People

Cool Planet: Operators Thrive Amid Disruption

Lexi Tucker
Posted on November 11, 2019

While there’s always innovation spurring entrepreneurs to keep up or fall away, the pace seems to be quickening faster than ever. In our fifth annual Cool Planet operator round-up, we’ve selected a handful of industry members who know how to keep up and move forward with creative and successful approaches.

Dave Uziel, president, UrbanBCN Worldwide, San Francisco, Calif.

Dave Uziel with TJ Doyle of Gold Shield Cars in Ky.

Dave Uziel with TJ Doyle of Gold Shield Cars in Ky.

There’s nothing cooler than engaging with clients, especially as an owner. Uziel provides his personal cell number to each and keeps in contact with them weekly. “I find texting them makes them feel like I know they still exist. I try to build personal relationships with each even when they become a big piece of the pie. My personality lets them know they are truly family and not just customers. We joke around a lot, and many love connecting with me personally on social media. I was hesitant in the beginning to allow it, but I think it brings them closer to me.”

Another cool tactic he’s been working with is using tech to enable his staff to work remotely. He says Slack has been a game changer because it includes instant messaging and file storage all in one. It also is a place they can keep track of various levels of operations with ease. The other tool they are using now is called Sneek (www.sneek.io). It’s a video chat system that can stay on while workers are on shift. “It’s like having your teammate in the room with you. My dispatchers feel this is so important because it allows them to instantly ask questions rather than call each other.”

Uziel has been podcasting off and on for some time now, and it’s taught him a lot about himself and others. “For me, it is such a therapeutic and educational tool. The people I have interviewed come from so many different places than me, which has allowed me to understand how others run their business.”

A piece of advice he has for other operators is to spend less time talking about TNCs and your competition. “The energy you spent on that is lost and can never be regained. Spend your time bettering yourself in all aspects of your life. Business is not the world. If you are unhealthy, mean, and a liar, your business will suffer for it. If you fear the unknown like losing a client or your software company stealing your client list, be sure you give your clients no reason to leave. Stop worrying about the what ifs and make it happen.”

Learning from mistakes has also helped him grow as an operator. “I’m embarrassed to say I was taken for $22,000 for an old school car I was trying to buy. I have been searching for the 1967 Lincoln Continental convertible for about 10 years and thought I found a gem. It turned out I was played the whole time. I feel like it was a great lesson for me to trust my gut and not let my emotions take over.

Noune Bagdasarian, general manager and event logistics director, KLS Worldwide Chauffeurs Services, Los Angeles, Calif.

KLS’ CFO Samira Ghaffari with Noune Bagdasarian rocking their best costumes.

KLS’ CFO Samira Ghaffari with Noune Bagdasarian rocking their best costumes.

While you should never stop going after new clients, it’s just as important (and cool) to let your long-time customers know how much they mean to you. KLS has a VIP Select Desk without additional cost that ensures these clients know how much they mean to them.

In general, Bagdasarian says their reservations department can handle over 3,000 trips a month with technology that helps support it from booking, confirmations, status updates, receipts, and car monitoring on an app/web portal. “We have a system in place where we answer all calls within three rings,” she says.

The team’s client care is so outstanding, KLS started getting requests to manage small groups from air to ground. “We then decided to dedicate an entire department and team, called Seamless Logistics, to bring in extra revenue that was there for the taking. Currently, my team is in DC for IMF, in Boston for AFP, in LA for the Latin AMA’s and in New York for a fashion industry event. We have logistics coordinators on site for all while I direct and manage with the help of my office team,” she explains.

For operators looking to get involved in the event space, she says go out and knock on their doors (hotels, event venue spaces, etc.). “Get involved with your city visitor and convention center, reach out to DMC companies even if they are out of your home city, be a member of GTBA, MPI, IMEX, SITE, and go to the different trade shows.”

Another piece of advice she’d like to give is underselling your service to get a project will only force you to undercut your own personnel and will force you to cut corners. “You will not deliver what you’re truly capable of doing. But if you do deliver the elite and seamless service you sold them on, even if you are a little higher in price, they will come back to you. Your reputation is worth much more.”

She’s learned a lot during her time in the industry, all of which has propelled her to her current position. “About 10 years ago, with our very first sizable group, one of our chauffeurs made the error of taking a program director to LAX instead of SNA airport. The passenger was working on her computer and did not realize it at first. The client requested an in-person meeting the next day to talk about what happened and how we could prevent this in the future. I remember feeling like I had been called into the principal’s office; I vowed to never let it happen again. As a result, we take so many precautions both electronically and verbally, and look at all possible ways we can go wrong and educate all personnel ahead of time. So far education and re-education has made our brand stronger and more known.”

Understanding the human side of your team will not only encourage them but help retain them as well. “We are all professionals of elite caliber, but we also like to enjoy life and we love what we do even more because of it. We bring our pets to work. We have Taco Tuesdays. We dress up as our favorite superheroes outside of Halloween. We offer our clients to visit us at our headquarters to meet our team and get to know us in person.”

Iliyana Zecheva, account manager, K&G Coach Line Inc., Park Ridge, Ill.

Iliyana Zecheva brings calm class to even the busiest day of working with buses.

Iliyana Zecheva brings calm class to even the busiest day of working with buses.

One of the newest members of the Global Ground Transportation Institute, Zecheva originally comes from Bulgaria. She says being from a small town in a small country with big dreams, it was inevitable she’d have to move to improve her chances professionally. When the opportunity to come to the US came about, she took a leap of faith and calls it the best decision she ever made. “The endless opportunities to grow and develop here can be found nowhere else, and I chose it to be my family’s home.”

She believes teamwork and playing to everyone’s strengths is what makes an operator cool. “Each one of our team members brings different ideas and perspectives to our day-to-day operations. Our team is small, yet strong and able to bring solutions to any situation on the spot and our clients appreciate that,” she explains.

Staying hands on and never being “too good” to help provide solutions and solve any issues directly with the people who have been affected is what will keep your clients coming back to you. “They just want to know you care about their needs, and that’s what we do. We care.”

The company was able to transition from being a livery-only fleet, to a successful bus-only fleet all while combining exceptional customer service and beautiful vehicles.

If there’s one way she’d describe working with buses in this industry, it’s that it’s different. “With the new industry trend of combining livery and bus services in one, you need to know your basics (i.e. the initial investment, operation cost, return on investment). Build the business before you buy the vehicles. Don’t think the work will come to you just because you own the vehicles. You are not a dealership; you are a service provider.”

Her advice to other operators is don’t be afraid to try new things, and listen to your peers but make your own decisions and follow your own path. She has grown a great deal by traveling to and exploring new places, cultures, and cuisines, and stresses the importance of making time to spend time with family and friends.

Vojkan Tasic, Ph.D, founder, Limos4 Premium Limousine Service, Switzerland

Vojkan Tasic is ready to bring new insight to industry leadership.

Vojkan Tasic is ready to bring new insight to industry leadership.

Tasic says customer service, impeccable cars, and professional drivers should be the default when clients pay for premium ground transportation service. “We strive to be at the forefront of the industry by experimenting with new technologies and keeping our processes fresh.”

His company developed their own livery software to enhance flexibility and better serve customers. This software gives them the ability to introduce new features and changes in a matter of days from a change request. Many of their partners have asked about purchasing it, but it consists of many proprietary features, which make it unsuitable for other operators at this point in time. “We are negotiating with several partners about the possibility of configuring some parts of our software so they can use it in their daily business.”

The company has a strict affiliate vetting process. If someone wants to become their affiliate, they will go through an 11-step procedure; many of the steps are invisible to the partner (e.g., conducting ghost rides to check quality, check solvency with local agencies, drivers’ criminal records check, etc.). Only after that can they get a portion of Limo4’s work and it’s monitored over the period of three months. The process doesn’t end there, as they hand over affiliate quality assurance to a QA team that performs regular quality checks.

Another cool process they are adding to their operations is a new way of payment - cryptocurrencies. “I’m convinced the current state of the banking industry is undergoing big changes and blockchain as a technology (which is the underlying foundation of cryptocurrencies) will have much more presence in banking. Also, the crypto market is growing (currently the market cap is at USD 230 bn) and more products and services based on blockchain are coming. This is one of the reasons why we would like to introduce a possibility to our customers to pay with Bitcoin, Ethereum, or any other cryptocurrencies. It would probably make us the first limo company to accept them.”

Tasic holds a Ph.D. in Information Systems from ETH Zurich, which is certainly unique in this industry. His background is in electrical engineering, but he has also been doing a lot in the IT systems and software domain during and after earning his Ph.D. “This made it very easy for me to establish our development and digital marketing teams - primarily how to wisely choose people for these roles. Also, given the technological complexities one faces during Ph.D. studies, making our own livery software was not a big challenge. So, I can say my experience has definitely given us a competitive advantage.”

He says although it’s obvious the industry has not made enough investments in the digitalization and automation of the business process, it’s important to never lose the human touch at the end of the day.

As a member of the board of the Global Ground Transportation Institute, he is excited to bring new diversity to the leadership of the industry. “Most of the people in similar organizations are from the same background or have the same positions, which is known to stifle innovation and further development.”

Willie Cook, VP of Operations, DTS Transportation, Spencerville, Md.

Willie Cook knows it’s never cool to stick to the same ol’, same ol’.

Willie Cook knows it’s never cool to stick to the same ol’, same ol’.

For Cook, never staying stagnant is the key to being cool. Evolving with demand will keep you out of trouble. While the company has plenty of the typical sedans and SUVs, they have also recently started leaning heavy on the bus side, with Mercedes-Benz Sprinter vans, minibuses, and motorcoaches.

Understanding and reacting to client demands will also help you stay in demand. “[Getting into larger vehicles] was a combination of timing and opportunity. We saw what our customers’ needs were and tried to focus our vehicle purchases around those needs. Becoming as Uber-proof as possible is important to us. You can’t live with blinders on and reject reality.”

He says it’s important not to just dive in, but to find a friendly competitor that has the heart of a teacher and ask them to allow you to see how it works and what is involved. “You also want to ensure you have a market for it where it isn’t too saturated, or you have a key differentiator that can help you stand out from what/who you are competing with.”

Another aspect of the business he’s been keeping up with is developments in autonomous vehicle tech. He says he subscribes to various tech blogs and websites which have been great sources of information. “Staying in tune with the technological advances is the best way to get the pulse on how fast this tech is advancing.”

Something he learned a lot from was when the original owner of the company passed away. “We had to go out and solidify accounts by knocking on doors. When the face of the company dies, clients tend to run because they don’t want to deal with instability. That’s why we focused on the relationship side of running the business, not just the transactional.” That is true for DTS to this day, especially in a world run by impersonal technology and apps. “We want to understand who the people we are dealing with are. We go out on site with them so they can put faces to names.”

Cook has been in the business for nearly 20 years and learns a lesson every day. “I think the most important lesson I’ve learned is you can’t go chasing the dollar. Some of the worst decisions I’ve made have been me just running after money. You must take the time to think about if it’s a good fit for your businesses, plays to your strengths and capabilities, and aligns with your core values. Focus on the things that will bring you joy, and the money will come if you are doing things right and working ethically.”

He also recommends surrounding yourself with people smarter than you, and to respect people’s ideas regardless of title. “You can’t let ego get in the way of doing what’s best for the business.”

Although they are shifting to work on larger group moves with CDL vehicles like motorcoaches, they don’t want to leave non-CDL chauffeurs in the dust. “We are looking for ways to reinvigorate the smaller vehicle side of the business for them, like cross training in sales, dispatch, and non-CDL shuttle contracts. It’s not for everybody, and we don’t want to force people to become CDL drivers if they aren’t comfortable with it.”

To prepare for the future, Cook says his team is staying on top of tech developments, particularly driverless cars. “We want to consider and forecast what the impact of self-driving cars will be on all aspects of our business, so we are talking about it early so it doesn’t catch us when it’s too late.”

Erica Bugbee, operations manager, ExecuStar World Class Transportation, Denver, Colo.

Erica Bugbee knows it’s cool to be kind.

Erica Bugbee knows it’s cool to be kind.

Bugbee knows becoming friendly and inclusive with local affiliates is not just cool but can be helpful to both parties. She’s taken every opportunity to help them with software, coordinating groups, and even get them ready for state PUC and DOT inspections.

“This bond we’ve built from being useful to each other has been amazing. It brings affiliate relationships to a higher level and opens all of us up to a different level of trust and respect. I genuinely care about their success and they reciprocate that. There’s enough work to go around, the better the companies we align ourselves with do, the better we do.”

One unique market she’s been involved in is coordinating transportation for comic conventions and other entertainment-centric events. She says those looking to break into the business need to know what they are selling…and it’s not just transportation.

“Operators should outline their experience and skill sets that show how they can do two major things: One, make transportation seamless and two, make the client’s job easier. These companies that run conventions usually have only a small full-time staff who each wear a lot of hats. I sell logistics management expertise and local-area knowledge they don’t have in-house. Show these clients examples of manifests and groupings you’ve done in the past, tell them about the times when you’ve shut down an entire city block, and wow them with what you know about moving people in your market.”

An exciting project she’s working on in the realm of technology is creating an easy-to-use online booking program for the company’s new custom parties and tours. “As a parent, I’ve looked into and paid for dozens of these kids’ birthday parties. They all have a base price with additional extras to add on for a higher cost. I’m incorporating this model to create special kids’ limo birthday packages. The base package includes the limo ride, sparkling cider, red carpet, etc. But with our new online booking worksheet, parents can add on a photographer, goody bags, extra time, special treats from our local vendors, etc. We are also creating a similar program for holiday light and brewery tours. This way the client can “one-stop-shop”– they aren’t just buying limo service; they are buying the entire party. We already offer a lot of these options via phone and email correspondence but following trends we want to offer a booking alternative that can be done from a mobile phone or laptop at the client’s convenience.”

Amir Ghorbani, co-founder and CEO, Swoop, Los Angeles, Calif.

Amir Ghorbani knows understanding your clients and catering to their needs is what sets a company apart.

Amir Ghorbani knows understanding your clients and catering to their needs is what sets a company apart.

Using technology to improve customer experience is about as cool as it gets, and Ghorbani’s company is building proprietary tech for the industry when it comes to booking, payment, processing, dispatch, and post-ride experience. Swoop’s investment in appealing to their target client base, younger users, is certainly paying off.

“Swoop is changing the way luxury ground transportation is perceived among younger consumers because we take their purchasing habits into account. Everything they do is digital; they are going to purchase through a device, whether that’s through a web or mobile app. They aren’t going to make a phone call. We are adapting to their desires and know they’ll pay for the extra value convenience brings.”

In their post ride automation review process that goes out after every ride, they have an automated text and email to both the passengers in the vehicle as well as the person who booked the ride. “We are obsessed with our customer experience and find this feedback to be so helpful.”

A piece of advice he has for other operators looking to further improve is “Understand every ride is not just a transaction; it’s an investment in a relationship with your customer.”

In terms of marketing, one of their best tools is their Instagram, which any operator looking to get involved in the platform should look to for inspiration.

Related Topics: business management, customer service, entrepreneurship, innovation, international, international business, LCTFast40, Millennials, operator profiles, technology

Lexi Tucker Senior Editor
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