Operator Understands The Power Of Getting Personal

Lexi Tucker
Posted on August 22, 2018

(l to r) Derek Stafford and his fiancée Sara.

(l to r) Derek Stafford and his fiancée Sara.

SAN LUIS OBISPO/PASO ROBLES, Calif. — It’s becoming more important than ever to provide clients with what they need and set your operations apart by solving their transportation problems.

The ability to tap a button and have a car ready in three minutes isn’t always the solution; Derek Stafford, president of Elegant Image Limousine, runs his company with more of a long-term approach.

How To Listen More

Just listening to what the person on the other end of the phone wants will take you further than you think.

“Find out what their needs, wants, and struggles are in booking transportation, and come up with a solution,” Stafford says. “Everyone is going to be different, and the company that’s able to mend, design, and build toward what the client needs is who’s going to win in the long run.”

He knows this from experience because he’s recently won RFPs with flight crews and tech companies. Half the battle is being able to build a plan around what they are asking for and custom tailor it to them.

“They come to us for a reason; they know they can bring their questions, comments, and concerns to us, unlike with Uber or Lyft.”

Stafford also advises being upfront and honest with clients and affiliates. “If you’re not able to hold up your end of the bargain, you need to let them know. It’ll create a better, stronger relationship built on honesty and trust in the long run.”

One of the company's VIP clients, Gary. He makes a reservation just about every three to four months to go out wine tasting for the day.

One of the company's VIP clients, Gary. He makes a reservation just about every three to four months to go out wine tasting for the day.

Since affiliates are just like clients, you need to treat them as such. Don’t delay in getting ride receipts over to them right away, and be flexible enough to make changes on the fly when required.

Part of this requires a team ready and willing to execute your vision. Stafford has been focused on developing a company culture that creates a good work environment from everyone on the team, even down to his detailers. “Let them know you appreciate them, and don’t be afraid to step in and do what they do so you understand their struggles —whether that means hopping in a car at four in the morning or answering a call you don’t necessarily have to.”

Making The Industry Rounds

Elegant Image was started in 1998 by an operator named John Forney. He moved from Kentucky to the central coast of California, and noticed a booming wine culture that lacked transportation to and from the many wineries.

In 2005, Stafford, who was 21 at the time, saw one of Forney’s limos going down the road and was awed by it. “The chauffeur was dressed nice and driving a shiny car…it just looked fun,” he says. He and a business partner opened up their own luxury transportation company called California Limousine.

They started with one vehicle and did wine tours that catered to friends Stafford met in college. Ironically, the business started really booming in 2008 during the Great Recession. Despite this, Stafford decided to leave the industry in late 2011 to pursue a career related to his degree in kinesiology.

Group travel is no problem with Elegant Image Limousine's vehicles.

Group travel is no problem with Elegant Image Limousine's vehicles.

In 2012, Forney’s daughter Heather contacted him with a job offer to become the general manager for Elegant Image, which he turned down three times. Eventually they gave him an offer he couldn’t refuse, and he rejoined the team in 2013. Six months into his new position, the family decided to sell the business and Stafford became the new owner in 2014. He downsized to three cars: Two stretches and a 14 passenger limo bus. The fleet is now up to 12 vehicles, with everything from sedans and SUVs to Sprinter vans and minibuses.

Aiming For Wider Success

Stafford attributes part of his success to getting involved in Bill Faeth’s Limo University. He is a part of one of the Inner Circle mastermind groups, in which 12 operators from all over the U.S. meet every quarter to discuss how to build a better business. 

Big, beautiful vehicles reflect the company's namesake.

Big, beautiful vehicles reflect the company's namesake.

“Having that camaraderie helps. I’ve been learning how to sell and address clients’ needs better.”

In the future, he wants to broaden the area he serves by opening a second location in Santa Barbara. He plans on focusing more of his business acquisition efforts on wine tours this year by building relationships with wineries in the area.

Finally, his favorite advice to operators: “Don’t be afraid of failure; if you are, you shouldn’t be in this business. Try new things, and reach out to people and ask for help.” He encourages any new operator to reach out to him so he can pay it forward.

Related Topics: business management, California operators, customer service, eNews Exclusive, LCTFast40, Millennials, wine tours

Lexi Tucker Senior Editor
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