Giving Extra Grace While Keeping Your Staff Safe

By Vanessa Solesbee, CAPP

In a normal year, many mild-mannered, rational people go a bit crazy during the holidays. As evidenced by the countless news stories about pre-COVID stampedes and fist fights over that prime parking space, this time of year tends to bring out some of our less desirable characteristics.

For many, the added stress of the pandemic has begun to normalize, and not in a good way. We are all getting used to being in a constant state of anxiety and high alert—about our health, job security, our families, friends, and our communities. Many who work in customer service roles have participated in training after training about how to effectively negotiate difficult people, both before and during the pandemic. We’ve also recognized that people are just not themselves right now and that most people who act out just need a bit of extra grace or some time to cool down.

While this pandemic has provided all of us with an opportunity to develop or build upon our emotional intelligence skills, giving our patrons a little extra grace does not mean we should lose sight of our commitment to keeping those we employ and/or manage safe and supported.

Recently, one of my staff had an unfortunate experience with a community member well-known for expressing displeasure (not just about parking). This individual chased our town enforcement vehicle, making several unsafe maneuvers in traffic, yelling out the window until the employee pulled over. The individual then jumped out of his car and rushed the driver’s side door, yelling and waving his citation. The staff member handled the verbal altercation well and it resolved without escalation to the police department, however the community member then wrote a scathing email blaming the employee, me, and the town for a poor customer service interaction to our mayor, town trustees, local paper, and others.

Thankfully, the entire interaction (including the almost movie-like chase) was caught on our in-car camera. The staff member was equipped with a police department radio, and my employee and I did a full debrief immediately afterwards and he provided me with a written report. Our investment in the proper pre-incident security measures and post-incident protocols allowed me to provide a full and accurate account of the situation. It also allowed me to confidently and firmly stand up for my employee and state in a (very) public manner that this type of behavior would not be tolerated under any circumstances.

While this type of interaction is not new to anyone who has been working in parking (and transit) for any length of time, the situation was a good reminder that no matter what external factors the world throws our way (pandemic, wildfires, economic instability), making sure our frontline employees feel safe, protected, and supported should be priority one. Many of us have been trained that excellent customer service includes giving our patrons the benefit of the doubt every time (“the customer is always right!”), but this philosophy can also encourage an immediate imbalance in the power/relational dynamics of service provider and customer.

I have worked in a customer service type of position for the majority of my 18-year career and have learned I am better able to serve angry or disgruntled patrons if there is an understanding that a basic level of civility is required from both parties. While I may feel empowered by my role, experience, or privilege to lay down firm boundaries with those I serve, it is important that as a manager, I also work continuously to ensure my staff feels that same empowerment—not for the purpose of swinging toward the opposite end of the spectrum (“the customer is always out to get me”) but to confirm their value as employees in our organization and their value as human beings, worthy of feeling supported and protected each time they put on the uniform and head out the door.

Vanessa Solesbee, CAPP, is parking and transit manager and Estes Valley Resiliency Collaborative (EVRC) Administrator for the Town of Estes, Colo.