25 Apr 2014
by Jeff Nethery, Cale America
The term “customer service” hasn’t been around long – just since the 1980s really. Some major companies like Macy’s figured out there was value in having dedicated staff whose job was to receive and resolve customer complaint and problems. The definition of customer service has changed as technology has changed. Smartphones and the Internet have dramatically changed the field of customer service now allowing customers and businesses to make contact with each other more easily in recent years. Communication with customers now, more than ever, has become a two-way conversation, and customers have become empowered and are major influencers further impacting public perception. With the abundance of outlets for expressing satisfaction or dissatisfaction from social media to blogs, customer service has become indispensable to the success of an operation. Parking management operators get more than their fair share of customer feedback, and all of this customer feedback and interaction can be a huge opportunity and advantage for parking operators if we are prepared to handle and respond to the input from the customer in real time. Or, it can be the main reason a parking operation struggles or fails if we are not prepared and do not understand the essentials for delivering great customer service.
Emily Yellin wrote a fantastic book entitled “Your Call is Not That Important to Us” about the history of customer call centers.In the book, Yellin tells about how the phone company initially hired teenage boys to answer and route the calls, because it was a very physical job and they had to work very fast.How do you think that worked out from a service standpoint, having teenage boys answer calls? Have you ever tried to ask a teenage boy for help? After repeated complaints from businesses and customers, phone companies quickly came to their senses and hired soft-spoken, compassionate, well-mannered young ladies to run the switchboards.The first lesson in Customer Service is…you need the right kind of people in customer service positions.It is hard to teach someone to be nice!
THE DEFINITION OF CUSTOMER SERVICE
In the parking business, we should try to think about customer service in a different way. Customer service is usually the delivery of information, an exchange of information between the customer and your operation, not necessarily specific work or action on behalf of the customer. For example, a caller might say, “I need to be connected to the parking department manager, now.” The customer is clearly communicating what their needs are, right? The “service” is the act of acknowledging the request and informing the caller of what their options are, even if it isn’t exactly what they want to hear. Being nice and having an empathetic and understanding tone will assure the customer they are being heard, while giving your staff the ability to better control the conversation and outcome. We want you to think of customer service as an effective exchange of information rather than an action.
In our business of parking management, almost always, customers are primarily seeking access to information. Here are some examples of customer comments you may have heard before:
“I need to talk to someone about this parking ticket I received….!”
“Your meter doesn’t work…”
“Do I have to pay for parking today? It is a city holiday, right?”
“I have a disabled placard on my vehicle. Where can I park and do I have to pay?”
These are all examples of information sharing requests and opportunities. While initially the tone of many calls, emails or online interactions tone may sound like complaints, in fact they are opportunities for your staff to learn about how your parking program can be improve and to educate your customers about your parking program.
THE VALUE OF CUSTOMER SERVICE
Does interacting with your customers cost you money? Studies show that the average customer service call or interaction costs between $5 – $7. In many cases, the cost of one call or one complaint is more than the parking fee that the customer paid or should have paid! Knowing this, wouldn’t it make sense to get as much value for that expense or investment as possible?
All parking operators use financial data and citation data to manage your systems. What were my sales yesterday? How many citations did we write? What is our average ticket value? What is our compliance rate? How much did we spend on labor last month? Why wouldn’t you measure your customer feedback in the same way, to constantly improve your parking program? For example, how many complaints were received? What are customers complaining about the most, and why? How many complaints were confirmed problems or errors, and how many corrections were made? Hearing from your customers is very valuable, but can be very scary and costly if not managed correctly. There is a delicate balance between encouraging customers to contact you any time they have a question, comment or problem, but not getting buried by the call or email volume or costs. Other businesses have already learned that it is cost-effective to focus on customer service.
How accessible is information about your parking program? Do the customer service people in your organization have this information and are they empowered to help customers? Being accessible and transparent means you have to give up some degree of control, and overcome the need to appear flawless. This means you need to have confidence in your team and in your program. Effective and consistent sharing of information through multiple channels can help educate the public and reduce complaints and calls. Just like you want to give customers more than one way to pay, you also want to give customers many ways to connect with you. A good parking operation should be easy to find and connect with. Increasing accessibility to information about your parking program will improve customer satisfaction, increase compliance and revenues, reduce complaints and keep expenses manageable.
Differences in policies and processes can affect customer service and costs. A good example is how refund requests are handled and how that information is made available to the customers. In City A, refund requests require a phone call to a specific person who handles all refund requests, while City B handles requests in writing through its website. City B is more than 3 times the size of operation as City A, but City A generates substantially more refund requests (and incurs more cost to manage these request) than the larger city, just due to its customer service approach.
A recent blog post said – “to create great customer service means letting go of control, letting go of fear of embarrassment, and letting go of perfection.” Craig Newmark, of Craigslist, said “Give them power to do things right. Service costs will drop.” The customer-centric founder of Amazon.com, Jeff Bezos says, “Trust your customers” and “If your focus is on customers, you will keep improving.”
A good customer service approach as a key part of your parking program gives customers the opportunity to help in amazing ways. It allows parking organizations to be real instead of defensive when things go wrong or mistakes are made. It transforms customer service from a cost that needs to be controlled to the most meaningful, viral, cost-effective tool to improve your organization and parking operation imaginable!
About Jeff Nethery
Jeff Nethery has a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology degree from the University of Washington and has been involved in parking management, consulting and technology services for almost 30 years. Jeff is currently the director of business development for Cale America, Inc., and previously served as general manager and customer service director for Cale. Jeff has worked with municipal, campus, and commercial parking sectors with a focus on improving customer service, operational efficiency, system integrations, and implementation of new technologies. Jeff was the founder and president of Parking Research & Solutions from 2003-2011.
Jeff has been invited to speak about the Value of Customer Service in Parking at the International Parking Institutes annual conference in Dallas on June 2, 2014.