Don Andrae, Manager of Parking Services at Auburn University, has personal experience dealing with difficult customer service situations on campus. When customers become frustrated after receiving a citation, they often react by berating the parking department staff. “Some customers even go as far as saying that they hate us,” Don says.
Many parking professionals are all too familiar with these unpleasant interactions. Parking operators provide a crucial service to their communities, but unfortunately, their operation often bears the brunt of customer complaints.
Through his years of experience within the parking industry, Don has learned to approach customer service with patience and empathy. “It’s trying sometimes,” he admits. “There are far more positive interactions – people who come in and thank us for our help. But the people you remember more easily are the ones who come in upset and make a huge scene.”
So how can parking operators and their staff deal with these difficult customers?
“It helps to know that most people aren’t mad at you,” Don explains. “They’re mad at themselves because they got caught. They know they’re doing the wrong thing.”
Don offers the following advice to other parking professionals dealing with customer service issues.
“Trying to understand someone and work with them isn’t the same as just giving in,” he explains.
Use Technology For Support
Technology also serves as a powerful tool to ease customer relations. Photographs provide helpful proof of infractions, which eases the burden on the parking department. For example, when customers can see photos of their car in a space clearly marked “No Parking,” they’re more likely to pay the fine than to continue arguing with the enforcement staff.
When Auburn University launches NuPark’s online appeal system, customers will be able to see the enforcement pictures online when they make their appeals. Instead of contacting the parking department to argue the legitimacy of a citation, customers will see that the parking department has a record of where their car was parked and why that space was unavailable. Don expects that when online enforcement pictures become available, the number of appeals will go down drastically.
Often, he explains, confrontations fizzle out when the customer can see evidence. Don offers the example of someone who once parked in a handicap space on campus without a permit. The violator began to fight the ticket, but when Don showed her the pictures of her car – parked right in front of her classroom – she decided to pay the fine.
Monitor Customer Reactions
In addition to trying to minimize customer complaints, it’s important to monitor customer reactions to your parking operation. Social media can be an important component in this pursuit.
Don recently made a short video where he read aloud mean tweets that the parking department had received and offered simple but humorous responses to the complaints. “It’s important to mix humor in with customer service,” Don says. His video was comedy but it had a point: it acknowledged each issue and offered a resolution. Since posting the video, the parking department’s Facebook page gained popularity and the parking department received increasingly positive comments on social media as well as keeping more people informed of parking information.
Don subscribes to Buzz.Report , a service that aggregates all mentions of certain keywords on social media. When Don started using this service, he found negative posts about parking services every day. “Most of the complaints weren’t phone calls or emails to us,” he says. “They were tweets or posts on Facebook and other social media.” In the past year, however, he’s noticed a shift. Now other students respond to these posts. “They’ll respond to their friends’ posts and say, of course you got a ticket, you shouldn’t have parked there,” Don explains.
Actively Engage Customers
Don also works to build customer opinion of the parking department throughout the university. Each year, the University holds a food drive that Parking Services participates in – “the Beat ‘Bama food drive, since we’re always trying to beat Alabama,” Don laughs. At the food drive, students can donate cans of food. They’ll receive $2 credit per can against any outstanding tickets, for up to 25 cans. “We had several tons of cans last year that we helped collect and we beat Bama,” Don recalls.
The parking department also began offering a Tiger Rescue Program which allows them to assist students when their batteries die or they lock their keys in the car.
These programs, along with several others, work together to create a more positive image for the parking department. “We want to show them that we’re not the bad guys who are just trying to fill ticket quotas,” Don explains.
From Don’s example, parking operators can learn crucial tips for their own operations. Parking operators can work to understand their customers, both by listening to their concerns in the office and by monitoring their feedback online. Operators can reduce customer appeals by offering proof of infractions online. Enforcement staff can provide visual evidence of infractions, reducing the number of unnecessary appeals. By reaching out, through social media or real life, parking operators can improve customer relations, leading to a smoother customer service experience on both sides.