NOV. LCT: What operators can learn about building a steady client base from a leading fleet vehicle seller.
David Horowitz is a consumer commentator known to millions for his success in fighting, and winning, battles against rip offs in business and government.
His work has won national press acclaim TV Guide wrote: ‘Consumer protection, by and large, is important but dull, like road maintenance. Horowitz is the first consumer advocate to make colorful television of it.” Time Magazine said: “There are other raisers of consciousness who are just as solid...but none can quite match Horowitz’s zealous show-biz savvy.”
Horowitz’s work has won nine Emmy Awards in such categories as Investigative Reporting, Consumer Commentary, Outstanding Host and Moderator, and Individual Achievement for Consumer Program Segments.
He is host, creator and Executive Producer of the award-winning weekly syndicated program, “Fight Back! With David Horowitz.” He appears regularly on the NBC News “Today Show.” Horowitz also does nightly consumer reports on NBC’s owned and operated station in Los Angeles, KNBC-TV. He is a regular guest on various talk shows including “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson!” and “Hour Magazine.”
Horowitz is the author of the best-selling book, “Fight Back! And Don’t Get Ripped Off’ published by Harpers Row. His column, “Fight Back!” is syndicated by McNaught Syndicate, Inc. in New York.
David Horowitz has found limousines to be a valuable professional resource for twenty years as a journalist and television commentator. He has observed many of the changes which took place during that time. As one of the country’s leading figures in the area of consumerism, Horowitz was chosen to be the Keynote Speaker at the 1986 Limousine & Chauffeur Show in Las Vegas Prior to the Show, Horowitz spoke with Limousine & Chauffeur about some of the problems facing the limousine industry, and ways in which the industry can become more successful.
Limousine & Chauffeur: I understand that you have used limousines for a number of years.
Horowitz: Yes. A lot of people say, “You’re a consumer advocate, why would you ride around in a limousine?” Well, limousines are not for any particular occupation or group of people. I travel a lot and quite often I arrive at all hours of the day or night. It’s hard for me to climb into a taxicab in a strange city where I don’t know where I’m going. With a limousine I know that, one, I’m going to get to my destination quickly. Two, I’m going to have safety. Three, I’m going to have the comfort of a limousine. Four, in case something happens and I need to do something, I’ll have the ability to do it.
I really don’t like the word limousine. It connotes wealth and riches when, nowadays, a limousine can be used by anybody. The word limousine is overused. There are nights where I’ll go to speak somewhere and they’ll say “We’ll pick you up in a limousine,” and they actually pick me up in a bus that says “XYZ Limousine Service” on it. Let’s say “hired car” or “private car” or something like that.
When I go to strange cities, the service that I use locally will recommend a service for me that they are either connected with, or they know about, or has been checked out. When someone picks me up, I don’t have to worry about who they are or who they represent or what they’re going to do with me.
There have also been situations in some cities where, because of the controversial nature “of what I do, the limousine service will provide not only one person, but two people so that there is a driver as well as someone to accompany me wherever I go. If I go out into a crowd of people somewhere, and someone tries to do something strange, at least I have someone who’s going to take care of me. I’m not talking about someone who’s a door opener, I’m talking about someone who will take care of problems. That’s very important to me.
Limousine & Chauffeur: How far back have you used limousines?
Horowitz: I’ve been using limousines, probably, the last twenty years.
Limousine & Chauffeur: So you’ve seen a lot of changes?
Horowitz: Yes I used limousines back when they were thought of as vehicles that only very wealthy people used. I have always used them for convenience. In some towns, you go a little bit off the beaten path and a limousine driver knows how to get you there. On my book promotion tour in 1979, there would be cases where I would have to make fifteen stops in a six-hour period. You have to have someone who knows exactly where to go and where to park. They stay with you, pick you up at the front door, and get you to your next location.
They know their way around traffic, they know the restaurants, they have provided me with box lunches in the car, and they stick with me all the time. That kind of service is totally invaluable. I mean you can’t put a price on that because of the time and effort saved...and the safety that you get.
I’m the kind of person who likes to travel in a low-profile kind of car. Particularly when we’re doing things in cities where they might have questionable areas. When I travel to New York, there are some services that have Oldsmobiles or ordinary Cadillacs or Lincoln Town Cars that you can use. These don’t attract as much attention as a white limousine with six doors. Three people in a car like that is not that cramped.
At other times, when I travel with crews that have gear, it’s easier for us to get into a limousine and have that car with us, than it would be to use any other kind of transportation including a rental van or something. Then we also have a driver with us who knows what to do in case there are situations where we might run out of something, or we need to make a call. Most limousine services either have a two-way radio or a telephone in the car. A lot of them have phones in the back that you can use.
Another thing is that when I go on a trip...I go to work. When I get off an airplane, as soon as I get into that car, I’m working. I’m either going to New York to do a spot on the “Today Show,” or a videotaping, or a public appearance and that little time I have is used. Sometimes it’s a longer period of time. I’ve been picked up in New York, because I couldn’t get a flight to Connecticut or New Hampshire, and the car drives me up there. So here I am, sitting in the back of the car...I’m comfortable, I know the driver knows where he’s going, there might be some of the little niceties of a limousine like a television set or some cold drinks or some fruit or whatever. And I’m sitting back there...relaxing, sleeping, and just sort of coming down so that I’m fresh and ready to-go. I’ve even had limousine service where they’ve had hot towels in the back of the car. Now that is a good service.
Limousine & Chauffeur: So you have services that you go to regularly in different cities?
Horowitz: Yes. Using a limousine service is like going to a family doctor or some other professional. Once you have used a service that has been there on time, where you know some of the drivers, you know how courteous and knowledgeable they are, you know what the cars are like...You use them all the time because they’re providing you with something you’re familiar with.
I have gone to cities where they will not use the limousine service that I normally use. They want to use their own limousine service and sometimes that can be unfortunate because you get into cars that might not be the same kind of car that you’re used to...the drivers might not be trained the same way...and they might not really know their way around as much.
There are a lot of so-called cut-rate limousine services where people own their own cars and work for a major group, whatever that group might be. They provide you with sub-standard cars...smaller cars where you might as well be in one of those taxicabs in New York with the divider in front of you. You’re riding around in a small car where your knees are up in your chin. You’re driving with someone who basically owns the car and is on a lease-out plan or a buyout plan with some limousine service and you don’t get the kind of service you want. I’ve had occasions where those people don’t show up. They’re supposed to pick you up at the airport and they’re not there. You have to be picked up at 6:00 and at 8:00 you have to be at a banquet or some other function to make a speech or to work.
Limousine & Chauffeur: What is your perception of “professionalism” in the limousine business? When you call a service, do you expect them on time or do you have doubts based on past experiences?
Horowitz: When I call a limousine service, first of all, if it’s at an airport, I expect them to pick me up at the gate because I never check luggage. I don’t travel heavily and I carry everything with me on the plane. I expect him or her to be at the gate. They take my bag and they usually have the car parked close enough that we can just get in and take off. That’s the kind of service I want from a company.
I also want a car that’s clean. I want a driver who’s professional. I don’t want to hear about the driver’s family problems. I don’t want to get into long discourses. I want to get in the car and get where I’m going. That’s very basic and very simple. The thing that really irks me is when you have a reservation and they don’t show up. Or they send a driver who isn’t well groomed.
They put you in a car that smells from cigarette smoke...I’m a non- smoker... because the driver has been smoking and couldn’t care less. You get into a car and try to turn on the radio to get some music or news and the radio doesn’t work or a window might not work or the jump seat might get stuck, or the car itself might have a cracked window.
I was picked up in San Francisco by a limousine with a cracked windshield. There were molding strips coming loose on the inside of the car and the velour on the seats was worn out. The guy had a newspaper back there that looked like it had been handled for four days. It was not a pleasant ride. Not only that, the divider window was broken. I asked the driver to roll up the window because I had some business to transact and he said, “It doesn’t work.” I don’t want this guy listening to my business “You want to use the telephone? Sorry the phone is out of order.” Things like that drive me nuts.
Or the services that try to provide you with that little extra service. I’ve used a limousine service where it looks like they really tried hard...and you get in the car and there’s a “fresh” flower that looks like it’s been there for four days, or fruit that’s soft and rotten. Or “cold” drinks that are warm or TV sets that don’t work. It really drives me nuts when the level of service that I want is not there.
Limousine & Chauffeur: When you go to a service that you have grown to trust, do you expect that things are going to be right?
Horowitz: With the services that I use...I expect the car to be there fifteen minutes before the scheduled departure time, and to let me know that he’s there. If I’m ready to leave earlier, I leave earlier. I don’t dead- beat them either...I’m ready to leave on time, If there’s a problem, I expect them to call me wherever I am and say “Hey, there’s a problem. We will send another car to pick you up.”
I expect the driver to be courteous. I expect them to take my luggage out to the car. I expect them to open the door for us. I expect that, if we’re at a function, they will tell you where they will be or they will spot you when you’re coming out. That’s the kind of service I expect. When you’re paying $50 to $75- an hour for a limousine, I want that kind of service. That’s why I deal with the same company regularly. I know they will provide that level of service.
Limousine & Chauffeur: I would imagine that a service would take extra steps to be right if they knew you were going to be in the car.
Horowitz: Sometimes. But you travel in cities where they don’t have the kind of service that I’m accustomed to. The result is that you get substandard service. I’ll give you an example. I was making a speech at a major city in the Northwest and they sent a limousine out. It was a stretch and it was snow white. The inside was white leather. It was in the worst taste you can imagine and I had asked for an understated car. The limousine service used by the company that brought me to town had this pretentious, ostentatious car. The driver even had a white uniform and a white hat. I was embarrassed and so was my wife.
I get into a town and I’m not looking for a high profile. I don’t have to drive in a limousine to feel important. I drive in a limousine as part of what I’m doing. I can’t rely on other forms of service when I go places. I insist on them all the time. Not because I’m trying to live in the lap of luxury but because it is a necessity nowadays with the crazies and some of the things that can happen...it is a necessity to have a limousine. Try being broken down on the road when you’re going from a major city to a smaller town where you have to make an appearance in a taxicab or some other hired car. It’s like Karl Maiden says... “What will you do?” You sit there and think, “How am I going to get to my thing on time.” At least, if you’re in a car with a two-way radio or phone or whatever, you’ve got a chance of making it. That’s part of why I use a limousine.
Limousine & Chauffeur: How important is it for a small limousine operator to respond personally to customer complaints? For example, if a car is late and the customer misses dinner before a show.
Horowitz: That’s a pretty horrible situation to deal with. In a case like that, if I was a limousine operator, the first thing I would say to that person is, “The car is on the house.” That’s the first thing. Secondly, I would say, “We would like to buy you dinner sometime at a restaurant” You might say that I’m just giving things away but that kind of treatment of a regular customer is very important because you’re showing them you’re sorry this happened.
Maybe it was no fault of your own...it could have been traffic, it could have been the car breaking down, you do have problems but, in a service industry, your problem is not a customer’s problem. If the problem that you have hurts the customer, then you better find some way to make good on it.
I’ve had cases where I almost missed an airplane. I once had a flight leaving at 8:30 and I gave the driver a half hour to get me from my house to LAX which is 20 minutes away. He showed up at 8:00 and I barely made it to the airplane. I mean I was running all the way. I called the company and said, “Listen, if you guys can’t be on time...that’s it. I’m not using your service.” They were most apologetic and said that when the driver was going to my house, instead of going north on my street, he went south and couldn’t find the address. Fortunately, I had called them and said, “Where’s the car?” I was ready to have my wife drive me to the airport. They did not charge me for that trip. It wasn’t that I was trying to get something for nothing. What they said to me was, “We’re really sorry that we made a mistake. Our driver should have known better, should have left earlier, and should have used his map book to find where you live.”
That’s no excuse that the driver couldn’t find his way to my house. My feeling is that a lot of limousine services are sloppy in terms of pickups and deliveries in areas they’re not familiar with. If I were running a limousine service, I would make sure, first of all, that every driver had a map book of that area. And if they’re unsure of the pick-up and delivery of someone who’s contributing a lot of money to that company each year, then they dry run it. You might say, “Well this is expensive.” It’s not expensive in terms of losing a customer. When there’s downtime and a car’s doing nothing, have the driver dry run it. Particularly when you’re dealing with people in the public area because you can’t afford to screw up. If you screw up you may have blown your one chance.
A lot of people are not as forgiving as a person like myself. I understand other people’s problems because I deal with problems. But you get someone who’s a public official who gets screwed up because a driver didn’t know where he was going, or arrived late, or went south instead of north, they’ll never use that service again. That’s goodbye. They’ll use somebody else and there’s just too much competition out ‘in that marketplace to be fickle about your customers. You really have to provide the service
What I find now in the major cities is that the competition is so keen that everyone’s giving you something special. If you want to keep those regular customers, you not only have to give them something special but, on top of that, you really have to be able to do logistics and do more than provide them with fruit and cold drinks and a TV set in the backseat.
I’ll give you an example. I had to make a major speech in Hawaii and we had our child with us. We were really stuck because I had to make this appearance and I could not find somebody who could take care of the child. When the service called to see what time we wanted to be picked up, I just happened to ask if they knew of someone who could watch our daughter. They said, “Oh yes sir. We deal with a domestic agency and what we would be delighted to do is send along somebody who would come with you and your daughter in the car and take care of her wherever you are.” This is what they did which I thought was phenomenal. They sent along someone who was a governess. The limousine-service arranged for the governess to be in a room with a TV set and they had books for her. While I took care of my business, the governess had dinner with my daughter and was with her until I was ready to leave. Now that to me is real service. It wasn’t that the limousine service had a full-time governess...but they were ready for that kind of problem.
There are limousine services that provide security where you can say, “Hey, I would like somebody to be with me as a security officer.” They have people who are available. If you’re dealing with a handicapped person who needs a limousine that you can get a wheelchair into, they will provide that, and maybe also an attendant to take care of that person.
These are all things that are charged off to you but that’s not the point. They make your life easier and nowadays with all of the competition in your business, I think limousine services have to think beyond just providing a car and a driver to pick you up. There are people with all sorts of needs. To be a full-service limousine company, you have to anticipate those needs...have directories of special people available and offer service that no one else has. It relieves a lot of stress.
Limousine & Chauffeur: And you would go back to them.
Horowitz: Absolutely. I’ll give you a pertinent example. I decided I wanted to try another limousine service that was a so-called “national” service. They had local affiliates in the cities I was traveling to. I ordered the same kind of car I ordinarily would get to pick me up and take me to the airport.
The car was substandard. It was an old model car where the seats were not too terrific. I felt like I had my knees in my chin and I was paying the same rate I would be paying for a stretch with my old limousine service. When you’re traveling with your wife and child, and have extra baggage, you need a larger car.
Then they set me up with a limousine service in the city I was going to. The car looked like it had been in an accident. Literally, the grille had been dented in...It was clean outside, but the radio didn’t work, the TV set had been taken out and you could see the wires hanging there. It didn’t smell clean. I mean, it looked like the guy had been driving this car all day.
The driver who was supposed to pick us up at gate side was not there and here I’m traveling with my family and I need help. So what I had to do was call the limousine service which said “Oh, the driver is waiting for you in the baggage area.” I said, “I have my baggage here, can you beep the driver so he can come here?” In this particular airport, to walk from that gate, which was the last gate for the airline we were using, into the terminal and down into the baggage area is a good ten to fifteen minutes. And we’re talking about six pieces of luggage and my wife and an eight-year old.
They said, “We cannot beep the driver.” I said. “Doesn’t the driver have a beeper?” They said, “No, we put him down there.” I had to call for a red cap to come pick me up which cost like $25 to get my bags from planeside to where the guy was. The driver was sort of unkempt and looked like he wasn’t with the action. That was the last time I ever used that national service.
What I did when I got back to Los Angeles was call them and say, “You guys missed the mark with the people you recommended.” They said, “Why?” I told them, “You know what? I can’t afford to have stress and anxiety when I’m going someplace. I don’t want to have to think about whether the limousine’s going to be there or whether the driver’s going to be well-kempt, or whether you can beep him or not. Those are not my problems. So I’m not going to use your service again.” If I get a bad ride or a bad car, I always call them.
There are occasions when we’re overcharged or are charged for cars that we didn’t have, or there are extras that are tacked onto our bill.
Those are things I can overlook because they are clerical errors. But I cannot overlook bad service...ever.
Limousine & Chauffeur: How can the limousine industry develop support and leadership for its national and local associations?
Horowitz: I deal with a lot of trade associations and they are the first place I go if I need information because a trade association, to me, means a dedicated group of professional people who have banded together to improve their industry and police it. That’s the advantage of a trade association. They also publicize what they do. They also resolve complaints and problems that cannot be taken care of on a local level.
In the limousine industry, there is a crying need for an effective national trade association that has regional affiliates that feed into it. I think a great example of that is what happened at the Los Angeles International Airport during the ’84 Olympics. Limousines suddenly had to have a registration number that was clearly visible. I think that was a very positive first step but I think it should have been done by a trade association long before it was forced on the industry. It made the industry look bad because a lot of people were fighting about it.
One of the things I’m going to suggest in my talk at the Show is having trade associations present in-service training classes for smaller operators and drivers. You would teach them the finer points of running their business. I’m not only talking about courtesy and availability and some of the mechanical stuff...but also money management and some of the technical things you need. Like having the right kinds of electronics, base stations, phones and other state-of-the-art equipment.
Trade associations need an Executive Director and regional Executive Directors who would be full-time employees. These people would not only be paper-pushers, but they would also be aware of legislation that’s going on locally and regionally which could affect the limousine industry. Issues such as the price of gas, auto repairs, licensing of drivers, and state standards for chauffeurs are all of vital concern to people who own limousines.
With a trade association, they keep you on top of everything. Which high- performance tire is going to last longer? What are the better braking systems to have? What are the automobile manufacturers doing to build safer limousines? What about the seat belt situation in the back seat of cars? All those kinds of issues. The only way you can do that is through a central source and through regional sources and a national trade association. I am really shocked that your business doesn’t have one.
Limousine & Chauffeur: There is a National Limousine Association but, unfortunately, it has only enlisted about five hundred members in an industry of five thousand companies.
Horowitz: That’s not an association, it’s a club.
Limousine & Chauffeur: The industry has not yet attracted a lot of attention from lawmakers as far as standards for limousine construction and operation. Some people feel that it would benefit the industry to have government regulation in these areas. Is it your experience that outside regulation generally helps an industry?
Horowitz: Yes, it helps you. Regulations don’t necessarily have to come from the government. The standards can come from the manufacturers of cars that are stretched. You don’t want to have an automobile that’s unsafe. Liability insurance now has just gone through the roof. You don’t want to have accidents or cars that break apart. There are unsafe limousines on the road as there are unsafe school buses and unsafe cars. It happens.
Limousine & Chauffeur: So would the National Limousine Association do well to encourage guidelines?
Horowitz: What they would do is be the funnel. The trade association has to be the conduit through which all the stuff goes to the membership. But you see, the importance of a national association is that it gives you power as an industry to go and fight for certain standards. That might cost you more because increasing safety is not something limousine manufacturers will do for free. But when you have a trade association, you’re building a power base. When you have a trade association that represents five thousand companies, and you go to Washington to talk about a bill that affects your industry, they’re going to listen because you’re talking about five thousand votes in different communities across the country. Also, you can afford to lobby. You can afford to have people in legislatures across the country as well as in Washington.
When you have a trade association, and everyone’s a member of that trade association, you have a seal of approval showing that members are living up to the standards of operation that the association has on the books. I’m talking about standards of safety, standards of service, and standards of comfort. You know that you have something to push behind you. If someone is unhappy, they can go to the trade association. You can have a little card inside the car that says, “Let us know how we stack up...” which people can send to the trade association. I think any industry that doesn’t have a trade association is really shooting for trouble.
The limousine business is not only growing but it’s changing. Where I see the growth area is not in stretch jobbers but in larger cars being used more frequently by average people for so-called limousine service. I think that the days of taxicabs in major cities are numbered. I’m not saying that limousines should become taxicabs, but I foresee more companies that will supply private cars to ordinary people to do ordinary things.
There will also be growth in the area of limousine buses to carry fifteen or twenty people to parties or special events as an alternative to other kinds of public and private transportation. Both the fancy kind and the stripped-down, pedestrian kind. I think limousine services are going to have to look at those areas as well as the limousine area. In the times that we’re living in, with high operating costs, companies are going to have to go more and more to sedans in order to service the needs of customers who do not want, or cannot afford, stretch limousines.
I also see people who are in high profile businesses, because of fear for their security or whatever, not wanting to step into a stretch limousine. They want to have a standard size car. These cars are going to have to be priced at a level where they can also be used by people who are not in the upper socio-economic areas.
I really feel that now, after several years of rapid growth, it’s up to limousine operators to upgrade themselves and broaden their services so that the industry can not only survive but continue to expand.
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