TNCs appear to avoid following safety recalls on vehicles used by their drivers.
In the first-ever Class & Style Issue of LCT Magazine this month, we highlight some of the key components of first class/five-star level chauffeured transportation companies. The thinking goes that a luxury limousine service should inhabit the same strata as Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton, Gulfstream and an Admirals Club airport lounge.
But once you get beyond the vehicles, the service, the black suits, the attention and style, you are left with the deepest differentiator of true class: Character. That’s a broad term now in our present culture, which underscores how much it is needed. Character embodies the manners, the values and ethics that define a person or company. You really are not what you drive, but how you behave.
So before a business investor or entrepreneur can buy all the gadgets, equipment and amenities, there needs to be a substantive set of standards and vision. I recently spoke with an expert industry marketer, entrepreneur, sales strategist and etiquette expert, Robin Wells, for some insights.
“It’s an old saying, but culture eats strategy for lunch,” says Wells, whose businesses, including a marketing firm and Etiquette Manor consulting, are based in Miami. “If you don’t have a corporate culture that is squared up, the strategy will fail.”
Wells outlines a logical sequence for good service character: If you know who your clients are, then you know who you are, and can define your brand. Then, you can set your standards geared toward your clients, and train your employees to deliver on those standards. That creates a high, consistent quality of service that will resonate with clients, keep them coming back, and attract new ones.
“People will always come back for service and pay more for quality service if they can’t get it elsewhere,” Wells says. “It starts at the top and is trickled down to employees with quality training programs.” She compares such programs to a business script, with employees chosen as the actors who will represent your company.
Her sequence for success all goes back to one critical skill: Listening. Listen to your clients, your employees, your vendors and your affiliates. Solid company character spans all of those groups, not just the customers. “Listen to what they are saying and try to put yourself in their position,” she says. “You need to be considerate across the board, consistently. That gives your brand a good image. If you are not consistent, then you will lose in the end. Leading by example is huge.”
That especially applies when handling conflicts, whether with a disgruntled client or a payment dispute with an affiliate. “You need to resolve issues in a considerate and positive fashion, and not bring things down to [a lower] level. When you are dealing with money, people show their true colors.” And what if the other party is unreasonable and rude? If you’ve been wronged, move on and make sure you are only fooled once, she says.
So that’s the classroom summary of good business character. Now, how do you apply it to the daily behavior as a limousine operator?
I recently had the privilege of speaking with our LCT Operator of the Year Award winner in the 1-10 vehicles category, Val J. Newton, president of Regal Limousine Service in Benton, Ky. His territory lies in the western end of Kentucky in the flatlands of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers region. Newton moved there six years ago after a life as a limousine operator in Southern California, so he and his family could better care for a son with a health problem. Going from the wealthy, Fortune 500 entertainment mecca of Los Angeles to rural Kentucky was the biggest class and culture shock of his life. The closest big city is Memphis, Tenn., about two hours to the south.
“I started my limo service in an economically depressed part of Kentucky,” he says. “It’s been a challenge. These people don’t have the money. You have a lot of food stamp families, and a lot of parents are not involved in the schools.”
His core business comes from a Harrah’s casino transportation account across the river in Illinois. The rest he generates from schools, weddings, proms and the everyday special celebrations that warrant a stretch limousine. “A lot of kids have parents who don’t have cars to take them to academic events,” Newton says. “A lot of them don’t know what a limo is. When you pull up in front of schools, it brings tears to your eyes to see the joy of these kids. I love doing it.”
Newton learned quickly to listen to his customers. He’ll knock his rate down to $55 an hour, if it means getting an eager but budget-minded client. He even lets some parents pay for prom limousines on a three-month installment plan.
“It’ been a very humbling experience, and great learning experience,” Newton says. “When I first moved out here, I thought what the hell am I doing? Now it’s working out. I don’t treat them like they are a lower class, with an attitude. When you get to know them, there is a sense of camaraderie. They would do anything if you need help.” On a recent snowy morning, some neighbors used a tractor to pull three of Newton’s vehicles from his property to the road. They wouldn’t take any money. “When they call, you treat them with respect,” he says. “It’s not the CEO of Google. You can open a dialogue with what they have, and say, ‘Tell me your budget; let’s see what we can come up with.’”
Despite the odds, Newton makes class and style thrive in his business world. “When we pull up to a double-wide trailer, my chauffeurs are expected to treat the clients like a corporate executive coming off a private jet. You have to get to know the other person, and put yourself in their shoes. You treat them like royalty.”
Newton lives out a principle that Wells teaches often: “Five-star service can happen at Wal Mart and Motel 6 as easily as at Ritz-Carlton and Neiman-Marcus,” she says. “Five-star is a frame of mind tailored to the individual, not all things to all people. It’s about specific things, for specific people. Know who you are.”
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