Add one more uncertainty about autonomous vehicles: How do you get them to drive like locals?
LAS VEGAS, Nev. — Sooner or later, no matter how well your computer software system performs, it will age, get clunky, maybe a little too dated for the demands of new customers.
That means every luxury transportation operation has to face the inevitable: Swapping out an old system for a new one. To keep the transition from degenerating into the business version of your least favorite medical procedure, a panel of experts on March 13 delved into the mechanics of making software surgery as pleasant as possible.
The session, “Software Transition: Survive and Thrive,” was hosted by Richard Kane, CEO and owner of International Limousine Service in Washington, D.C., who was joined by Jay Erlich, vice president of Europe Limousine Service in Paramus, N.J., Peter Turner, owner of the Havering Carriage Company in Essex, U.K., and Rick Versace, CEO and owner of A1A Airport & Limousine Service, in Boca Raton, Fla.
All four have broken their companies through to new worlds of software, and lived to tell about it. For the discussion, all panelists agreed to remain neutral on industry software vendors and not name or share opinions of any.
“What are you looking for in software?” Erlich asked of the first priority in finding the right one. “Much of it stems from the type of business you are, such as a mostly bus company versus limo. He emphasized how software needs to do everything from A to Z: Booking, reservations, dispatch, communicating with clients and chauffeurs, billing and processing, and collecting data for reports. “If your software is not giving you all you want, then it’s not the one for you.”
Turner changed over his company’s software because of integration. “Everyone needs to integrate with everybody else. It’s one of the biggest things you will buy for your business. So you have to find the right one. I showed each department a demo of the ones I was looking at, and then got feedback from them of what they thought was best. They are the ones who you’re relying on to use it properly.”
For A1A Limousine, the motive to change came from better connections with other companies and a well-working customer app, Versace said. He picked a system and it ended up being one of his worst decisions. “I think the first time around, I would have been involved more with the departments instead of me just saying, ‘This is what I want. And we’re changing’”
“Then I really took my time. I found out what we needed in each department, and we spent the whole year flying around the country meeting different providers we worked with, allowing us to see how it worked,” Versace said. “And we gained a good knowledge of how it worked and what it was before we made the decision to switch.”
Kane reiterated how operators should spend time talking to the employees who will be using the system, and ensure they won’t feel lost during the transition. “Make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into and that it is generally understood for the job duties of everybody involved. You don’t want the software to get too advanced for what you’re doing.”
Kane recounted how he had to go “granular” in learning his new software. “I went and became an off-site dispatcher, reservations, everything for a week, that’s all I did. I had to learn it. I had to know it all. So it was a really weird experience for me, but it was great because it really got me into what I didn’t know.”
When you get the new software going, you have to be able to go through all the processes without the customer feeling you transitioned software, Erlich said.
“You can’t get away with botching a ride or not showing up or screwing up a billing or a reservation because your guys didn’t know the software. That just doesn’t fly these days. When we first switched, we were running on two systems in the beginning and that was really bad. The amount of manpower that went into it caused so much money on payroll just so everybody was moving things from place to place.”
Kane added, “You have to make sure you have all the parts in the new software including credit card, and profile, and all that information. And that’s an important interview question you should be asking your software provider: ‘Tell me about conversion.’”
“If data entry has to be taken from one software system to another we’re talking a long time,” Erlich said. “And that’s time we don’t have because we’re a busy company with phones ringing off the hook and emails are coming in.”
The next step is to organize a training schedule and appoint someone to oversee the transition and communicate expectations to the software provider.
“I got to delegate to different members of staff to check out different functions on the new software,” Turner said. “Nobody likes change. Half the time they think it’s going to be harder for them. It’s very hard to explain that once you’re used to using it, your life will be much easier. By splitting it up among each department, each was responsible for their own little bit. And then at the end of it, we put it all together.”
If someone is designated to handle the transition onsite, it’s better to have that person communicate training information to groups instead of one-one-one questions, panelists said. That way everyone stays on the same page. Posting helpful tips on Google Docs ensures everyone can access frequently asked questions and instructions.
“You can’t forget the fact you won’t know everything, whether you’re the one who does the transition yourself or you delegate it, until you play with the software and use it for a few months,” Erlich said. “It’s like a video game. You have to play it to get the hang of it.”
With any new system, you should ask affiliates if they have comparable GPS capability. Are you using affiliates that have the proper software? “These are things you have to think about if you’re doing a lot of farm-out work,” Erlich said. That becomes critical when sharing GPS-based information, such as enabling a farmed-out client to get texts about their ride status upon arrival at an airport.
That leads to another key challenge for much of the industry: Connectivity among different software systems. What would you tell a software provider today? Kane asked. “What would be the biggest thing you’d want from them?”
“Stop being stubborn and learn how to all work together,” Erlich replied. “I think all our systems need to be able to speak together.”
“We would like to be part of the next generation, right?” Versace replied. “I’m very satisfied with the way my software connects to other companies that are on the same software. I’m not as satisfied with how it connects to other companies using different softwares. And I think industry-wide, that’s a huge problem. We have to focus on the connectivity so it doesn’t matter what you use. We should be able to trade work seamlessly.
“I think that has to be the major focus,” he added. “So no matter what software you’re looking at, no matter who your provider is, no matter if you’ve been on it for 10 years, I think we all have to push our providers to make interconnectivity the number one issue we all want.”
After lining up the new system internally and getting everyone trained, the next step is to go live with clients. How do you communicate with clients shortly before going live?
“You’re not changing software for fun,” Erlich said. “You’re changing software to make your team and business better. So you call all your accounts, affiliates, clients, everybody, and you tell them, ‘We just got a new software system. We did it for this reason. We’ll show you how to use it if you need a demo. We are adding confirmations, status updates, 24-hour trip reminders. You can use it as a sales approach because you’re paying for it.”
“What we’ve done, we told every client what we were doing,” Turner said. “We warned them. Point out how it will be better for them by getting the driver’s data and photos, or whatever. We just said to them, ‘Please bear with us. If things go wrong, we’ll get it sorted.’ And nothing went wrong.”
Versace’s A1A Limousine sent an email out two months before, then a month before, and more importantly, updated chauffeurs at monthly meetings. “Selling the chauffeurs is the number one thing you have to do because they are the ones that really have the relationships with your client. They’re spending an hour in the car with them, and they get to know them. So get them to sell it to the customers and have them say, ‘Yeah, this is a great thing. We’re changing to this new software. You’re going to love it.’”
Kane added, “Bringing the chauffeur into the equation at this stage is so paramount that you don’t want to do all this work inside and then it gets blown up by a 6 a.m. transfer because the driver didn’t know how to find special instructions to pull the car in the back of the driveway.”
Erlich underscored the need to inform the admins and reps who handle large corporate accounts.
“I think it’s more of appeasing the admin because we do a lot of corporate business,” Erlich said. “The admin is booking the car. So if she’s getting her confirmations, status updates, trip reminders, and everything works flawlessly, and she’s happy, the customer will be happy.”
Turner took the added step of emailing screenshots of what the new communications format will look like. Many of his clients were pleased his company was moving into the next century.”
NO. 1: Teeing It All Up
Coordinating software with hardware and various processes requires attention to compliance among all components.
“For us it was tough because our legacy software was all premise-based,” recalled Versace. “And so now, the latest and greatest stuff is all cloud-based. So leaving the comfort of knowing that it's right here in my office to going to the cloud was really a big issue. Our internet service wasn't robust enough to be able to handle all those transactions. So now, you're changing your internet provider and coming up with fiber, and doing a lot of different things that you would never think about until you get to this.”
Operators should ask their software providers for a compliance matrix, which includes hardware and software, Kane advised. For example, if you send text messages to clients, make sure the credentials transfer from the old to the new system. You want to avoid a total disconnect while transitioning, especially with credit card payments that should not be disrupted.
NO. 2: Two Different Test Results
Turner recounted how his transition took about a month and a half with both systems running side-by-side for one full month. “It was hard work trying to get the drivers to answer on both systems, but I thought it was a really good thing to do because it ironed out any kinks found in the new system.” The transition ended up smooth.
Versace, however, had to learn the hard way because his company simply jumped into it. “They didn't connect with Chosen Payments, who had been in my processer for years. So here I am, the last day, ready to go, and I have to set up with a new processor, and wait, and then they don't give me my money the next day like Chosen did. I’m waiting five days for my money to come in. It was very hard to get used to something like that.”
“The reality is when you're testing this before going live, you really have to look at going all the distance because then you have month end, and you've reporting issues for federal government and all that craziness that we've got to do that has to be connected properly.”
NO. 3: Disaster Recovery
Another factor to consider is a software system’s ability to weather a natural disaster or a storm, Versace said. During his first week with a new system, Hurricane Irma hit Florida causing mass evacuations and reservations requests. The software provider’s transition reps also had to evacuate after only two days. Despite power outages, generators going up and down, and a power line fire, the software system functioned through the storm, Versace said. Operators should ask prospective vendors about back-up infrastructure and the ability to integrate seamlessly among multiple power sources.
NO. 4: Data Security
That ties in to data security and integrity, Erlich said, which is important in remaining competitive for corporate clients. “If you’re bidding on RFPs left and right, they will aks you a ton about data security and compliance issues, and you better be ready to ask your software provider and get the PCIs of compliance certificates, and whether they are DSS-certified. If you want to be a big bidder on corporate business, you better know your software has all the bells and whistles to offer their companies.”
NO. 5: Friendly Relations
Erlich advised maintaining a good relationship with software providers, and working with them on any problems or shortfalls instead of aggressively complaining. “If you're going to stay on the software, make really good friends because they'll do more for you, I promise. They will do integrations at a whim's notice. They will help your team when they need help. When your system, God forbid, goes down, they'll be the first ones to jump and help you. If you're an advocate for the software company, they'll be an advocate for your company.”
If customers have problems with the new system, walk with them through the issue and help them figure it out while getting help from the provider, Versace said. “Maybe it takes a few days for the software company to figure it out and follow-up, but let them know the progress, and then show them the solution, and indicate that you're committed to resolving it, whether it's a billing issue or a reservation, or whatever. Make sure that they know that you care enough about their business that you're looking into it, and you're solving the problem.”
NO. 6: User Groups
As part of troubleshooting, new software adopters should belong to user groups, whether through the provider or on social media, Erlich said. “It's really important you're part of the user group because you don't want to have to call and prompt and put tickets in, and do all that jazz when the simple answer is on a search feature on a Facebook group. It's really great that we have these social media platforms that save us a huge amount of time and effort.”
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