Training and running a more-efficient company were two of the topics covered in a roundtable discussion of New England operators organized by LCT. Panelists were board members of the New England Livery Association. The discussion was held during the association’s annual Expo in Boston and was moderated by Neil Weiss, LCT’s associate publisher/Eastern Region.
What aspect of your company would you most like to improve and why? What would make it a better operation?
Ford: Chauffeur retention is our biggest problem. Long-term employees are better for our company and our clients.
We offer health insurance, a 401K, even paid vacations. They help, but [retention is] still a problem.
I would also like to improve communication. We want more chauffeur meetings, but it’s difficult because they pick up their keys and clipboards and they’re gone.
Most of our chauffeurs have e-mail, so we’re sending out an internal newsletter with airport updates and traffic reports. But face-to-face would be better.
Robbins: For us, it’s reservations and dispatch.
We’re just reaching a point where we need another full-time employee, but it’s such a significant cost. Without that person, we risk facing growing customer service issues.
Our increase in revenue has to match up with what it will cost – it’s something we’re planning to closely analyze.
A better back-office computer system would take some of the pressure off, but we’re still looking for the right one.
White: Sales is our biggest issue. The economy caused us to scale back these past two years, and our sales efforts have been affected. Now that business is coming back, it’s something we need to do on a daily basis, to make up that lost ground.
It’s really just a matter of getting out on the road and doing more sales.
Weiner: We need to improve how we communicate with our affiliates around the country.
There are so many operational platforms, so many time zones, so many ways to communicate. We need more consistency.
Technology may be the solution. We want to demand that our affiliates maintain a certain level of technology, but it’s not easy. You often make choices based on quality of service. Some of the best operators, from a customer service standpoint, are not savvy when it comes to technology.
Offer one tip for training a chauffeur, reservationist or dispatcher.
Ford: I’m going to tackle all three. For chauffeurs, I recommend giving them goals. We have different levels of chauffeurs, and as they advance they get incremental pay increases. They find it satisfying to be recognized for their efforts and we give more advanced chauffeurs a wider range of jobs to perform, which breaks up the monotony of running back and forth to the airport all day.
Reservationists are trained by visiting different locations. If there are changes at [Boston’s] Logan Airport, we run them there so they can better assist clients over the phone. We also take them out for a night on the town as a group because it helps them sell the packages.
On dispatching, we look for problem solvers, people who can multi-task and work with the chauffeurs.
The best dispatchers have prior chauffeuring experience. They know the locations and the traffic patterns. If you are looking for a part-timer to fill in, that’s who to look for. Just pay them better or they’ll resist doing it.
Tibideau: Hire chauffeurs based on personality. Training is important, but they need to enjoy sitting behind the wheel.
I send out family and friends on ghost rides. They come back with a checklist of how the driver performed. Did he help with the bags, open the door, smile? Did he speak when spoken to? That’s the golden rule of driving.
Reservationists shouldn’t just quote a price. They must be good at developing relationships over the phone. They meet clients before they are clients. That’s an important moment.
Robbins: I don’t hire anybody from the limousine industry because I don’t want anybody else’s headaches. It’s like getting a used car.
I hire people from industries where you must have exceptional customer service skills, like the hotel and catering industry.
We can teach them the airport in a week; they know how to drive. They need to enjoy dealing with people and they must take pride in their appearance and the appearance of their vehicles.
White: Confidentiality is very important for chauffeurs. They are going to drive people who you read about in the newspapers. What is discussed in the back of the vehicle must stay there, especially when it comes to things that change the stock market. We actually have insurance in the event anything should come back to us. Chauffeurs like to talk, but we stress the importance of being discreet.
If clients don’t feel comfortable talking freely on the phone while they are in the back of the car – without having to worry about the driver sharing their information with other people – they won’t use us again.
Weiner: I have one training tip that applies to all three. I always ask our employees to think of one of the worst experiences of their life, without asking them for details. I tell them to imagine being in that situation and relying on someone to get them somewhere. That’s how they should handle every client.
Chauffeurs have a tendency to trivialize being late. They say, “It was just one ride.” But if they remember what it felt like to be in a bad situation, the details seem more important. They are also more patient with a client who might be rude.
What are some tips that will help operators save money and run their companies more efficiently?
Weiner: Use less expensive fuel. These cars operate fine on regular. Save yourself five or six cents a gallon.
Also, smaller operators shouldn’t drive all the time. Your most valuable asset is you. You are worth more than what it costs to hire a chauffeur.
You need to do sales, work on your company’s infrastructure, grow your business.
White: As a business owner, you can’t control every aspect of your business – or not for long anyway.
The hardest part of growing a company is going from answering the phones and driving every customer – working 100-plus hours a week – to sitting in an office and telling other people how to do the job. It’s a huge step, but it’s essential.
Ford: Do not hesitate to put a fuel surcharge in place if gasoline prices go up over a certain mark. You should also shop for the best possible price on gasoline.
You can get discounts – it’s just a matter of asking – especially if you are pledging all or most of your business to a station or two.
The same goes for vehicle repairs and parts. You also don’t always need [original manufacturer] parts. If a wiper blade is cheaper and works just as well, buy it from the discount auto parts store.
For insurance, you need to subrogate if a vehicle is put out of commission. If your insurance company is not subrogating on your behalf, pick up the phone yourself and negotiate loss of use with the insurance company of the people who struck you.
We had a case this year where we lost a vehicle for 45 days and couldn’t get a replacement. We subrogated and got a check for $8,000. You may not get everything you ask for, but you should get something.
Robbins: As a business owner, worry about the big issues and let your assistant worry about the staples and small stuff. My philosophy is that revenue cures a lot of ills. Stay focused on the top line. Ultimately, you can talk about how much you are going to save on this or that, but it doesn’t matter if the revenue isn’t there.