As an owner of a large ground transportation company, you are only as good as your weakest driver.
You might own the largest ground transportation company in the country, be the toast of your boardroom, make a boatload of money, and maybe even see your face plastered on the cover of FORBES every now and then. But at the end of the day you are really only as good as the driver making $15 per hour who you designated to take that Fortune 500 CEO from his hotel to the airport.
It’s a fact that might be a little humbling, a little sobering, maybe even a little bit frightening. But what it definitely is is a wake-up call that unless as an industry we focus on hiring and retaining the best drivers we can find, then as an industry, particularly with Uber hovering around the perimeter promising the world and more (kind of like when the World Hockey Association starting throwing money and unattainable promises at the biggest NHL stars), then we are looking down the road at a world of hurt.
With statistics showing most limo companies already devoting more than a third of their gross revenue on labor, wages and benefits, it only serves to drive home the importance of hiring and training the best chauffeurs we can. When you fail at this task only bad things can happen, from disgruntled clients to crippling lawsuits. The chauffeur is the cornerstone of your company, so every minute of time you spend on training that individual will pay off tenfold in the future success of your company. Your business mirrors the quality of your drivers, so it is imperative to make sure you give them the tools and training to do their job well and, perhaps just as important, to want to stay with your company. And therein lies a major problem.
It’s a scenario played out at parties and other gatherings when two strangers meet.
“So, what do you do for work?”
“I’m a chauffeur.”
“Oh, that’s interesting. Do you enjoy your job?”
“It’s OK… at least until something better comes along.”
The perception of a chauffeur job being a way-station until “something better comes along” is a notion that has permeated our industry for years. Its genesis lies in the misperception that anyone with a driver’s license and working knowledge of how to operate a GPS and open a car door can be qualified enough to shuttle around Hollywood stars, CEOs and Bridezillas. We see it when the economy tanks and people are out of work. When this happens, and a major pharmaceutical company no longer needs the services of a bio-physicist with three degrees from MIT, that newly-unemployed person, through self-preservation, turns to putting to use the one skill he has possessed since he was 16 years of age; the ability to drive a car. And when the economy flips back, it’s often sayonara to a good portion of your staff.
So how do we retain our staff, to make them take pride in their work, to view being a chauffeur as a profession and not just a job? And then use that pride to construct an alligator-filled moat around our best drivers when Uber tries to storm the barricades.
For my company, it’s all about making the drivers feel like employees not contractors. We have about 100 drivers and 48 of them have been with us for over a year, and the remainder anywhere from 2.5 to over seven years. We give them a competitive starting wage and an attractive benefits package including health, dental and LTD. We give them newer model vehicles, all the high-tech bells and whistles they need, flexible hours, and the opportunity to make as much as they want by driving as much as they want.
Ask yourself and your customers a simple question: Do you want to be operated on by a machine or an actual surgeon, or peek in the cockpit of a jet flying 5,000 miles an hour at 30,000 feet and not see anybody in the pilot seats?
Another important area to help retention, and one I stress highly, is creating a reward system where their performance will dictate whether they take the men’s bowling league to the local strip club, or a backseat full of high-powered executives to the Four Seasons Hotel (i.e. more prestige, better tips, etc.). Most people want to be inspired to do better, and our drivers – and your drivers–are no exception. Give your drivers more responsibility and it will give them more credibility. We also offer a $50 bonus for all driver referrals, payable after a 90-day probationary hiring period.
We all need to drive home to our chauffeurs that this is a really good job, particularly weighed against sitting at a desk in a cubicle all day, digging ditches or tarring a roof in July. They get to dress well, spend time in an air-conditioned top of the line vehicle, and meet some pretty interesting people. But don’t sugarcoat it; as there will be times when they are stuck in traffic for hours, need to drive in a snowstorm at 4:00 in the morning, and somebody is bound to, sooner or later, get sick in their back seat. But in the long run, the good times will always outweigh the bad.
Somewhere, someplace, somebody is talking about a future with driverless cars. And when we actually get to that “Jetsons” scenario we can deal with it by also asking people if they want to be operated on by a machine or an actual surgeon, or peek in the cockpit of a jet flying 5,000 miles an hour at 30,000 feet and not see anybody in the pilot seats.
There are challenges ahead to finding and keeping good drivers, and perception can be one of the toughest things to change, particularly with Uber thrown in to the mix. Operators are worried that Uber is stealing their chauffeurs, which may be the case. So it is our job to make our drivers realize that they can work for a professional ground transportation company that values their services and their skills enough to trust them with their biggest accounts (and reward them accordingly), or they can go get that promise of a big Uber payday as pretty much nothing more than a glorified taxi driver. Booking with Uber is like staying at a motel when you’re on a road trip and can’t drive any more for the night. It’s easy, it’s convenient, and it’s there when you need it, but those things are its main benefits. Uber gets the job done, but your top business clients know that satisfactory isn’t good enough, and it’s your drivers, and the pride you instill in them as part of your team, that will ultimately deliver what they want and expect.
Finally, if you keep your current chauffeurs happy and they stick around for the long haul, they are likely to maintain a positive attitude about you and say positive things about your company to other drivers they meet. “At the airport, all drivers talk,” says one ground transportation executive. “Having our chauffeurs at the airport talking good about the company, I think we get a lot of people that way.” If you and your company have positive word of mouth, good chauffeurs will seek you out, will want to work for your company and, hopefully, will want to stay with your company.