The passenger pounded on windows after the driver pulled off the highway, locked the doors, and said they were going to a hotel.
Finding success in the chauffeured transportation industry starts by building a strong foundation and requires constant vigilance. Operators must keep their finances in order, promote their services, anticipate trends, properly train their employees and make sure clients are kept happy and feel appreciated.
Successful business owners not only love what they do, they keep learning and refining their procedures. Operating a small business involves long hours and many responsibilities, but the rewards are abundant if you plan ahead for the perks and problems alike.
The following tips, broken out into eight key areas, are designed to help operators build and maintain a strong and prosperous business -- and enjoy themselves in the process.
1. Provide exceptional service. This may sound like a no-brainer, but here’s an opportunity to be memorable. You already know to exceed your customers’ expectations and never promise anything you can’t deliver. What can you add that’s a pleasant surprise for your clients, something they didn’t expect?
2. Personalize your offerings. Customize programs or special services for specific clients. Try to anticipate when they will need your service again, remember their particular preferences and develop an offering that is based on their requirements. For example, make sure clients have their favorite newspaper, magazine or cup of coffee waiting for them.
3. Pay attention to your customers. Keeping customers can be even more difficult than finding them. Focus on customer service and communication. Don’t pester them, but keep in touch to make sure you are meeting their needs. A follow-up call after a job is a good way to keep tabs on the relationship. Remind your clients throughout the year that you’re ready to meet their needs by sending them a card or useful gift -- a pen, a pad of sticky notes, even a business card organizer — a few times a year.
"I send out gifts during the holidays that have our company name and phone number on them. I also send a driver over to my best clients once a year with a special thank-you note," says Gary Day, president of American Limousines in Baltimore. "Little things like that can often go a long way, even if a customer-service issue arises."
4. Identify and reward your most valuable clients. If it’s true that 20% of your customers often make up about 80% of your profits, it makes sense to give these customers the best service. Assign a senior account manager to check in regularly with the key accounts to make sure there are no service issues you should know about. Consider offering a frequent usage discount: Clients receive either a discount or a free service once they have reached a specified target, and you receive repeat business.
5. Develop and maintain a solid database. It’s never too late to start something this essential. All contact information for customers, prospects, associates, vendors and others should be maintained in your database for quick access and updating. Try to get birthdays and anniversaries so you can send out correspondence and special offers. A database can also flag customers who have not interacted with you for a certain time period. If you have a computer expert available, put in some kind of alert mechanism to ensure that you make contact with clients who have not called. Another way to remind yourself to comb the database is to put it on the to-do list in your computer’s calendar function. Because a database simplifies recordkeeping enormously, it is worth every penny to educate yourself in its use.
6. Handle complaints effectively. Given the exceptionally high expectation for customer service in this industry, complaints are unavoidable. They are also an ideal opportunity to shine. If complaints are handled effectively, customers are much more likely to do business with you again. They prove you are committed to helping them. Follow these steps: apologize, listen, establish the facts, agree on how to proceed or what form the compensation should take, and then follow through on your promise. Developing a written strategy for handling complaints will give you confidence in the face of potential disaster. This is another area where it pays to educate yourself by taking classes and reading books.
"Operators should welcome complaints," says John Critchett, president of Palm Beach Tours and Transportation in West Palm Beach, Fla. “Most people don’t complain -- they simply take their business elsewhere. Also, properly resolving a customer’s problem builds loyalty. We all make mistakes, and customers can be forgiving if you handle it properly.”
7. Market professionally and consistently. If you don’t have the time or the skills to market your product effectively, find someone who can devote a significant amount of time to it. First, look within your company for someone with the skills to get the job done. If that doesn’t work out, hire someone with marketing experience or find a firm that knows the industry. Regularly update your Web site with fresh information. Change your ads regularly so they don’t get stale. Every month provides abundant opportunities to promote your business to both new and existing clients.
"When we installed our new online reservation system, we promoted it heavily, and doubled the amount of business we were doing with certain clients," says Tim Rose, president of Flyte Tyme Worldwide in Mahwah, N.J.
Follow the Money
8. Watch your finances. Financial statements offer insight into the health of your business. Project your cash flow ahead by several months, based on reasonable expectations for sales and income, demand for your services, payments due (including loans and rent) and other factors. By comparing actual cash flow to projections, you can spot changes that will help improve your company’s performance. This is another area where it pays to invest in a computer program and classes. If you’re new to owning a business, you’ll find that you’ll be managing money in a different way than in the past. Don’t hesitate to ask questions and seek the knowledge you need.
9. Stay conservative at your first taste of success. It is important to enjoy the fruits of your labor during periods of rapid growth and increasing profits. However, sometimes business owners will make expensive purchases and lose their focus. Expensive hobbies and other business ventures suddenly become distracting. By all means, enjoy your fun money -- just budget for it, as you would for anything else.
Effective Goal Achievement
10. Develop goals and a plan to execute them. Sometimes we get so caught up in the day-to-day running of a business that we lose sight of the larger picture. It can be exciting to step back and look at how far you’ve come and how you would like to grow. The steps for achieving goals are simple: Define your goals, develop an action plan, anticipate risks and track your progress.
Goals should be precise and realistic: Don’t just say that you want to increase sales, decide on specific numbers. If you decide that you want to increase business by 20% in the coming year, bolster your sales and marketing budget to get the job done.
Try to keep the list short -- no more than three goals at a time -- to keep your focus sharp. Create action plans with step-by-step tasks and multiple strategies for achieving each step by a certain deadline. Also consider what could get in the way of achieving the goal and make sure your plan takes any risks into account. Consult your goal list at least a couple times each week to make sure you are doing what needs to be done.
11. Revisit your business plan. Your business plan should not go up on the shelf to gather dust just because the start-up phase of your company is over. Refer to it often. Note where estimates accurately reflected realities and where they didn’t. Even subtle changes in the marketplace may require you to take new directions and develop new ways of accomplishing goals.
12. Look for the right qualities when hiring employees. Attitude is often more important than experience in a new hire. You can always train a novice, but it’s hard to break bad habits. Just make sure you are specific about what you expect of employees and monitor their progress. They will be happier if they are confident in their ability to perform their job properly, and happy employees make good workers.
"I have found that when you hire someone who is coming from another company, they often bring bad habits with them,” notes Anthony Viscusi, president of Dav El Philadelphia. "It’s easier to train someone than to retrain them."
13. Conduct background checks. The benefits are significant and corporate clients will often demand it. You never can be too careful these days. Not sure who to use? Search the Web, ask your insurance provider, or talk to your local police for recommendations. In each instance, you will need to explain to the applicant that a third party will be conducting a background check as a condition of employment, and make sure you get their signature.
14. Create a detailed, formal chauffeur-training program. Veteran chauffeurs can make great teachers, but you need a curriculum and a written course outline to ensure all pertinent areas are covered. Spell out the specifics of what you expect from your chauffeurs. Many misunderstandings and frustrations occur simply because a new hire didn’t understand the expectations of the boss. If training chauffeurs is more than you want to handle, make use of an established program that you trust and that you feel is worth the investment.
15. Praise in public, correct in private. Publicly recognizing an employee’s good efforts builds morale and inspires others to work hard. Public criticism has the opposite effect. It also makes people hesitant to offer opinions and insights that could be very valuable. Ask your employees what rewards would motivate them to do their best.
16. Create a disciplinary and review process. Develop a plan to tackle issues ranging from poor performance to chronic absenteeism. Delve into each area and determine what is acceptable, unacceptable and grounds for dismissal. For instance, how many absences are acceptable in a given time period? How should you deal with customer complaints about a particular employee? It is essential to provide training for everyone who deals with the general public so that boundaries, expectations and responsibilities are fully understood.
17. Encourage employee loyalty. Happy employees help encourage repeat business and better represent your company. When a client requests a specific driver, you know you have a winner. When salespeople reach established benchmarks or chauffeurs drive a certain number of jobs without a complaint, give them cash incentives.
18. Learn to delegate. As your company begins to grow, you will need to seek out and identify employees you can trust to take on some of your responsibilities. If you try to do everything yourself, you not only will risk losing your mind, but you will never reach your full potential. Delegating allows business owners to focus on the road ahead. Effective delegating is a balancing act. You must allow people to make mistakes, but all delegated tasks should come with some level of responsibility and accountability.
19. Budget your time...literally. Examine your schedule and assign values to each task --including time spent booking a client, interviewing chauffeurs, or developing a marketing program. When all the items on your agenda have a dollar amount associated with them, you will quickly realize what your priorities are. This will also help you choose what to delegate and where your business needs to streamline.
20. Work on time management. Try to focus on things that are important rather than what’s urgent. Timely planning is the key to balancing job tasks with community and extra-curricular activities. Set aside time each day for planning, focus on tasks and activities that are important and delegate tasks to employees. The golden rule for full-time small business owners is said to be the 3,000/500 rule: no more than 3,000 and 500 hours per year should be spent working and taking part in community and other activities, respectively. Typically, if these hours are exceeded, both family life and health can suffer.
"I find that I am more productive and can complete more projects when I think about my time as something that is finite and include in my schedule the time to enjoy some personal activities," says Diane Forgy, president of Overland Limousine in Kansas City, Kan. "This also forces me to delegate more tasks and avoid interruptions."
21. Never stop learning. Attend seminars, read books and seek out information from successful people and great business minds. Even veteran entrepreneurs can benefit from the perspectives of others.
If you are just starting out in business look for mentors who can give you advice. Run some of your ideas by people you trust before making important financial commitments. Read books and magazines about running a small business, visit business-related Web sites and network with your peers in the business community.
"After 15 years in the business, I still attend every seminar and show that I can because I like to see how people are doing things in other parts of the country," says Mark Barnett, president of Best of Times in Lansdale, Pa. "I always bring at least three things home from every convention that we immediately implement into our business."
22. Develop strategic alliances. It can often be advantageous to build partnerships with other vendors that serve your target audience, such as wedding coordinators, photographers, bridal shops, restaurants and concert venues. You can benefit from working with others who complement your services -- you can both become more profitable more quickly as a team. They may also have resources that will help you reach potential clients, or can offer entry into doors that might otherwise be closed to you. Consider developing friendly relationships with competitors as well.
23. Watch your competition. Don’t be afraid to watch what your competitors are doing. They may have some good ideas that you can learn from. Check out their Web sites and see if they are introducing innovative new services. Don’t make any purchases until you check with your clients to see if a new vehicle or service is something they would want. Your competitor’s idea may not be so hot after all, or may not work in your situation.
24. Participate in professional organizations. Scout out business travel, wedding and tourism organizations, as well as local chambers of commerce. Decide which ones give you the best return on your investment of time and money. The one with the lowest dues may not be your best choice.
A strong organization provides information about your target audience and plenty of networking opportunities. Don’t just pay the dues and disappear. Attend the meetings and participate in committees for higher visibility.
25. Give back to the community. Contributing to your local community brings good public relations, which can help build a loyal customer base and long-lasting relationships. It doesn’t always have to be money -- donate transportation services as part of a fund-raiser or put in some time working the booth for a special event held by a local organization.
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