about their version of what happened.
At the very least, my co-worker should have listened with an open mind and taken a few minutes to do research to find out what may have happened. Instead, he helped build a negative reputation for himself, our company and the parking industry.
Value your customers, take the time to understand them, and give them the opportunity to understand you. Everyone will get along much better. Then, perhaps, people will actually start to like the Parking Guy.
Bart Neu, a Senior Operational Specialist at Desman Associates in Denver, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.