By David M. Feehan

I was delighted to read the interview with Lee Cockerell in the November issue of The Parking Professional. I’ve always pointed to Disney as the gold standard when it comes to customer service. And I think every parking manager should take to heart the principles of customer service Cockerell articulates.

But way back in 1989, when I assumed the presidency of Downtown Kalamazoo Incorporated, and found that my organization would soon be operating the municipal parking system under contract, we had a different model in mind.

At the first meeting of our newly formed parking task force, I stood before a flip chart and asked task force members to consider this question: “How would our parking system feel if it were run by Nordstrom?” Everyone in the room knew Nordstrom was the epitome of retail customer service. Its efforts to please customers were legendary, so we began brainstorming all the changes we could make to alter the very negative perception downtown visitors had of visiting or shopping downtown.

Many of the changes we adopted have become industry standard–battery jumps, flat tire and lockout assistance, employee training–but we took matters several steps beyond these practices. For example, when there was a festival in the city park, we issued no parking citations within a six-block radius of the park. We did not want visitors to leave town with a negative impression. We empowered enforcement staff to void tickets if a motorist was returning to his car with a handful of quarters. We put our staff in bright green blazers instead of police-type uniforms. All staff carried fanny packs with maps, event schedules, and other downtown information. We trained every staff person to be an ambassador for downtown.

The results were, to put it mildly, surprising. Within a couple of years, customer complaints dropped by nearly 80 percent. Parking complaints to the mayor’s office were near zero. While ticket writing dropped by two-thirds, overall revenues increased by 50 percent, as customers filled up our spruced-up parking garages. Employees took pride in the fact that we won a couple of national awards.

So ask yourself this question: Is our parking system enforcement-oriented, revenue-oriented, or customer-oriented? You may find that the latter option is the one that really pays off.

David M. Feehan is president of Civitas Consulting, LLC.