It is a high-speed, often high-stress environment. A busy limousine service is a whirlwind of activity with back-office and driving staff working together to take care of harried customers.
One of the biggest obstacles to a happy, productive work environment can be tension between the driving staff and the dispatch department. Reducing that tension and creating a mutual respect between these two critical components can be an important ingredient to a company’s success.
Biff Bonnar has seen his company, Torrey Pines Transportation (TPT) of La Jolla, Calif., go from just two vehicles in 1988 to 19 today. TPT does more than a million dollars in sales, with the average trip run below $40. There are approximately 30 drivers at TPT with about a dozen that work the majority of the time. The level of activity and the accompanying stress can be considerable.
“The majority of our trips are same-day reservations. So, we are giving our drivers information on the fly. We schedule our drivers in shifts, and many times, they are busy the entire shift.”
The Hiring Process
“We take the time to be careful and select only the best possible employees,” Bonnar says. “Even if we are in dire need of another driver, we cannot hire a new person who is clearly below the standards we have set. We would rather do fewer trips.”
Bonnar has had success hiring dispatchers from among the driving staff. “Sometimes a very good driver will simply get tired of being on the road. We pay our dispatchers about what a full-time driver would make, so we are able to hang on to a good employee.”
Alan Postema, head dispatcher at TPT, believes that the second step in building a good relationship is cross-training.
“We take the dispatchers out on the road and let them take note of how much time it takes to get to and from key places in the San Diego area,” Postema says. “Dispatching and scheduling cannot be an abstract skill; you have to put both groups of people in the trenches so they fully comprehend the job.”
According to Postema, another benefit of this type of cross-training is that it helps you to say no to clients when it is called for. “You cannot ask the driver to break the speed limit and be reckless to help out a client,” he says. “It’s dangerous, and it is a bad message to send to the driving staff.”
Postema, who has worked in the transportation industry for almost five years, says that the company owner must also give the trainees the right message. “At Torrey Pines, no one trip is bigger than the company. So if we have to say no to a client, we do so.”
Bonnar adds that cross-training must also involve the back-office or accounting staff. “We explain how important it is for the driver to complete his paperwork accurately and submit correct receipts,” Bonnar says. “But it is more effective if you show him or her how quickly your clients must be billed and their expectation that the bill is accurate. You have to show them that every part of our company depends on accurate record-keeping.”
The third element to reducing tension between the departments is that the dispatch staff must understand that the drivers are in effect your customers. Brian Whitlock, office manager and dispatcher at TPT, believes this is the key element.
“We have to create a calm, comfortable environment in the office,” Whitlock says. “We have to put people at ease and make them look forward to coming to work. If there is a problem, the dispatcher cannot overreact. We try to never call the driver on the radio when he has clients in his vehicle. It is uncomfortable and embarrassing for him. If he gets angry and calls in sick the next day, everyone loses.”
Whitlock explains that there is another crucial benefit to treating the drivers as if they are your customers. “When a problem occurs, it is always better to hear about the problem from our drivers. For example, a driver makes a wrong turn on the way to a client’s house, and he is 15 minutes late to the airport. If you do not have a good relationship with your driver, he will not tell you in the hope that the client will not call about the problem. If your driver tells you, then the problem can be quickly addressed. I can call the client on his cell phone and apologize, or I can even greet him at the gate on the return flight. We can’t be thrilled that the driver was late, but we also cannot bury him for an honest mistake. Again, the driver is our customer, and we have to keep him or her in a positive frame of mind.”
Postema says that this works both ways. “I get upset when I hear that our driver does not get out of his car and find the client,” he explains. “I sometimes get calls from a client asking where the driver is, and the driver has called on the radio 15 minutes before to tell me he is on-site. I can let that driver know later on that his performance was not acceptable. If you have established a good rapport with him, then he can take this criticism unemotionally. He also can understand my position in relation to our client.”
TPT recently treated its entire staff and their families to a Padres baseball game. “This was a great way of saying thank you to everyone here, and it did wonders for morale,” Bonnar says. “Drivers can feel very isolated on the road, and by sitting with dispatch and management, friendships develop and people gain more respect for each other. It is so much easier to change behavior or even criticize when the person knows you and understands that you are just trying to do your job well.”
The fourth element to this process is to clearly set a scheduling protocol. TPT is a real “transportation company,” and clients are almost never allowed to request a specific driver. However, Postema believes that it is important that the driver understands that you have a system of assigning trips, and that the system is fair and equitable.
“Every driver who has worked in this business for any length of time has stories about dispatchers that favored their friends or family members when they assigned trips,” Postema says. “I have also heard about dispatchers from other companies who solicited bribes from the driving staff.”
To prevent this from happening, Postema believes in opening the channels of communication with his drivers. “It is very important that you periodically sit down one-on-one with each driver and explain the scheduling protocol,” he says. “We believe that every driver has a right to an explanation of the ‘how and why’ of what we do. The old days where you told an employee ‘my way or the highway’ are over.”
Smaller companies, where the owner is the lead dispatcher and part-time driver, have to be particularly careful. “A good way to demoralize your driving staff is to have the owner cherry-pick the best trips,” Postema says. “It makes for a miserable staff of drivers. If you want a happier driving staff, then demonstrate every day that those trips are assigned fairly and are not given by a supervisor with a hidden agenda.”
Establish a Policy on ASAP
The next item is to clearly establish a policy on “ASAP trips.” These trips can be upsetting for an entire office. The question you need to ask is, Can your limousine service handle same-day or even same-hour requests for service? Some owners tell reservations and dispatch to “say yes” to every caller, and then work out the logistics of actually doing the trip later. This can produce an incredible amount of tension throughout the entire company.
“Our business model is to do a great many ASAP trips every single day,” Bonnar says. “Drivers expect them, and dispatchers are always aware of our vehicle’s location so they can get to the next pickup. For us, it is only a matter of bringing in enough drivers and factoring in local traffic to determine how many ASAP trips we can accept.”
TPT does very few stretch limousine trips, and most of them are reserved at least a day in advance. It is important that each company determine the best policy for their particular company. Postema says if you keep calling drivers at the last minute to race to the office for a vehicle and do a trip, you will likely lose the driver.
“Every person has a life, and dropping what you are doing and racing to the office can get very old very fast,” he says. “I recommend that you keep your staff informed daily, if not hourly, as to what you will do if a last-minute trip comes in.”
Invest in Technology
The next element that will promote driver-dispatcher harmony is to invest as much money as possible in ... for more on this topic, see the June issue of LCT.