CMO interview: Turning parking into a customer-driven industry

GM of marketing and customer experience at Wilson Parking shares the data, customer and marketing transformations she's made in the business in her first year

Vanessa Lyons
Vanessa Lyons

Editor's update: This interview was conducted in late July, when Vanessa Lyons was still in the role at Wilson Parking. The role has now been made redundant, although Lyons is still sighted in the position until the end of October. All information noted in this interview conversation was accurate and correct at time of interview.

If Wilson Parking’s GM of marketing and customer experience, Vanessa Lyons, had to pinpoint one challenge she faced during her transformational first year with the parking operator, it’s overcoming traditional business mindsets.

“While the business acknowledges the need for change, when there are hiccups or questions the easier answer is to revert to the old way,” she tells CMO. “We have been able to overcome those barriers, but we’re really more in the thick of it now we’re so much further down the journey. There’s no backing out now.”

Achieving this kind of buy-in requires CMOs to constantly put things into perspective for the rest of the organisation, Lyons says. The first is what modern marketing can actually achieve.

“When I first joined, the business thought marketing was sales support – promotions, handing out flyers. This was how you used to get marketing done,” she says. “We also have people who have been in parking for years, so getting them to understand the way we used to do things isn’t appropriate anymore is important. There are some amazing things we do and we should milk those harder. But we have to find that balance.

“So the level of understanding has had to evolve, even at the board level. They understand the need for it and are behind why we need to change, but not the how. The typical response is to go faster and faster. But if we’d done that, it would have been at the expense of the business.” 

Nevertheless, Lyons has made rapid progress on what is a significant transformation program. Upon joining Wilson, she found a brilliant parking operator and to some extent, a solid B2B marketing shop. But the company lacked consumer marketing smarts as well as a comprehensive view of customers.

“While B2B marketing is still a fundamental part of what we do – that’s our landlords and tenants – if you don’t understand the full journey of all our customers, we’ll never fix operationally where the bug bears are,” Lyons says.

The data story

Contributing to this incoherent picture were six disconnected data systems, overly complex digital user experiences and misguided ideas around customer pain points. In addition, while some customers pre-book, a lot of anonymous parking was in the mix.

“There was a ‘view’ of us having 2 million customers, which wasn’t accurate. We generally have about 600,000 by the time they use our multiple services and you connect the journeys,” Lyons explains.

One of the first priorities therefore was connecting data sets so Wilson had a platform-level view across all customers. This data consolidation, visibility and embedding exercise took four months.

“What Wilson didn’t understand was how rich it was in first-party data itself,” Lyons says. “When I joined, we were talking about getting better at leading with customers, and how we get better at marketing. The gap I identified was to understand that customer first, in order to direct us correctly.”  

Data insight is now helping inform a more modern view of what Wilson’s end-customer really looks like.

“The traditional view had been of male, executive-level workers parking Monday to Friday.  As it turns out, 75 per cent of people contacting Wilson are female,” Lyons says. “It’s often females managing the finances, so it’s not the parker contacting us; it’s the person in the family querying the charge. That in itself is interesting.

“What’s more, the people who pre-plan and book are not your typical corporate charges; they’re generally female planners. And it’s occurring after hours and on weekends. Seventy per cent of people parking with Wilson do so once a year, either to attend events or during school holidays.

“They don’t need to engage with us frequently. But we’d been stalking them once a month with state-wide email communications.”

Building a comprehensive data-driven customer view enables Wilson to better understand users in association with physical locations, too. For example, Lyons says parkers in Sydney CBD precincts will often choose to park in locations on one side of the city and walk to their offices to avoid crossing the city in vehicles.

“This means we can break the CBD into sub-precincts and target customers based on the location they’re driving from,” she says. “We’re getting a lot smarter about the data we have to get the right outcome.”  

Another early data use case has been identifying and erasing pain points in the customer journey. For Lyons, the obvious one to solve was why Wilson was getting 1000 inquiries per day, mostly via its contact centre. Through data, she could see at least half requesting a refund - a clear indication of problems with onsite experience.

“There had always been hypotheses, but now we have the data and the facts to support where our pain points are,” she says. “In many instances, yes, there is user error, but if you look at how it occurs and dig a bit deeper, you understand these are controllable measures you can fix.  

“It’s not just about customers misunderstanding our product; it’s the way we structure our products, and allow them to make a mistake when they book.”

As a result, much like booking a flight at midnight when you wanted to book it at midday, Wilson is putting sense checks in place digitally to help reduce these human errors, Lyons says. With digital channels and ecommerce firmly in her remit, and self-service a must, Wilson has also launched an app for frequent parkers to try and improve experiences in that segment.

“Previously, it would take about 15 steps online to book parking with Wilson. This was because it required accepting a credit credential and fully authenticating the customer in order for them to make their first booking,” she explains. While there are financial reasons for this, it showed the business wasn’t trusting customers.

“Now we have switched it and you start as a guest. If you’re one of the 70 per cent of parkers that book once a year, we acknowledge that and let you book quickly,” Lyons says. “If a customer has more frequent needs, then they become a full account and authenticate. We had to take away the pain away from the experience.

“Ultimately, it helps us. We can see how many people are booking in one carpark and better manage capacity onsite, making make sure people don’t turn up at a fully occupied site. And now we have an app, we can communicate about more real-time road situations through push notifications and by acknowledging a booking when you go to another carpark.”

While the original plan was to get existing customers to migrate to the app, Wilson has seen a 30 per cent increase in new customers since the app’s launch, and more customers booking more frequently, Lyons says. The star rating for the Wilson app now sits at 4.6 off the back of 3000 reviews. 

Long-term, Lyons’ big goal is to get those 1000 inquiries down to zero. “No one wants to talk to a parking business. That tells me we’re confusing our customers in the wrong way and we need to minimise it,” she adds.

Customer insights

Another ongoing data project is landing a better view of customer segments.

“We are trying to find the meaningful insights and components of those in order to do something useful with them,” Lyons continues. “It’s about identifying what are the trends versus the traditional customer segments, and the journey pain points we need to resolve that can be fixed for the greater good of customers and the business.”

Historically, customer segments were limited to transactional data, such as recency and frequency of parking. Three key segments were used by Wilson: Daily, monthly and weekly parkers.

“Customers are going to be more holistic than that. Someone parking daily, for instance, probably also brings their family in on the weekend. So we’re taking behavioural, geographic, psychographic and transactional insights to understand the segments now,” Lyons says. “It’s about understanding the value and pockets that will drive different outcomes.”  

As a parking operator, it’s also important to recognise Wilson’s role is only the start and end of someone’s reason for parking.

“We’re an enabler. We’re shifting our thinking that way to improve our communications and engagement,” Lyon says.

People power

Helping Lyons succeed is the fact she’s been able to bring what were one siloed state-based marketing teams with her on this relatively rapid change program. In her first three months, Lyons worked to align marketing, digital and IT teams through a consumer roadmap, which starts with the consumer journey and then ensures all the pieces behind that are oriented and linked to those key touchpoints.

“Systems do need to talk, things need to go, and other things need to come up the priority list. We have aligned on that, which is great. It helps from an investment perspective too –ultimately if it’s not helping achieve that consumer goal, we don’t do it,” she said.  

More widely, Lyons believes the onslaught of technology within marketing and customer engagement means marketers must focus on two things: Efficiency from a business operations perspective; and revenue driving.

“The only way you can do that is to be embedded in the business. You can’t do it in isolation and hope everyone will follow you,” Lyons says.

As a result of these priorities, Wilson’s marketing spend is more heavily targeted at digital and streamlining operations. Again, Lyons admits this can be a harder sell to a business used to marketing being about communications and short-term gains.

“Think of any carpark: You’re full any day of the week. But on a weekend and at night time, when offices are empty, generally you’re at lowest capacity. We could promote that right now because it’s affordable to do that,” she says. “But it's not just about filling the void. We have to time our activities right because again, if we can’t service it, it’s reputationally a bad thing.”

Now firmly into year two of the job, Lyons says it’s important to level set and keep her eye on the long-term prize.

“When I joined Wilson I realised it’s really like a retail store. Our shopfront is the entry to the carpark, and like a store today, it’s not the most important piece in the puzzle,” she adds. “It’s about how we make the most of all of the touchpoints in the experience.” 

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