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Plain Bagel Tactics: Empowering Operators Through Transparency

This article was originally published in the April 2023 edition of Parking & Mobility Magazine by the International Parking & Mobility Institute. To read it in its original format, check out pages 56–60 here.

This post features the insights of Chris Everton, Ocra’s VP of Product & Partnerships. Prior to joining Ocra, Chris spent 15 years in operations at Towne Park. To connect with Chris, add him on LinkedIn or email chris@getocra.com.

In my decade plus years in operations before hopping over to the tech side, my top priority was to use the best mix of tools and data on the market to maximize yield and deliver a top-tier experience to parkers at my facilities. 

In other words, I wanted to see those dollar signs multiply – and I welcomed convos with any tech partner who could possibly support me with that goal.

During that period, I was on the receiving end of hundreds of pitches from technology vendors: equipment manufacturers, payment processing companies, digital marketing agencies, third-party reservations platforms, and anything and everything in between.

When they’d got me in a room (or on a Zoom), here’s what I’d tell them:

Plain bagel, plain cream cheese, untoasted.

In other words:

  • Break it down.
  • Keep it simple.
  • Give it to me straight.

And that doesn’t stop with the pitch, either. 

Once we signed the contract and started building and growing a long-term partnership, I’d keep asking for that bagel, as plain and simple as can be.

  • Level with me. 
  • Tell me where we’re at.
  • Let’s fix this together.

Because here’s what I really think: 

The most exciting thing about tech isn’t the razzle-dazzle; it’s the proven-out possibility to fundamentally transform my business by enriching, not razing and replanting, the ecosystem that I already have in place.

And in order to have a productive conversation about what that looks like, we need to speak in plain bagel language.

No fluff, no buzzwords, no unfounded assumptions.

Nada. Zip. Zilch.

In this article, I’ll be donning my operator cap to share a couple of “plain bagel tactics” that, in my experience on both the operations and vendor side, help tech companies empower their partners through solutions and integrations:

  1. Take tech-savviness out of the equation.
  2. Show how you fit into existing operating rhythms.
  3. Prove out your partnership to be net positive.
  4. Be radically transparent about where you are with your platform engineering, bug fixes, and product roadmap.
  5. Take customer success seriously.

Through the lens of simple, straightforward, no-BS communication, we’ll define what it takes to be a good partner to operators.

It’s so easy for even the most well-meaning vendors to over-salt these relationships or toast them to a crisp in the evaluation, implementation, expansion, or success stages. 

Let’s dive into why.

Plain Bagel Tactic #1:
“I’m going to be straightforward with you.”

Like many parking pros in leadership roles right now, I’m someone who is objectively pretty darn tech-savvy.

I grew up with it. My ears are as finely tuned to the early aughts AOL dial-up ditty as my Great Dane’s are to the clink of food in his dish. 

It’s occurred to me to set up an IT ticketing system for friends and family who ask me for help with troubleshooting their networks and devices.

And in my current role – as VP of Product and Partnerships at Ocra, a B2B software-as-a-service solution for parking operators – my brain is constantly whirring with how to enhance our platform and accomplish custom, complex integrations with channel partners.

All that, though? It doesn’t make one whit of difference in how I wanted to be approached as an operator, or in the way that I communicate with Ocra’s operator partners today.

Here’s what an operator’s level of tech fluency may impact:

  • A tech company spending more/less time explaining certain concepts

And here’s what it doesn’t:

  • That all successful operator-tech partnerships are rooted in the same exact thing that a solid API integration is: exchanging meaningful info in a standardized way, openly and in real time.

In user interviews we’ve conducted with Ocra’s operator partners, our team has heard many variations on the following: 

“If you’re not up-front and transparent, you’ll lose credibility with us. We don’t want to hear ‘oh, we don’t know what’s happening…’ – we want the opportunity to be proactive to jump in and help find the solution. And if we don’t have the capabilities to do that, at least we know what’s going on and can trust that you’re working on it.”

Makes all the sense in the world, right?

Any other way of communicating is like slathering strawberry cream cheese on a burnt jalapeño cheddar bagel. 

What can I say? Remember, straight and plain, I want to know exactly what I’m getting.

Plain Bagel Tactic #2:
“Here’s how we fit into your operations today.”

A major philosophical consideration for technology companies working with operators is that, as a general rule, large-scale change is hard to implement

As transformative as a technology can be, it needs to fit into the operator’s existing rhythms in order to be useful.

If the tech vendor is presenting something that is a large divergence from how the operator does things today, they’ll be met with aversion. 

There are simply too many stakeholders in the decision-making process – operators, asset managers, owners, hands-on users, and more – to tolerate the friction that large-scale change inflicts for one or more of these groups.

More friction = less adoption. 

Less adoption = lower perceived value.

Lower perceived value = higher churn; more difficulty justifying the price tag.

Tech companies should be asking themselves:

  1. Is bringing on my solution accomplishable without disrupting any of the operator’s current rhythms?
  2. Is my solution fool-proof and easy to adopt?
  3. Is my solution built to be flexible enough to grow along with how their operations evolve as new tech and integrations emerge?

One way that tech companies can set themselves up for a resounding “yes!” to all three of these questions is by engineering lightweight solutions that are built on wide foundations for rapid scalability. 

Another is to adhere to data-sharing standards – for example, the Alliance for Parking Data Standards (APDS). 

“Speaking the same language” (in terms of sharing and surfacing data) as other equipment and technologies in the operator’s current, and future, tech stack future-proofs the tech partner’s solution. 

Stability and scalability are non-negotiables for any operator being asked to consider such a hefty investment of time and capital.

Plain Bagel Tactic #3:
“You can rely on us as a net positive.”

One of the major benefits for operators that partner with technology companies is the ability to better react to the market. 

Technology integrations that de-silo and surface real-time data about consumer behavioral shifts, abrupt microclimate events, demand fluctuations, etc. empower operators to be light on their feet and maximize yield regardless of which way the wind blows. 

(This, of course, is part of a greater sea change. Defragmenting and standardizing data has skyrocketed to the top of everyone’s priorities list. In addition to reading the data, we realize we need to be able to understand it.)

So, what does this mean for tech companies seeking mutually beneficial long-term partnerships with parking operators?

It means that their solution’s gotta get three straight A’s:

  1. Ancillary – provides necessary support to current/future infrastructure
  2. Agile – easy to implement and integrate
  3. Action-oriented – lets operators make the adjustments on the fly required to actually react to the market

With more info at hand and more data being surfaced, operators will develop a stronger understanding of risk involved, as well. 

An operator looking at a tech solution may think, “sure, I could make 30% more upon implementing this; that represents significant revenue for me. But on the other hand, if something goes wrong, I could make 30% less.”

To prepare for that meticulous risk assessment, tech vendors need to be ready-set-go with packaged proof points and pilot-stage KPIs:

  • In the eval stage, tech companies can build and package success stories from their current partners to share with the operator prospect.
  • Post-close, tech companies should work with their operator partner to define KPIs early and revisit them often, ensuring that both businesses are on the same page re: what success looks like.

One Ocra-related example that comes to mind pertains to yield management enabled through integrations:

Our partner didn’t think they could sell parking online. They didn’t have a way of inventory-ing spaces or any data to back up utilization.

We drove change by helping them see the incremental value of looking at parking as a revenue source. 

Using Ocra’s integrations with demand channels (like online aggregators), we were able to help them get their inventory online, optimize their pricing structures, and bring in new customers bit by bit – for 5 spaces at first, then 15, 25, 35, and more. 

The result: thousands of new dollars per day in parking for sporting events. This deeply resonated with the ownership group. 

Today, we continue to accelerate that relationship, and it’s a success story that is meaningful to some of our other partners, as well.

Consumable, clear, concrete proof. Full stop.

Plain Bagel Tactic #4:
“You don’t need to maintain this on your own.”

I will say this ‘til I turn blue in the face:

You’re not making anyone’s life easier by adding work to their plate.

Integrations and technologies are not useful when:

  • Data exchanged isn’t automated.
  • Data exchanged isn’t standardized.
  • Data isn’t exchanged in real time.
  • Data isn’t exchanged at all.
  • Data is surfaced without context (i.e., it’s a bunch of 1’s and 0’s)

By default, the onus should never be on the operator to accomplish or maintain complex integrations, or do anything else that takes resources away from their core business of parking cars. 

Tech vendors are, without exception, accountable for ensuring that their technologies can talk to the other systems that the operator is leveraging. 

And if they can’t (or they can’t right now but will be able to later, after some further development), plain bagel transparency is required up front.

At Ocra, we’ve completed integrations with many leading consumer demand channels already. But we’re not done; there are many more to come.

When we have operators ask us when an integration with Channel X will be accomplished, we’re perfectly frank about where it sits on the roadmap and why. Their input can actually effect change; that’s happened before!

Having that back-and-forth conversation about timeframe and allocation of engineering resources can be difficult, but it’s always better to have a difficult convo than a vague, opaque, misleading one. 

My recommendation to tech companies is to think about what value can be front-loaded for operators in the event that your platform isn’t exactly at their ideal state in terms of flexibility, lightweightness, and integrations.

They should ask themselves questions like:

  1. How easy is it to use my product right now?
  2. Could I be providing more education for users to help them maximize the product’s capabilities in its current state?
  3. What are those resources, and where/how do I make them available?
  4. How would my operator partners describe the quality of customer support that I’m providing?
  5. Would my partners be disappointed if my product vanished tomorrow?

Education correlates with higher feature utilization, which results in a better experience for users of the platform.

One way to do this may be setting up an automated email nurture campaign that sends platform users one thoughtful, useful email every week containing some key info/resources that will help them:

  • Fit your product seamlessly into their daily operator rhythm
  • Understand the value of interacting with your product
  • Notice and use unique features
  • Know who they can reach out to for help

And real quick, because we’re on the topic, let’s double-click on marketing communications – emails, chatbots, in-app notifications, etc.

It is my 100% honest belief that automated communication can be an enormous benefit for your customers, especially if you have a lean team. 

We use it as one of many parts of our customer success strategy, because we’ve heard from operators that the availability and expertise of our team is what sets us apart as a partner.

I once heard customer success professionals referred to as “human APIs” that connect the customer (one endpoint) to whoever they need within the organization (the other). 

At Ocra, it’s all hands on deck when it comes to resolving friction items, supporting general inquiries, and identifying growth opportunities. 

It’s our goal to be a true strategic partner that helps our operator partners increase their valuation and be more successful enterprises.

For us, and for many tech companies, that means nailing two things:

  1. Continually building and maintaining a scalable product and flexible integrations that will serve them long-term, and
  2. Providing not just reactive support, but proactive consultative expertise customized to the needs/goals of their business.

When I was an operator, if a tech vendor knocked it out of the park in these two core areas, I considered them to be a potentially viable partner – one worth investing in and growing hand-in-hand with.

In conclusion

“Creating connectivity” to empower operators is something that technology vendors do not just with their products and platforms, but with their partnerships, as well.

As a former operator, my experience is that regardless of perceived tech-savviness, the best tack that a tech partner can take is to be:

  1. Straightforward about how their solution fits into the way that I know how to do things (AKA my “operating rhythm”);
  2. Upfront about where they are with their product: what hiccups arise, how they’re being handled, and what is being done to prevent them from reoccurring;
  3. Clear about the value they provide, with success stories and proof points to back it up and KPIs in place to measure it;
  4. And transparent about the level of support and education that they’ll provide on an ongoing and/or as-needed basis.

My #1 tip to tech companies is to show, not tell, operators that they’re engineering solutions intentionally, with scalability and the defragmented future in mind. 

Tech companies that prepare for this fully-connected era – by building on wide foundations, embracing data standards like the APDS, and staying lightweight and easily insertable into existing operating rhythms – will be the most successful partners in the long term.

Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a plain bagel somewhere, untoasted, with my name on it – and I’m ready for a bite.

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