We create illusions. Our vehicles make ordinary people feel like celebrities, rock stars, kings and queens, or perhaps even better, stars of their own reality shows. And years of training have pretty much taught us how to treat this important segment of our industry.
But what if our client isn’t trying to look wealthy, but actually is wealthy; a CEO, CFO, actor, musician, or a visiting dignitary? How does that change the game, or at the very least how we do business? What is the strategy for not only tapping into this small but lucrative market, but also retaining it? And if you venture into this arena, why is it one that an industry expert has dubbed “not for economic cowards?”
To know how to reach the wealthy (or affluent) market, you need to first know what it is. At a recent LCT Leadership Summit, Dr. Jim Taylor of the Harrison Group called them “five-star travelers,” a group mostly 47-65 years of age with an aptitude to spend upwards of $32,000 per year on travel. “Travel is a more important spending category for them than their car, home, or vacation home,” Taylor says.
They often live in the world of “The Lincoln Lawyer,” the book made famous by author Michael Connelly where the back seat is the office and the place to make the deal. Whereas seven years ago we had to put cell phones in the back of vehicles (it was a non-negotiable item in most RFPs), today’s technology now lies in your palm, making the back seat an even more important mobile office for the affluent client.
It’s no big secret how the economy has changed our industry. But at a certain financial level it appears as a small blip on the radar screen of the more affluent customers. Whereas perhaps the senior vice president has now been steered towards something less showy, in many large companies the CEO and CFO still use a limo. They have worked hard to get where they are and they deserve to be treated as such.
They also expect value for their money. To them, discounting value means discounting service. They stay at the Four Seasons because they know they won’t see a Four Seasons coupon show up in the mail in a Val-Pak. They may be willing to pay top price for service, but don’t think there isn’t a ceiling. Someone driving a Mercedes might be willing to pay $4.50 a gallon for gas while the rest of the country pays $3.25. But even the wealthy will drive on by if the pump says $7.50. They didn’t get where they are today by being financially irresponsible.
As Taylor points out, “If an operator can add to the worth of a travel experience, then the price is irrelevant.” But that doesn’t mean jacking up the fee just because the bottled water is cold and you don’t have yesterday’s newspaper sitting in the back seat.
Aligning your business with a wealthy clientele also has residual advantages. Impress the CEO with your services in his business world, and very likely you will be on his speed dial when his daughter has a birthday, prom, wedding, or he needs to attend fundraisers, nights on the town, etc.
There’s also the possibility of IPO road shows, where five to six executives need to be transported quickly from one important financial institution to another. This becomes more important. If a chauffeur is late getting the CFO’s daughter to a birthday party, the result may be some tears. Let that same CFO be late for an important IPO meeting, and the result could be the loss of millions of dollars from investors, and one angry customer.
All of which leads us directly to the chauffeur — your direct link to the wealthy client, which can’t be overstated. Try to have the same chauffeur work the same jobs. This creates a familiarity with the client and establishes a comfort zone. But this doesn’t mean the chauffeur has to be buddy-buddy. The client needs a knowledgeable, courteous, capable driver, not a new BFF.
As Taylor pointed out at the Summit, “Chauffeurs need to know information about the communities in which they operate. They should know something that animates the client’s interest. The biggest variable in terms of quality of experience is the chauffeur.”
So how do you reach this market effectively? Taylor suggests e-mail and direct mail marketing. But if you are waiting for Warren Buffet to friend you on Facebook, don’t hold your breath. Taylor reports only 3% of companies have said they have ever sold anything on Facebook. Some other suggestion would be to align your company with five-star hotels and airlines that regularly shuttle passengers in First Class. And consider advertising in publications the wealthy read while staying in five-star hotels and flying first class, i.e. The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, etc.
It’s also important to keep your fleet updated. Late-model cars won’t make the grade, and although the jury still seems to be out on the Lincoln MKT Town Car, keep your ear to the track to see what else might be coming down the line. Then be ready to act on it quickly.
Finally, I recently came across a blog from one disgruntled out-of-work chauffeur who cited wealthier passengers as his most difficult customers, stating, “On more than one occasion I was treated so badly that I contemplated dropping my passenger off in the middle of the highway and watching him in my rear-view mirror as I drove away.”
If this guy’s resume shows up on your desk, don’t even stop for that first cup of coffee before you make a beeline for the paper shredder. Let’s face it; wealthy clients expect to be treated in a certain way. And the bottom line is, if you don’t meet and even exceed their expectations, some other company will.
John M. Greene is a 25-year veteran of the limousine business, and President & CEO of ETS International in Randolph, MA. ETS International has an affiliate network of more than 350 limousine companies nationwide. The company is a 2010 LCT Operator Of The Year. John Greene can be contacted at (617) 472-9900 and [email protected]