Published: 14 December, 2007
Mention the Royal British Legion, and Remembrance Day and the fund-raising work the charity does for the serving and ex-service community will probably be the first thing that will spring to mind.
While the selling of poppies is the most well-known method of fundraising, the management of car parks is a lesser known, but very successful, method. Since 1998 the UK's longest established car park management company, The Legion Group - a subsidiary of the Royal British Legion Attendants Company Trust (RBLA) - has passed across circa £1.2m to the charity.
Helen Kent, head of business development for parking at The Legion Group, says: "A percentage of our profits go to charity and that's one of the reasons I wanted to join The Legion Group."
Kent has worked in the parking industry for 14 years and comes from a local authority background, where she managed the enforcement contractor and the back office.
"About five years ago I joined the British Parking Association and was keen on their determination to drive up standards in the industry," she says. "I've always believed good customer service starts from having internal quality systems and much of my work has been involved with performance improvements which have brought real business benefits."
As one of few women in the industry, Kent believes men and women join via different avenues. Women, she believes comes through the customer care route.
"There are other differences, such as between north and south. In the south, as far as local authorities are concerned, it's about enforcement, but it's also about customer care and that's fed into the development of the Traffic Management Act.
"But up in the north it's much more about keeping traffic moving. Parking is a lot more in tune with what landlords are doing in their own car parks.
Unsurprisingly, Kent lists customer service as top of her list of priorities when Legion takes over the management of a shopping centre or retail park car park.
"The first and last experience of a shopper is generally the car park and its staff," she says. "We should strive to ensure this experience is a pleasant one as it will have a direct influence on the customer's decision to return.
"All staff should be regularly trained in all aspects of customer care. Regular briefings and debriefings should take place in order to share good and bad experiences."
Signage is also vital to the success of a shopping centre. "The most modern car parks have directional lights, so if an area is full the light is red and points people to where there are spaces," says Kent. "We know what's on the market to make things easier, such as directional signs or barriers - very visual things to say you can't go there, you can go here. It makes the experience easier and more pleasant."
Kent stresses the importance of maintaining a good relationship with the centre management team. "We do what the centre wants us to do. We need a good relationship so we can pick up the phone to say let's talk about this or change the focus or emphasis of that.
"If a shopping centre becomes really popular, it might mean you have to put a limit on the time people can park. If people are only allowed to stay for three hours and they're still oversubscribed then enforcement comes in. They won't do it unless they have to because they don't want people to be fined for over-staying for five minutes. It's a very delicate balance between the frustration of being unable to park, and indignation at being fined for staying too long."
Looking ahead, Kent predicts a healthy future for the UK parking industry. "It's an industry that's constantly changing," she says. "New technology makes it easier to deliver a smooth-running, easy to use service. However, this does not necessarily mean people needn't be involved in delivering it. When things go wrong there's really no substitute for a friendly and helpful face and good customer care.
"The legislation changes constantly with the focus on making things fairer for the end user and eliminating cowboy operators. Codes of practice keep changing for the same reason and the public's expectations are rising. It's an exciting industry to work in. The important thing is to listen and learn."
=== From humble beginnings ===
In 1928 in Belfast, men with Legion armbands and collecting tins were sited at city car parks to collect gratuities to 'Mind Your Car Sir'.
The funds collected were pooled and each man received a few shillings a week. The Belfast programme was soon extended to more branches and areas of The Legion. These activities were controlled locally and run independently of each other.
As a result of the Companies Act 1929, a series of companies was set up entitled The British Legion (Named Area) Car Parking Company Limited, and on 14 April 1972 became The Royal British Legion Attendants Company.
The company is a registered charity, which requires at least 85 per cent of the staff to be ex-service personnel in order to retain charitable status.