Self service is an everyday part of our lives. When it works well it is hardly noticeable, but when it doesn’t work it really goes horribly wrong! Two recent experiences with ‘self service’ car parking proved just this. I had thought it happened just to me, but I now feel in good company as Jeremy Clarkson  reported a similar experience recently on ‘Top Gear’, Sunday 28th October 2007.
I arrived at Rugby station without any prior knowledge of the major building works taking place (I later discovered this was due to the addition of a new platform that had totally disrupted station operations). Unfamiliar with the site layout I did battle with the assault course of temporary traffic lights to find a car park. Being midday the station car parks were very busy, but I did find a space at the furthermost point from the station buildings. I parked and then had to walk back 200 yards to the ‘Pay and Display’ dispenser. The fee for the minimum parking duration (24 hours) was £6, and the machine only took coins; no notes; and no credit cards. Having just over £3 in coins I had to look for an alternative way to pay. Adjacent to the pay and display machine was a ‘pay by phone’ advert describing how by calling one of the two numbers listed you could pay by phone, and included the encouraging statement confirming “all major credit cards accepted”.
I dialled the second of the two numbers provided as it was designated as being ‘operator assisted’. Having never used this system before, and limited time before my train departed, I thought this would be a quicker and more successful choice. I was greeted with an automated recording explaining that this service was temporarily unavailable! So reluctantly I resorted to the ‘automated option’. To save time, or so I thought, I started walking back towards my car, during which I commenced the ‘registration process’. Having no prior knowledge of the vendor I didn’t really want to ‘register’, especially as this required that I enter my credit or charge card details, but as the car park was unattended and therefore self-service, I had no option!
Part way through the process I was asked to enter a 4 digit location number. Location number! Frantically looking around to find a number I ended up running back to the pay and display machine to get the number. As I haven’t yet mastered the equivalent of breaking the world record for the 200m dash I was unable to enter the number in time before the system ejected me from the process. I then restarted the registration from scratch, and just in case I required any other information I remained in the vicinity of the pay and display machine until asked for my vehicle registration number! Now I’m really good at remembering the registration numbers of vehicles I owned 20 years ago, but as for the current vehicle it could be anything. In the absence of a ticket to display as proof of payment, the parking information explains how the accuracy of entering the correct number into the system is vital, as it was the only method by which the parking attendant would know if you had paid the fee (Parking attendant, where are they when you need them)?
Once again I had to sprint the length of the car park to my car. Then followed the laborious task of having to enter a seven digit alpha numeric registration number in to a mobile phone keypad. The phones multi function buttons require confirmation that you actually mean, for example, the letter ‘L’ by confirming with the number (3) from the audible instructions you receive after each key, this to distinguish from the letter ‘J’, ‘K’, or the number ‘5’ all served by the same key selection! If this is your first time using this method it is most confusing.
By this time having registered, requested the appropriate parking duration, and then headed off for the station, I had missed my train! In the 1h 20 minutes wait for the next train I had time to reflect on the fact that I didn’t have any form of receipt, a prerequisite for us business travellers. I later noticed that one of the two text messages I had already received from NCP (National Car Parks) included the one liner ‘for receipts go to www.ncp.co.uk/fastpark.
Of course, the privilege of using this ‘self service’ payment method had also attracted a 40p fee, and twenty four hours later (having retrieved my car and travelled some 200 miles from that car park) I received another text reminding me that I could extend the parking time automatically by “calling this number”. I’m sure that for the regular traveller using Rugby Station the system, once you are familiar with it, works well. However for the casual user, and I don’t know when I will next have to travel via Rugby station, if ever, it wasn’t a great customer experience.
If that wasn’t bad enough just a couple of days later when parking at Grantham Station I had another disappointing self-service experience. The nearest pay and display parking machine to where I was parked was out of order. The next nearest, in the adjacent parking area, would accept neither my American Express card nor a HSBC Switch/Maestro card. I then proceeded to the next nearest point of payment, which was the station ticket office, where I purchased a parking ticket along with my travel ticket. As I had to park at the furthermost point from the station, and the time taken from the aborted attempts to pay at previous machines was lengthy, I did not have time to return to my car to display the ticket. I informed both the parking attendant and ticket clerk of not being able to display the purchased ticket, and was assured that they would liaise to ensure I was parked appropriately. Of course, upon returning to my car that evening I had received a fixed penalty parking ticket for not displaying a valid ticket!
Central to my defence when writing to GNER to get this penalty suspended is that a prerequisite of an effective and ‘fit for purpose’ self-service Pay and Display parking system must be the adequate provision of working payment machines that accept valid forms of payment in the vicinity of where you park. A defence I’m pleased to report that was successful!
Self service should not be a code word for ‘bad service’ or even worse, ‘no service’ at all. This cunning plan to let your customers do all the work, and at their expense, should not be condoned by the discerning customer!
 Jeremy Clarkson is an English broadcaster and writer who specialises in motoring. He writes weekly columns but is better known for his role on the BBC TV programme ‘Top Gear’. Clarkson is known to be opinionated and forthright in his views, and has been described as “a skilful propagandist for the motoring lobby”.