by Greta Petry
(September 13, 2006)
Playing with Parking
A glittery gold fish decoration dangles from a shiny turquoise-colored ribbon outside the Campus Center East Trailer that serves as the home of the Office of Parking & Mass Transit Services.
What's with that?
The fish is a little bit of festive bling that reflects the customer service philosophy of the University's parking office.
Director Michelle DiDonna, Assistant Director Rose Dorsman, and customer service staff members have intentionally set out to lighten the mood, shorten the wait, and let people play while they stand in line waiting to register their car or pay a parking ticket.
After filling out your parking registration form on the ramp outside the trailer, if you are still waiting, you can fiddle with games like Monkeys in a Barrel, hooking a pink monkey onto a green one, or keep your mind sharp with World's Best Sudoku, which is essentially a numbers crossword puzzle.
Jackie Hayes of Syracuse, a first-year graduate student in Latin American, Caribbean, and U.S. Latino Studies, had no chance to play with the games because there were few people ahead of her on line.
Sharon Whiting, controller for the University at Albany Foundation, waited ahead of Hayes. She said, "I postponed registering my car." She only had to wait a few minutes.
And Jaeyoung Kang, a fourth-year graduate student in business management, said he only waited "two minutes."
According to DiDonna, the office has a policy of treating faculty, staff, and students equally. "(The late) President (Kermit L.) Hall was all about customer service," said DiDonna. "In years before, this would have felt awkward. However, this year we felt adding the games would make the experience wonderful for the public as well as for the staff, so that the staff would not be so exhausted from the long work hours."
It's not easy working in the parking management office, especially during the back-to-school rush, when the office was open on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday of Labor Day weekend, and staff helped customers from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. during the week.
"We have taken care of 3,854 customers in two weeks," said Dorsman, checking the records.
While President Hall's pro-student advocacy lent support to the office's customer-oriented approach, the changes started several years ago with the office's decision to adopt the "fish" customer service policy. DiDonna and Dorsman learned about the philosophy from a video about the Seattle Fish Market, where fish vendors play with their customers, laughing and joking, and throwing fish back and forth. The idea is for time to go faster when you're waiting in line because you are having fun and being treated with respect.
Implementing the philosophy in the parking office meant modifying it.
"We thought, 'We can't throw fish or parking tickets,'" said DiDonna.
"No one would try to catch that (the parking tickets)," said Dorsman, laughing.
The two bought an aquarium for the office with their own money to remind staff of the fish philosophy. Then they bought fishbowls for everyone and filled them with candy. The staff brought in candy from home so that customers could help themselves while waiting. DiDonna had to stop the candy in May, because it was costing the employees a total of $1,200 to $1,500 a year out of their own pockets.
The candy has been replaced by games. Dorsman brought in Jenga from home and left it out on a table where people fill out appeals to parking tickets. Now, when the staff opens the doors to customers in the morning, the wooden pieces are scattered. By the time the day is over, the puzzle has invariably been completed.
More games have been added, including a fishing game which has proven to be a hit. "So many students have come in and said that they used to play it as kids," DiDonna said.
The lengths to which the staff has gone to make life pleasant for students, faculty, and staff are extraordinary. One employee's husband came in on the weekend to construct tables on which customers can fill out parking forms outside as they wait. The tables had to be attached to the railing of the ramp, which slopes. One employee brought in a white, tentlike tarp, to protect customers from rain.
DiDonna bought balloons, one in the shape of a police car, the other a bus with Sesame Street characters. She attached them to a University bus parked out front, because she is encouraging people to ride the bus, calling attention to how they can save money, help the environment, and meet people.
Furthermore, DiDonna changed the bus schedule so it now goes up and down Western Avenue every 10 minutes instead of every 20.
"We wanted people to see the bus as an option," she said, concluding that she believes Hall would have approved, because students, customer service, and the environment were all so important to him.