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Bus and Motor Coach Library

The Eleventh Commandment

Authored by Debra Mintz (2001)

The eleventh commandment of course refers to how one should treat one’s employees.  In the day to day pressures of business, it is easy to forget about looking after of what is genuinely your company’s most valuable asset - your employees!

Having been an operator for some twenty years, I have a good idea of what you are thinking and feeling.  I’ve been in your shoes (although mine happened to be three inch high-heeled pumps!), and like you I have lost probably several hundred nights of sleep over those two decades worrying about many of the same things that you worry about today.  How was I going to cover the payroll?  Where was I going to get the money to make my insurance premium?  How much extra time would they give me to make a bus payment?  Would that bus be out of the shop in time to pick up that group tomorrow?  And better yet, will the air conditioning actually work this time?  Would my competitors ever stop lowering their tariffs?  And in the shuttle service part of my business, will my competitor ever stop stealing my customers from the bus stop? 

The list seemed endless.

However, there is one aspect of my business that I did not lose any sleep over, and that was Employee Problems!  The reason I didn’t lose sleep over this aspect of the business for the most part was due to an excellent employee relationship.  While we can’t control the price of fuel or the price of a new coach we can always work to improve staff working conditions, and foster a better working relationship with our employees.  

Early on as an operator I wasn’t aware that we were doing things any differently than most other operators.  Oh sure, whenever I attended an industry function, I heard the other owners constantly complaining about their drivers and mechanics, but I just thought that we were simply lucky not to have those kinds of problems.  It wasn’t until after I had sold my company that I realized that we had actually done a number of things differently than most others in the industry.

When I made the decision to sell the company, I received offers from four different bus companies.  Without exception, each one of those companies commented that they could not figure out how I ran a 7-day, 22-hour a day service with only one full-time dispatcher, one bookkeeper/safety compliance officer and one administrative assistant plus myself.  I should point out that I was rarely in my office the last few years that I operated because I was out developing new ways for my company to earn additional revenue such as the advent of “Full-Wrap” vinyl motorcoach advertising. It should be noted that many other similarly sized companies employed sometimes as many as twelve to sixteen office staff members.

Each of the four bidding companies were also surprised at how our drivers were able to post record on-time schedules (98.2% verifiable annual record), do their own passenger ticketing/paperwork, clean their own coaches, and drive the posted speed limits.  They also couldn’t believe that our drivers followed the company safety rules so well that we had the lowest workers compensation modification awarded at that time to a transportation company in the state of California (only 59%).  They commented, through riding incognito as passengers, on the fact that our employees were extremely friendly, courteous, and respectful to their passengers and fellow employees and actually seemed to be having fun on the job!

About one month after the sale of the operation, I received a telephone call from the gentleman who had purchased my company.  He said that he just couldn’t understand why my employees were so unhappy working for him.  He said that he had given each one of them a $1.50 per hour wage increase and also didn’t require them to clean their own coaches (because he had a full-time clean up crew) nor ticket their passengers (because he had separate ticket agents).  He said that he had thought my former employees would be thrilled to work for him because he had always heard that I required so much more from my drivers and that I had so many more rules and regulations for them to follow.

He even told me that he had ordered pizza for all the drivers one afternoon and had put out a radio announcement to them that lunch was being served in the dispatch office.  Apparently when my former drivers arrived, they expressed great displeasure that there was no home-style soup, no fruit and cheese platter and no fresh flowers or even a tablecloth.  I couldn’t help laughing when I heard him recount their disappointment at his efforts to be nice and accommodating to his new employees.  I felt bad for him that he would have to learn a whole new way of dealing with those employees if he wanted them to be happy at his company and continue giving a 110% effort to their jobs and to the company.  It was the little things that we did to make them feel special and respected and yes, even loved.

You see it is not always about money.  Oh, I know many of you feel that your labor problems would be solved if you could afford to pay your people more.  Quite frankly, you couldn’t pay me enough to ever want to drive a coach back and forth to the airport six times a day.  While you may get more driver applicants if you could pay them more, chances are that if you do not treat them right they will end up leaving you anyway.  Even the highest paid professionals and executives never feel that they are earning as much as they feel they are worth.  One needs to accept the fact that you will never be able to pay your employees what they feel they should be paid.  Therefore you must ask yourself the following questions.

- Are you doing absolutely everything within your power to see that your employees earn as much as they can?

- Are you treating your employees with the greatest level of respect?

- Are you making sure that all of your employees are treating each other with the greatest level of respect?

- Are you making sure that all of your employees feel appreciated each and every day?

- Are you making sure to say “Thank you” everyday to your employees?

If you’ve answered yes to each of the questions above, congratulations!  You are a great employer and your employee retention rate should be very high!  You understand the importance of the “eleventh commandment”, and that how you treat your employees is the cornerstone of a successful operation. 

If you were not able to answer yes to any of the questions listed above, then you now have a good starting point, an opportunity to improve the quality and success of your operation.  It doesn’t matter what you did yesterday.  What matters now is what you will do today and every day after that. 

Though all industries can benefit by increasing the level of respect afforded to their employees, our industry in particular has somewhat of an ingrained disadvantage.  To some degree this has been caused by the media.  I have always believed that it started with the “The Honey Mooners” TV series which featured Ralph Kramden the overweight, slovenly bus driver.  Unfortunately this and other factors, some of which is our own industry’s doing, has resulted in a rather poor and unsophisticated public image of the bus industry. 

And to make matters worse, the media seems only interested in covering our industry when there is a tragic accident.  Because the general public oftentimes does not afford motorcoach operators a high degree of respect it becomes even more important to our employees to give them the respect that they truly deserve. That obligation starts with each and every operator in our industry.  The owner of the company sets the tone for everyone that works for him or her.  If you truly want to reduce employee problems, increase staff retention, and substantially improve your operation, here are some time-tested methods and suggestions to get you started on the road to creating a happy work environment. 

Essentially it really starts with how you want to be treated.  If you are like most people, you want to be spoken to nicely and with respect.  You want to be recognized publicly when you do something right and you want to be told privately that you’ve make a mistake.  You want to be told that you are doing a wonderful job and that your efforts are appreciated. 

I strongly recommend that you immediately start addressing your employees as “Sir” or “Ma’am”.  We actually made this a written company policy and required everyone within the company to address each other in this manner.  This works very well in two-way radio or cell phone conversations.  When passengers hear the driver being addressed as “Sir” or “Ma’am”, and in turn similarly addressing others, it becomes contagious. 

The passengers begin to see that the driver also deserves their respect.  You’ll be amazed by the driver’s reaction to this when he asks the dispatcher to do something and the dispatcher responds “Yes, Sir” or “Thank you, Sir”.  If you are currently not using this format, take the time to advise your employees that you are making this a policy to help change the public perception of the people that work in the motorcoach industry.               

In implementing such a policy, stress that you want everyone to feel respected because they work hard and deserve it and that this is one way to show it.

The next thing that I recommend is that you take a long, hard look at each and every non-driving staff position in your company.  Although you will find this to be a very difficult task, it is important to be objective.  Sometimes it may be better to hire an outside consultant to accomplish this task.  You may have employees who have been working for you for a long time and you feel a great sense of loyalty to them.  That person may have done a great job for you years ago but what matters now is what duties and responsibilities can be combined most efficiently in order to minimize the number of non-driver staff members.

Oftentimes it is possible to eliminate one person from every department.  Divide their workload and a portion of their salary and give it to the remaining staff.  Try to keep 25% of that employee’s salary for yourself.  You would be surprised how many of your office and maintenance staff are willing to work harder and a little longer each day for the chance to earn more money.  Those who are being laid off will not be pleased of course, but within a short time your remaining staff will be thrilled.

Allow your staff to work with you on deciding how to divvy up the additional responsibilities.  Given that they now have the ability to earn more money they are much more likely to work better and less likely to leave your employ to go elsewhere.  Keep eliminating positions until every one of your staff is working at peak capacity.  Don’t be surprised if you find out that you can operate much more efficiently with fewer staff.  I’ve seen companies slash up to 50% of their staff without any negative impact.  Your bonus is that the fewer people you have to manage, the more time (and money) you will have at your disposal.   

We all know that there is a shortage of good drivers so it is absolutely imperative that you make sure that you are doing everything within your control to see that your drivers are earning as much as possible.  I am not advocating a wage increase.  I assume that if you can afford to pay your drivers more, that you are probably already doing it.

Unless you are running a school bus or specialty transportation operation, your drivers are probably already receiving some gratuities (tips).  The question is whether they are potentially receiving as much as possible? 

One recommendation is to display a decal sign on the inside of your coaches regarding tipping.  Many people simply don’t think about tipping the driver.  Foreigners especially don’t realize that gratuities should be given as in many countries tipping is not the custom.

If you are in the charter business we suggest a sign that reads, “Drivers gratuities are greatly appreciated.  Thank you.”  If you are in the Scheduled Passenger Stage business or the Per Capita Sightseeing business the sign might read, “Drivers gratuities are not included in the fare.  Gratuities are greatly appreciated.  Thank you.” If your coaches are used for all of the above types of services go with the first sign.
When you install the signs make it very clear to your drivers that all passengers are to be treated equally well regardless of whether or not they receive a tip.  Gratuities are not mandatory, and should be given freely and without influence. 

Make sure that your drivers understand that if you ever receive a complaint about a driver pressuring for tips in any manner, such as pointing at the sign or making reference to it, that the driver will be automatically terminated.  Stress to your drivers that you are putting up these signs to help them because you want them to make as much money as possible.  This is being done for their benefit not yours.  Make sure that they fully understand what you are doing and why.

Speak to your drivers.  Ask them for their secrets to getting higher gratuities.  Share their “secrets” with the other drivers.  I found out years ago from one of my female drivers that the reason for her amazingly high gratuities was that she always mentioned to her passengers that she had raised 5 children and had 19 grand children.  Another driver always told his passengers that driving in the congested LAX was nothing compared to driving an army bus in Vietnam.  Another driver made sure that his passengers knew that he was the requested volunteer driver for the famous children’s charity, the “Make A Wish Foundation”.  Try to help your less savvy drivers to figure out how to make better gratuities.    

I also recommend that all of your written promotional brochures, ticket stock, contracts, confirmations, and advertisements include information on gratuity policies.  The limousine industry has been very successful at generating 15-18% gratuities for their drivers.  While it may be difficult (or impossible) to add this retroactively to your current customer base, you may want to implement this now for new clients.

Now let’s discuss a touchy subject - Cleaning Crews!  I’ve operated both with them and without them.  I much preferred having my drivers clean the interiors themselves and only having one or two exterior washers on the payroll.  I jokingly used to refer to my cleaning crew as “F-Troop”.  They caused more damage moving my equipment around the yard than my drivers ever caused on the road and most of my drivers were never really satisfied with the level of cleanliness that “F-Troop” provided.  Let’s face facts.  The first coach in a work shift is much cleaner than the last one on a shift.

Look at what you are paying your cleaners and recognize how much time is spent coordinating their schedules and decide if there is enough money there to pay each of your drivers an extra 45-60 minutes per day.  Cleaning the inside of the coach (including dumping the lavatory) is really only a 15-minute job and much of the cleaning can be accomplished by the driver before he returns to base.  This is a way to add an extra $120-$250 per month to each of your driver’s earnings.

Some of your drivers may not like this policy but if your drivers are anything like mine were, they felt a great deal of pride in having a clean coach and most were happy to do it themselves and receive the extra pay. 
Assigning drivers their own primary coach helps tremendously with this policy.  You’ll also need to provide adequate cleaning supplies for each driver to use.  I recommend that each driver be given his own mop, broom, window-cleaner and paper towels.  You may also consider the use of on-board power cleaning systems that are now available. 

By doling supplies out to each driver and making them responsible for them, you will prevent them from being pilfered from the company.  You may also have to add lockers for each driver if you are not already providing them.

Many of my drivers would hand in receipts for products like Armoral (and I was happy to reimburse them).  Any driver who takes extra special care of his coach should be commended and encouraged.  Periodically having a “Who’s coach is cleanest?” contest works very well.  Treat the winner and their significant other to lunch or dinner with you.

My favorite “secret” for uniting my employees and making them feel special was to provide a company luncheon in the dispatch office.  We did this 2-3 times a month and on all holidays.  This is not an expensive endeavor but it has great impact. 

Employees were allowed to invite their families and we also invited many of our suppliers and customers to stop by.  Crock pots with home-style soups or stews, an attractive platter of fruits and cheeses, and a big basket of fresh rolls and breads were always a big hit with everyone.  I knew that the employees really enjoyed this because some would even show up on their days off! 

It’s important to recognize that many of your employees live alone.  They primarily eat fast food on the road and many eat most of their meals alone.  Providing lunch is a way to give them a healthy meal as well as some camaraderie.

If your drivers are gone all day on charters, occasionally put out a special spread for them in the wee hours of the morning.  Bagels and fresh muffins, cheese and fruit, and individual cups of juice and yogurt (put them in a big bowl of ice or in a cooler) can be a very attractive offering!  This shows them that you really care.  It may require that you get up at 0300 hours, but it certainly is a worthwhile exercise.  Your drivers will be most surprised and happy!  And don’t forget the flowers and the tablecloth.  Food is a form of love and you want your employees to feel loved. 

Try some of these ideas and strategies beginning tomorrow and see how much more you will enjoy going to the office when it is a happy place of business. You can have the toughest rules and regulations in the industry as long as you implement them thoughtfully, explain them thoroughly, and treat your employees nicely and with exceptional respect! Your employees will gladly follow your policies if you make sure that they feel appreciated for their efforts.  Use your energy and talents to build yourself a better bus company!  

Debra Mintz, is founder and principal of Corporate Coach Consultants, a consulting firm with headquarters located in Boca Raton, Florida.  A partial list of current clients includes Prevost Car Inc., Walt Disney Attractions, Mobility Resource Associates, and the American Broadcast Company.  Debra also brings more than twenty years of hands-on experience as the former president and general manager for a major California based motorcoach carrier. 
            During this time Debra developed a number of innovative management techniques and services, leading to her company being ranked in a 1984 nationwide travel agent survey as the 5th most recognized motorcoach company in the U.S.  Her company, Airport Cruiser achieved a record 98% on-time rate for four consecutive years, while recording the lowest employee injury rate of any transportation company in California.  Her marketing and sales efforts resulted in her company providing motorcoach services to 92% of the packaged tours sold to the Disneyland area, and included business contracts with Walt Disney Attractions and the Rank Leisure Corporation.  Additionally she developed internal policies and procedures in maintenance, safety, training, and employee relations leading to substantial improvements in efficiency, profitability, and employee retention.