* Understand your needs, capabilities & limitations.
* Involve your employees in the process.
* Talk to other operators about their experiences.
* Establish partnerships with vendors.
* A lowball price shouldn’t be your first objective.
Investing in limousine industry technology can be confusing, costly and time consuming. Hardware integration, commission modules, color-coded driver dispatching and group manifest importing – who can keep it all straight? Before you stress out, take a step back and approach the process as you would any other important business decision – calmly, analytically and with a lot of up-front planning. “You have to ask yourself how technology will benefit you, as an operator, and how it will benefit your clients,” says Chris Hundley, president of Los Angeles-based The Limousine Connection. “It’s easy to go wow at some of the things that are out there but you have to remember that they are only tools. How are they going to make you a more efficient operator? How are they going to help you do a better job with your clients?” To help you better evaluate and select the technology that’s right for you, consider these suggestions: 1 Develop an overall business strategy. Any technology you purchase should fit into your company’s overall priorities and long-term objectives – objectives that may include reducing costs, improving efficiency and making it easier for your customers to do business with you. It’s important to assess your needs and define your requirements; doing so shines some objectivity on the process. “What are you are trying to accomplish? What is your end goal? How can the technology help you get there? How is it going to help you work smarter and faster? How is it going to make you more efficient? How is it going to save you money or make you money? These are the questions an operator needs to work through, ” says Dennis Adams, president of Livery Coach Software in Malvern, Pa. 2 Assess your basic computer skills. Are you, or your staff, techno-phobes? It’s OK; acknowledge it and move on. But do not attempt to jump headlong into the limousine software systems that are on the market today without having some basic computer skills, preferably in the Windows environment, and with common small-business software. Most adult high schools and community colleges offer inexpensive but worthwhile instruction in basic computer programs. These include classes on how to use the Windows operating system and its word processing and basic business software programs, like Excel. 3 Do your homework before you talk to the software vendors. Start by assessing your day-to-day and long-term needs. What tasks do you need to perform? Is it important that your software be able to keep track of each vehicle’s earnings and maintenance or that online reservations be automatically entered into the dispatching system? Or will a simple program that allows you to electronically organize your reservations and dispatch functions and maintain a simple client database be sufficient. Or, in a third scenario, do you manage two cars from your home and have little need for anything but basic general business software? 4 A well-defined, well-thought-out plan that specifically lays out what you are trying to accomplish also gives you more control when the time comes to evaluate specific products, especially in the face of vendors who may want to sell you more bells and whistles than you might need. 5 Be realistic about your expectations – software is only a tool and will not overcome any fundamental weaknesses in your business or the way you run it. “Technology is not going to help you hire the right chauffeur – but it will help you manage that chauffeur,” says Adams. 6 Involve your employees in the process. Not only can they help you better identify your needs – involving them helps you obtain much-needed support from the people who are actually going to have to live with it every day. They might not use the software’s full capabilities if they aren’t comfortable with it. “Most successful installations that we have been involved in have started with everyone being a part of the process, with everyone knowing what’s facing them and being active participants,” says James Moseley, president of JLS Transportation Associates/Trip Tracker in Cherry Hill, N.J. “The learning curve is going to be much shorter and employees are going to be more ready and willing to support you. It shouldn’t totally be something that comes from the top down; you want ideas and support from everyone.” 7 Gain an understanding of what will be needed to get the technology up and running. For every product you evaluate, consider the resources that will be required to install, maintain and support it. 8 Take the time to see how the software actually works. Kick the tires more than once before you buy so that you gain a familiarity with it. If you’re not comfortable with the system or their people you are buying it from, don’t purchase it. Keep looking until you find what you like. 9 How easy is it to learn and use the software? You – and others in your business who will be using the system – are the ones who can best judge whether a software program is too difficult or impractical or, on the other hand, is too simplistic to be of much use to advanced users. 10 The software should benefit clients, if not directly then certainly indirectly. “Operators forget, but ultimately it’s the client who should gain,” says Eddie McCoy, president/founder of FastTrak Livery Systems in Phoenix. “As we become more efficient through the use of technology, as we gain real-time information on what is happening with our businesses and eliminate the guesswork and uncertainties, we make life easier for the end user.” 11 Ask for and talk to – in great detail – at least three references, ideally those working for a similar-sized company. Also, network with other operators, either through local associations, at industry events such as the LCT Show, or independently. And speak to them about more than just the software. Does the vendor, for example, act more like a long-term partner or is he merely interested in making a quick sale before moving on to the next customer? 12 How long has the vendor been serving limousine operators? Many of the industry’s software suppliers have been in business since at least the early 1990s and well understand the pluses and minuses of running a limousine company. They have also survived the tough times and are stronger for it. 13 Look for a vendor that has the proper spirit of partnership. Ultimately, you and the vendor will be solving your business problem together. “We look to establish an on-going relationship,” says Bruce Davidson, vice president of GT3 – Ground Travel Technology of Hackensack, N.J. “As their needs and business changes we hope to change with them. We try to be pro-active, to anticipate, to have a good understanding of what their options might be and to help them make the right choices.” 14 Don’t focus exclusively on getting the lowest possible price out of the vendors. A healthy, profitable vendor is one that will stick around and work to better serve you. In addition, there are good reasons to be a profitable customer for a vendor; for one thing, it gives the vendor greater incentive to support you. “As we know in every product in every industry, price isn’t everything,” says Nick Chernin, owner of Limousine Management Systems in Whittier, Calif. “Operators have to look past the price, they have to look at all aspects of the company they are dealing with. Does the company have a good track record with other operators? Is it stable? Is it going to be there for the long haul? These are the questions that are really important.” Adds Barbara Geller, owner of Easy Trip Software/BG Consulting, “Many times the decision [to invest in software] is not based on ease of use, tech support or how employees will use it – it’s based purely on price. It’s like [and operator is] trying to put a round peg in a square hole.” 15 Does the vendor have adequate tech support? Who are these techies? What hours are they available? What response times are promised? Is there a charge for calling on tech support after hours or more than a certain amount of time each month? 16 Make sure you understand all pricing issues before you buy. The base price of the software is rarely the only financial investment you will need to make; hardware costs, tech support, upgrade and additional licensing charges may be glossed over by a vendor eager to get your business. And, of course, make sure you get pricing and other conditions in writing. 17 You can have all the bells and whistles you want, but realize they may cost you extra. “We can get it to do pretty much everything you might want it to,” says Geller. “But if you want a lot of customizing there’s going to be a trade off and it’s dollars. Part of what we do is to help operators to understand their options, to educate them, to show them how much it will cost.” 18 Keep in mind that there will be indirect costs associated with installing and learning the program. This can include down time while staff members are training on the program, making allowances for initial user errors, and building in the time and energy needed for a proper learning curve. 19 Does the software include general business accounting (billing and accounts receivable/payable) features? If so, how do those functions compare to any general business software, such as Quicken or QuickBooks, that you are already using? If no general accounting features are included, how easily does the software interface with any general business software you are already using? 20 Beware of the claim “it’s in the next release.” It’s second only to “the check is in the mail.” Ask for details on what the product does today; it’s important, but not absolutely critical, to hear about future plans. Limousine Industry Technology – Simplified
The technologies that limousine operators use today can generally be grouped into three broad categories: * General business software: This category encompasses the programs that small companies in many industries use for their basic business needs. It includes such programs as Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, Access, Outlook Express, Internet Explorer, PowerPoint) and general accounting programs such as Quicken and QuickBooks. These programs typically run on a Microsoft Windows operating system. Some operators continue to use Microsoft DOS-based programs, the predecessor of Windows. The use of DOS in the computer world has to a large extent been phased out in favor of the Windows operating system. * Limousine management software: These programs are the electronic backbone of many limousine operations, especially any of those running more than a small handful of cars. They automate various aspects of the reservations, dispatching and client database functions and many can do much more. Automatic e-mail client confirmations, text messaging, fleet maintenance alerts, management and accounting reports, credit card processing, flight tracking, street mapping, driver earnings, farm in/farm out management, commission tracking, and pricing analysis are just some of the functions that are available from most software vendors. See Page XX for a list of some of the industry’s top vendors. * Car/driver technologies: These on-the-road technologies include those related to drivers and their cars, or they are perks for the clients in the back seat. Two-way paging systems make it easier for drivers to communicate with dispatchers while GPS tracking devices give operators instant information on where their cars are at all times through the global positioning satellite system. DriveCam cameras, meanwhile, are mounted at the rear-view mirror and allow operators to identify high-risk driving habits. There also are credit-card swipe systems that offer instant authorization. New technologies are also popping up in the backseat. Carey International, for example, is testing wi-fi technology in cars in New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles, giving passengers in-car access to the Internet, e-mail and corporate Intranets.