Great Customer Service. Really.

Casey Jones 4x5 (2)

Like all of you, I appreciate good customer service. It often drives my purchase decisions–and loyalty–far beyond any price consideration. This is especially true with the service businesses I engage, and that’s why I was pleased the first time I took my car to a nearby dealership. After finishing up the repair, they washed my car and returned it nice and clean. They have continued to do this every time I take my car there, whether it’s for a big job or something small like an oil change. I understand that the cost of this service is included in my bill but I don’t mind. It’s a small thing that, in addition to offering what I think is a fair price for quality service, keeps me coming back. That’s why my last trip was especially disappointing.

We had a repair done a few months ago and it turns out that the mechanics misdiagnosed the problem and replaced the wrong part. We brought it back a short time later, explained that the problem was still there, and deduced that the wrong thing had been replaced. After a little back and forth they agreed to replace the part free of charge. I considered that option the only reasonable solution, and was slightly put off by their initial suggestion that we pay for the second repair without any credit for the first. Sure, they offered to knock 15 percent off, but I wasn’t having anything of it. Later in the day they called to say the job was done and I was free to pick up my car … my dirty car. Apparently the “free” carwash is only provided when I open my wallet for something else first.

A company’s commitment to customer service must be complete and genuine. It can’t just happen when money is exchanged and it certainly can’t take place only when things go well. In fact, the time to double down on exceptional customer service is when things haven’t gone all that well. A company distinguishes itself from its competitors and shows its core values in the face of mistakes. You’re either completely about customer service or you aren’t, and customers will quickly figure out which is true and either give you their loyalty or take their dollars elsewhere.

 

 

 

News Year’s Resolution: Customer Service

L. Dennis Burns

I recently read an article by Andreas von der Heydt entitled, “Improving and Exceeding at Customer Service. Really Exceeding at it!

I know it sounds like something so fundamental that it almost goes without saying, but as I reflect on 2013 and the colleagues and peers who inspired me, those who rose to the top of the list are the ones who really care. They care about responsiveness and exceed expectations (both their customers’ and their own). They embody the essence of caring about delivering quality in all they do, and that caring separates good professionals and companies from the best ones.

In his article, von der Heydt outlined several keys to creating and maintaining an exceptional customer service culture that struck a chord with me:

  • Offer a good and reliable product/service. Be willing to change or adjust it and perhaps even your business model if needed.
  • Put customer-focused thinking at the center of everything. Customer service is not a department. It´s an attitude and everybody´s job! It needs to be at the very core of every successful company´s DNA. Practice it every day.
  • Treat all your customers with the same high level of sincere respect and make your customers feel important and appreciated. Treat them as individuals. Your job is to help make them successful.
  • Train, excite, and empower your staff. That means everyone–not just your customer service reps. Employees are your internal customers and need a regular dose of appreciation.
  • Use leading technology. Tailor it to your unique business and customer needs. Customers define the systems and IT structure required to provide outstanding customer service.
  • Never stop learning and improving. Think ahead. Anticipate future needs and wants (and possible problems) of your customers. Always go a step further. Get constant feedback.

As Robert M. Pirsig said in his book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.”

How Does Your Call System Stack Up?

Helen Sullivan

An early mentor of mine said the most important person in any organization is the receptionist. Just as the parking garage is the first impression of a driving destination, the first impression for someone calling a business is the person (or robot) answering the phone. And we all know how infuriating that can be.

I love the instant call-back systems at amazon.com and apple.com, among others. In the customer service sections of their websites, just type in your phone number and within about 10 seconds, a customer service rep is ringing you back.

Calling a doctor’s office recently to schedule an appointment, I became mired in a hopeless loop in a system that simply was flawed. There was no way to the right place due to a glitch that kept landing at the main menu. (Speaking of doctor’s offices, does everyone really need to take lunch and shut phones down from 12 to 1 p.m., just when most working people have the chance to squeeze in a call to make an appointment?)

Try calling your own business. Does the phone system work? How’s the hold music? Does a real person respond? If not, why? Does everyone take lunch at the same time, abandoning phone customers to voicemail?

If your after-hours voicemail message says your office opens at 9:00 a.m., guess what a customer who hears it at 9:05 thinks? I love the approach at Nordstrom: Their doors always open about 10 minutes before their posted store hours begin. Things are quite different at competitive retail outlets where early-bird shoppers often wait outside locked doors past opening time.

I recently read about a real estate company that increased business dramatically just by having the receptionist add a positive comment about the agent with whom a caller would be connected. As in, “I’m going to connect you with John Doe. John is this region’s most experienced commercial real estate agent. I know he’ll have answers for you.”

Frustration with phone call holding is such a prevalent problem, new services are cropping up to address it. Free apps like FastCustomer and LucyPhone will wait on hold for you and ring back when a rep gets on the line. If you try it, let us know.

Parking and Surgeons

Isaiah Mouw

A recent medical study published in the British Medical Journal Open concluded that patients place as much importance on finding a parking space as their surgeon’s clinical ability. Let that sink in for a moment.

The study concluded that factors such as the parking experience, food quality, and cleanliness of the hospital are as important to the patients as the clinical skills of the surgeon. Researcher Colin Howie, a senior orthopedic consultant at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, said, “The clinical skills of the surgeon were on a par with a parking space.” In other words, parking matters a great deal in hospital environments.

The hospitals found that patient (customer) satisfaction depended on issues outside of the surgery they were having. We in parking are not too surprised by the results of this survey as this customer service principle is true in almost every realm of parking sectors. A hotel guest’s valet parking experience at a five-star hotel will influence the guest’s customer satisfaction at that hotel and the hotel’s five-star rating. The first thing a visitor to a city must do is park. That parking transaction, whether on the street, in a garage, with a phone, or at a meter, will shape the visitor’s perception of that given city. The same goes for prospective students or parents of students visiting a university. Did the parents feel their child would be safe on that campus based on their parking garage experience? Parking is often a critical and powerful factor in a customer’s overall experience–not just their parking experience.

When our youngest son was born, he needed surgery. Boston Children’s Hospital had a world-renowned surgeon known for his work with the type of procedure our child needed. For us, this surgeon’s ability was infinitely more important to us than our parking experience or the cafeteria food. That being said, we will always remember the excellent customer service shown by the staff at the hospital. If you asked someone for help locating a certain place in the hospital, they didn’t just give you directions–they walked you there. The parking staff was also friendly and the parking garage used a kid-friendly, creative wayfinding system with pictures of animals. Children loved it and parents loved having help remembering where their car was.

The fact that hospital patients in this survey said that the parking experience was as important as the surgeon’s ability speaks volumes. Remember this and take pride in knowing that improving your parking services is usually going to help improve the customer’s overall day, not just their parking experience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Making Difficult Customers Happy

Dave Feehan

Many parking professionals have found that some customers are, well, difficult. Sometimes it’s an individual who’s found an unauthorized car in his or her space. Sometimes it’s a corporate customer who isn’t happy with leasing arrangements for his or her employees.

Monika Jansen, writing in Grow SmartBiz offers five ways to turn difficult customers into marketing success stories. While I’m sure she wasn’t thinking about the parking business, I also think her five points are ones we should think about.

In the article, Jansen suggests:

  • Put a detailed plan together.
  • Never get defensive.
  • Thank them.
  • Get them involved.
  • Put yourself in their shoes.

Her suggestions reminded me of a program I put together a few years back while working with a downtown organization. That organization was worried about losing a number of office tenants who were threatening to leave because of frustrations with parking.

Here’s what we did:

First, we constructed a plan based on information from property owners. When they alerted us that a current tenant was planning to leave when their lease expired, we contacted the tenant directly and offered a customized parking plan.

Second, we avoided being defensive, always telling a positive story about our plans for the parking system.

Third, we always thanked the tenant–for letting us meet with them, for discussing their issues frankly, and for giving us a chance to make them happy.

Fourth, we got them involved in designing a solution to their problems.

And fifth, we always tried to look at things from their point of view, which often meant we had to understand the difference in cost between downtown and a suburban office park lease. When the topic of cost came up, we pointed out that they had to factor in the other costs–moving expenses, reprinting stationery and business cards, customers that might be lost as a result of the move, and difficulties for employees who didn’t own cars and relied on public transportation. Surprisingly, these were things they sometimes hadn’t considered, and they appreciated that we were looking to help them save money.

Our success rate with “difficult” customers was greater than 70 percent, and we found that many switched from difficult to happy and satisfied.

Being Human

Isaiah Mouw

Spend enough time in parking operations and you’re guaranteed to need to respond to a complaint. One way to grow from a good operation to a great one is re-thinking the way you do that. If your typical response is, “We apologize for any inconvenience,” you may be doing a bad job handling the situation, says author and business leader Daniel Pink. In an article from The Telegraph, Pink challenges us to “only speak like a human at work.”

We’ve all received emails that said, “We apologize for any inconvenience this might have caused you.” But is this how you respond when you are truly sorry? Can you imagine telling your spouse, “I apologize for any inconvenience this may have brought on you?” Jason Fried, author of ReWork: Change the Way You Work Forever, tells of a day he saw a woman spill coffee on a stranger in a Chicago café. The spiller’s response was, “I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry.” That, Fried says, is how we react when we’re really sorry.

“When you say, ‘I’m sorry,’ you’re owning,” he explains. “When you say ‘I apologize,’ you’re renting.”

A research study performed by behavioral economist Dan Ariely showed that when customers are treated rudely, they are more likely to act vengefully. For example, they may not tell the parking cashier the truth when they are given too much change. When customers are treated kindly (like human beings), they are more inclined to behave honorably.

Don’t go replying to complaints with, “My bad, dude,” but try letting your customers know you own the problem by speaking more like a human–by saying, “I’m sorry.” Parking automation and robotics are quickly taking over many facets of the parking industry. Do we really need them taking over our speech?

(If you feel like reading this blog post was a waste of your valuable time, I apologize for the inconvenience this might have caused you.)

 

 

BO-GOA

Isaiah Mouw

In an article featured in The Telegraph, business guru Daniel Pink discusses the Buy One, Give One Away (BO-GOA) model made famous by TOMS shoes.  TOMS promise is simple: “With every pair you purchase TOMS will give a pair of new shoes to a child in need. One for One.”

BO-GOA , explains the article, “‘is a model where the consumer can continue to reap satisfaction as the shoe gets worn. Most other consumption causes a decrease in satisfaction, as products become obsolete and head towards landfill.’ As a result, the giveaways, though costly, increase customer satisfaction and deepen loyalty.” TOMS isn’t the only company to have successfully implemented a BO-GOA model: Warby Parker donates a pair of glasses for every pair sold, and Happy Blankie gives away a blanket to a needy child with every bedcover sold.

While giving a parking space to someone in need for every parking space purchased doesn’t seem practical, parking companies can implement goodwill practices that create customer satisfaction. For example, in April 2012, the Parking Authority of River City (PARC) spearheaded free parking for a special event in exchange for donations of non-perishable food or toiletry items. The donations were to be distributed to needy individuals and families. The results were astonishing. Hundreds of people donated items in exchange for free parking.

It seems to be popular consensus that no one enjoys paying for parking. But in Louisville, people paid for parking with donations that probably cost more than the usual parking charge because they knew they were helping someone in need. I bet the next time one of those customers has to choose between a PARC facility and a competitor, they’ll choose the PARC facility because they’ll remember their feel-good experience there. Similar to a BO-GOA model, this situation allows the customer to reap the satisfaction weeks after the parking transaction.

With immediate marketing benefits through free social media marketing, goodwill examples like these will help your organization set itself apart from the competitors while also helping someone in need.

 

The Emotional Cost of Parking

Wanda Brown

I had the distinct privilege of hearing Dr. Richard Mouw from Fullerton Theological Seminary speak on civility recently. The topic of discussion was how to disagree with respect and reverence. He relayed an experience he had while visiting a local store: driving around the lot, he finally found that coveted parking place. He didn’t realize there was a woman who had been waiting for that very space. As he pulled in, he watched her drive around to another space and felt very badly about his oversight. To correct his obvious error, he approached her to apologize and explain how awful he felt. She responded, “Just leave me alone! You have no idea what kind of day I have had.” He still apologized, and she finally turned around and said, “Thank you for your apology”.

Hearing the story, my mind raced back to parking in a hospital setting. How many times do we hear that there is great emotion attached to one parking space. To the user, that spot is access to a loved one who is sick or dying, or the space you return to after surgery. It confirmed for me what I already knew: Parking is emotional. It is more emotional than financial.

It is no wonder that with the inclusion of a wayfinding system in our newest structure, our patient satisfaction scores went off the chart. Those little green lights softly say to the user, “I’ve been waiting for you,” versus older structures that said, “Find me if you can.” What can we do as parking professionals to meet the emotional cost associated with our parking spaces and ease the sting and frustration that comes with it?

All Roads Lead to Technology

EmergingTrends_100sq

According to a new survey released today by the International Parking Institute (IPI), technology, sustainability, revenue-generation, and customer service are the top trends in the parking industry and the things most parking professionals are looking for.

The 2012 Emerging Trends in Parking Survey was released at the IPI Conference & Expo in Phoenix, Ariz., this morning. It showed that cashless, electronic, and automatic payment systems join apps that provide real-time information about parking rates and availability and wireless sensing devices that help improve traffic management as the top in-demand technologies in the industry.

More than one-third of respondents said that demand for sustainable services is a top trend, and that they’re talking about energy-efficient lighting, parking space guidance systems, automatic payment process, solar panels, renewable energy technology, and systems that accommodate electric vehicles and/or encourage alternative methods of travel. Technologies that help people find parking faster take cars off the road; an estimated 30 percent of people driving around cities at any time are looking for parking, wasting fuel and emitting carbons.

Survey participants also said that convincing urban planners, local governments, and architects to include parking professionals in their early planning processes is a priority; doing that, they said, would help prevent many design problems in final projects. And when asked where parking should be included as a course of study in academic institutions, nearly half of the survey participants said schools of urban study, followed by business or public policy schools.

The full survey can be accessed on IPI’s website.

The Conundrum of Paid Parking

Brett Wood

We are often asked about the implementation of paid parking within a community. Citizens, business owners, property owners, employees, and employers all want to know three things:

  • How will this affect business?
  • Who is going to be accountable for the system?
  • How do you measure success?

These are difficult questions to answer, but we find ourselves trying to answer them more and more. Every community reacts differently, and the success or failure of a parking system depends on everyone involved. Your community should consider these thoughts:

The community has to support implementation. You don’t have to believe in it, but if you want your business to succeed in the new environment, it’s imperative that you educate yourself, your employees, and your customers about the benefits and use of the system.

Forget about revenue. Paid parking shouldn’t be a cash grab for the general fund. For successful implementation, everyone has to understand that paid parking is about management, providing incentives to park away from premium spots, and encouraging prime spots to turn over.

Give something back. Provide some tangible benefit to the area through benefit districts that pay for transportation and community enhancements, and tell people you are doing it. Put a sticker on every meter that tells your customers where the money goes.

Ease up on the tickets. If you implement paid parking, focus on compliance. Ease up on citations. By educating your customers about how and where to park, violations should go down and revenue should be unchanged.

Market, market, market. Before you implement paid parking, start educating your customers about it. Pilot studies are a great way to test new technology before you buy. Don’t be afraid to try three or four vendors and equipment types. Test them all at one time. Ask people what they think.

Be flexible. Provide payment options. Don’t be afraid to raise or lower rates if you don’t find the balance you like. Go into the implementation with the mindset that year one is a trial, and include your stakeholders. Because they are using the system, and they are educating your customers.

Rx for Hospital Parking: Raise the Bar

Wanda Brown

Accessibility to healthcare services is the biggest concern of hospital parking professionals. Getting patrons to their appointments without parking stress is crucial. While maximizing operational efficiency through technological improvements is essential, parking professionals must also consider the effects on their customers as they consider implementation of new products. They can find the answer by examining companies such as Disney and Starbucks.

Ideally, patients and their families will be greeted with a smiling parking ambassador who is well prepared to educate them on the use of new equipment and provide directions to their hospital campus destinations. Customers will know they are valued because ambassadors have been trained to make each visit memorable. They are trained to know their customers, make them the priority for that moment, listen to what customers say, and be a valuable resource in handling parking issues quickly and sufficiently.

Unlike university campuses, where most customers are young and techno-savvy, hospitals have to plan for everything and everyone. Hospital patrons mirror the greater public and in creating a culture of care, parking professionals must consider all of their individual needs during every visit.

From the parking garage to the clinic appointment or visit, the customer should have a pleasant experience. Hospital parking professionals help with just that through the installation of way-finding systems, establishing cashiering stations, offering manned exit booths, and acting as parking ambassadors whose ultimate goal is to assist with the learning process.

Creating such an environment raises the bar for excellence in the parking experience. The parking professional knows that it takes the integration of both the human and technology factor to accomplish this. Has your operation raised its own bar? Comment below and share your story.

Throwing the Book at a Librarian I Don’t Even Know

Casey Jones 4x5 (2)

There are rituals at universities, many of which take place at the beginning of each semester or holiday break. One popular tradition is to lament the quiet of those times when students aren’t on campus. On our most recent first day back after a break, a fellow staff member and I were participating in this tradition. I said something like, “I forgot how peaceful it is when the kids are gone.” He followed my altogether too-obvious quip with a story from his graduate school days along the same lines: he worked in the library where the head librarian was fond of asking, “Why don’t they just leave the books on the shelves where they belong?”

This got me to thinking. Do I wish my customers took their problems, complaints, and neediness someplace else? Am I happier when there are no lines, phone calls, or emails pleading for help? Have I become that fussy librarian? What about you? Do you love or tolerate your customers? How do you view the challenges and problems they bring? Do you secretly wish that they’d just park their silly cars and leave you alone?

Despite my off-hand remark to my colleague, I don’t think like the librarian. In fact, I’m a firm believer in garnering loyalty through challenging customer interactions. The moments our customers are needy, demanding, and want special attention put us in the perfect position to deliver. By solving their problems efficiently, creatively, and positively, we have gone a long way in earning their repeat business. Like the librarian, we can see our customers as the cause of all our problems or we can see them as the purpose for our existence and thrive on problem solving.

Making the Call

Vanessa Rogers

In early 2011, I started spending a little time on Fridays writing down the names of one or two customers I’d recently worked with on an issue to touch base with the following week, to see if their issue(s) had been properly resolved and if the solution we came up with was still working.

When calls from customers or businesses reach my desk, it’s usually because the individual or company has exhausted all other options and needs to talk about a negative experience they had with a front line staff person. These messages come from Facebook, Twitter, website inquires, emails, and even the occasional, good old-fashioned phone call. It would be very easy to think that people who contact me are just doing it to pointlessly complain (especially my frequent squeaky wheels), but I still think one-on-one customer outreach is critical to the success of any downtown or municipal parking operation. Many of the interactions I have with customers can be challenging and (not uncommonly) uncomfortable, but I continue to spend time each Friday writing down names of people to call.

I think magic lies in the relationships that are forming between downtown development professionals and parking professionals who realize that it might just be time to get back to the basics when it comes to customer service. It may sound straightforward but nine times out of 10, all a customer wants is to have their voice heard. With all the dollars that are spent on marketing, public relations, and customer incentives, I’m always amazed how far a few minutes of my time will go towards creating goodwill.

Try this experiment and let me know how it goes: carve out a half-hour each week to follow up with one person or organization you’ve recently worked with on an issue. Ask them how everything is working out. Tell them you appreciate their contacting you because it makes you better at your job. Listen to them, empathize with them, and most importantly, be honest with them. You can’t fix everyone’s issues, but people know when someone is being straight with them. After several months of Friday follow-up phone calls, I can tell you that the reaction you’ll get from your customers is profoundly addictive.