Taxi Dispatch Technology
by Don McCurdy
Taxi dispatch authority Don McCurdy offers a primer on computerized dispatching. It is an ideal introduction for company owners, call center staff, drivers and others who need to understand the technology that is revolutionizing the taxi industry.
This series of 22 bite-size articles appeared in industry publications during 2004-05, and is posted to Taxi-L with Don's permission. Check back for updates as the technology moves ahead.
Start at the beginning, or jump to an area of special interest.
A note to companies that desire to have their products included in these articles, please drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will need a contact at your company that can answer questions on a reasonably technical level.
Currently there are several types of computerized dispatch. The basic four are:
Computer assisted voice, no mobile data terminal (MDT).
Zone Based with GPS restrictions.
These different types seek to achieve a decrease in call center costs, with an improvement in customer service. Each has it’s own advantages and disadvantages. We’ll look at these different types and their ability to provide the technology each customer requires.
Computer Assisted Voice
Computer assisted voice provides call center functionality without the cost of mobile data terminals. Companies can improve their call center costs utilizing database lookups based on the customer’s telephone number. Information for a customer that has called before is stored in a database and retrieved when the customer calls again. This can significantly reduce call taker time, improve customer service and validate addresses with a modest investment. The dispatch systems integration to the telephone system is crucial to the level of cost savings a company can expect.
Zone based dispatching, utilizing a MDT, can vastly improve the capacity of a company, both from the call center end and the driver end. Drivers experience no delay between vacating and posting available for their next job. The introduction of the MDT eliminates the bottleneck at the dispatcher and decreases the companies need for trained dispatchers. Zoning and job assignment are automatically done by the system so call center cheating is minimized. MDT usage also obsoletes scanners and reduces trip stealing, improving driver satisfaction with the dispatch service.
Zone Based with GPS restrictions
Introducing GPS restrictions on zone based dispatching can vastly improve response time by reducing driver cheating. Without GPS restrictions drivers may post anywhere in the system, regardless of where they are. With GPS restrictions drivers must actually be in or near the zone they desire to post, depending on the configuration of the system. Several variations of this type of dispatching exist and it has proven to reduce the customer’s average wait time for a car.
There is a lot of confusion regarding GPS dispatch and AVL (Automatic Vehicle Location). AVL is a useful tool, but it does not utilize GPS in the dispatching of jobs. AVL is used simply to locate a vehicle. GPS dispatch utilizes the location of the trip and the location of the car as the means of job assignment. There are several different methods being used to utilize GPS dispatch, with mixed results. The systems that garner the highest levels of success with the least radio infrastructure utilized the MDT in the decision making process. The more decisions made by the MDT the less radio traffic required to assign the job successfully. Systems that utilize host based decision making require a much larger radio infrastructure to support. The constant reporting of the cars position utilizes radio airtime without assigning trips. GPS dispatching provides the absolute fastest service level, but is sometimes not well received by drivers.
All of these methods of dispatch improve on the company’s ability to dispatch taxicabs in a cost effective, timely manner and can be a valuable tool in retaining drivers and riders. Next month we’ll discuss configuration and it’s effect to the performance of the system and the service provided to the rider.
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Configuration is the adjustment of timers and settings to achieve the desired system performance. Even Voice Assisted dispatch has Time Order lead times and area structure to consider. Properly configured timers and features assures the smooth flow of jobs through the system and improves customer service. Here are a few of the major considerations to system configuration.
Area (Zone) Structure
The size and shape of areas affect the ability of vehicles to provide timely service. Large areas in busy business districts will reduce service time, while small areas in suburbs result in poor job assignment times. Natural boundaries must also be considered when designing area size and shape. Rivers, railroad tracks and major highways increase driver travel time must be considered when designing area structure.
Time Order Lead Times
Time Order service is an important factor in providing acceptable service to the public. A balance between timely arrival and driver down time is necessary to keep both the customer and driver happy with the service. Most systems utilizing Mobile Data Terminals (MDT’s) can provide and average response time for each area, which gives the System Manager a starting point for what lead times are appropriate for a given area. Rain, traffic, day of the week and time of day are also considerations. The system should be able to accommodate most of these factors automatically. Rain may be unpredictable, but the volume of business on a Sunday shouldn’t be a surprise.
Job Offer Format
The Job offer format can offer no information to the complete trip, with destination. There are negative customer service ramifications for each bit of information added. Providing information in the job offer is attractive for the drivers, since it gives them the illusion of control. Drivers will wait for jobs they perceive as being “good jobs” even though they have no idea where the customer is going. This leads to customers waiting, even though there are cabs in the area. The balance between customer service and driver satisfaction varies based on the results desired by the company.
Restricted Posting (Posting Systems)
Restricted Posting disallows a driver from posting in an area that they are not physically near. This feature has a surprisingly significant impact on customer service. Implementing restricted posting can reduce response time by several minutes. Since the location of the vehicle is necessary, Restricted posting requires GPS equipment. GPS is one of the most significant advances in on demand dispatching. A smooth transition between a posting system and GPS can be critical to achieving maximum vehicle efficiency during peak demand. Reducing vehicle travel time increases overall fleet capacity.
GPS catchments must vary by time of day and day of the week to be fully effective. Peak traffic increases travel time. Reducing the size of GPS catchments during busy periods reduces travel time and increases vehicle efficiency. Small GPS catchments in high business volume areas increase the likelihood the vehicle dispatched will actually load the customer. Larger GPS catchments in suburban or less busy areas increase the likelihood of finding a vehicle to service the trip. Normally GPS catchments should change automatically, however manual adjustments will be required for inclement weather or other less predictable business volume influences.
Cover (Bid) Screen
The Cover screen is critical to the swift distribution of trips and can greatly affect customer service. Displaying jobs near a vehicle, but outside GPS catchments, offers the driver the ability to expand their service area and improve their income. A limitation on the distance to the jobs being displayed to the driver prevents the driver from accepting jobs across town. Reducing the time it takes for a job to be displayed, on the Cover screen, can improve service times during busy periods. Displaying some job location information can assist the driver in determining whether a trip can be reached from their current location swiftly.
There are numerous timers in any dispatch system that can adversely affect customer service. A timer as simple as accept time can delay assignment of a job unnecessarily. Each timer must be considered to achieve the companies desired results. Consult with your system provider to determine what they recommend for each setting and why. Not every company nor city is the same so your configuration may be significantly different, based on the results you are trying to achieve.
Next month: Improving Call Center efficiency.
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There are several concerns in operating a call center, not the least of which is efficiency. Staffing costs, time to answer, call duration, time to dispatch, callbacks and lost calls are all areas that are of concern to the call center manager. Computerization of the call center can substantially improve all of these areas if the dispatch system properly integrates with the telephone system and utilizes Mobile Data Terminals.
Controlling staffing costs has been at the top of the list of call center manager responsibilities forever. I have never found a company that wasn’t looking for a way to save money in this area. Proper telephone integration is essential for improving operator productivity. A company that recently computerized was able to reduce staffing by 56%. Generally, customer information is stored by the caller’s telephone number for quick retrieval. If the telephone system is properly integrated the phone system will pass off caller ID and number dialed number ID to retrieve customer and fleet information. That is, the caller ID will automatically “pop” the customer’s information on the screen, so the operator has only to confirm the name and destination of the caller to generate a trip.
This feature substantially reduces the time required to enter a trip into the system and enables an operator to be more productive. Different systems approach this feature in different ways, some save automatically (which can lead to future problems) and some save manually. Automatic saving will also capture cell phone numbers, but manual save requires operator input. Dialed number ID automatically selects the correct company, if the computer system is dispatching more than one company. With this feature the operator does not need to know which company the customer has called to dispatch the correct company.
Time To Answer
Time to answer is directly related to the number of lost calls. That is calls that the customer has hung up before ordering a car. Decreasing time to answer, by improving operator efficiency, reduces lost calls. Any Automatic Call Distribution (ACD) package will provide the statistics to bear this out. ACD packages can also assist in optimizing staffing levels to decrease unnecessary operators.
Call duration can be positively affected by “screen pops” and abbreviations for common pickup points. A database of common pickup points should be entered into the system to speed operator input for these locations. Madison Square Garden south entrance could easily be entered as MSGS, so neither the operator nor the customer is required to know the address. The driver will see the full name and address. Hotels, restaurants, bars and grocery stores should also be entered to facilitate the call taking process. It also instills a level of customer confidence in the company if the operator doesn’t have to ask the customer for the address of a common location.
Time to Dispatch
Time to dispatch can be a critical factor in the efficiency of a call center. Any delay in dispatching a trip increases the probability of a customer callback or the driver not loading. In fleets without MDT’s this time can be substantially increased during busy periods and may require additional dispatch staff and radio channels to maintain a reasonable service level. From a driver standpoint, it can be very frustrating to be hearing trips going out but be unable to get through on the radio to get them. MDT’s eliminate this problem. For fleets with MDT’s GPS can substantially improve time to dispatch by increasing driver productivity during busy periods. By offering the closest job instead of the oldest job the driver’s travel time can decrease, thereby allowing them to do more jobs in the same time period.
There is little more worthless than a customer callback. The trip is already in the system, the operator time has already been spent putting it there so there is not much to be gained. Proper configuration of the system (as discussed last month) and reliable customer information can substantially reduce customer callbacks.
Lost calls may be the result of under staffing, operator inefficiency or an unnatural spike in demand. Automated call taking (IVR) can assist in reducing calls along with innovative ways of allowing the customer to enter their own calls. Internet booking software can not only allow frequent business clients to order their own cabs quickly (with no operator input) but can also develop brand loyalty. Internet booking that enables the customer to be able to order or query an order gives them the feeling of control and also gets trips in the system with no operator input. Beware of systems that fax an order to the dispatch office or allow prank calls to be entered, they can be more trouble than they’re worth.
The efficiencies of a computerized call center allow increased business volume, reduced staffing requirements and allow more time to service the driver needs on the voice channel. In a highly competitive market computerized dispatch can be the advantage that makes you the company to call. In difficult economic times it’s good to have a strong local customer base to rely on to help keep cars on the street.
Next issue we’ll discuss Mobile Data Terminals and the subtle nuances of baud rate.
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Centrodyne taximeter and card swipe linked to a DDS mobile data terminal
Mobile Data Terminals (MDT’s) come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and abilities. Many incorporate a variety of amenities including credit card swipes, GPS receivers, touch screens and mapping. Of course, each additional amenity increases the price of the terminal. Different MDT’s approach the basic function of dispatching in radically divergent ways. The more functionality the MDT has in it’s dispatch abilities the less radio traffic it must generate to successfully complete the dispatch process. This can be a critical factor in a radio frequency starved world. Having 8 frequency pairs, to track every movement of every vehicle, may not be possible in larger cities, since the frequencies may simply not be available. This leaves us with the thought that radio channel capacity is a critical company asset that must me utilized judiciously if we intend to dispatch a large volume of trips.
Beyond credit cards, card swipes can be an important addition to the car equipment. Some MDT’s have the card swipe internal, some external. Internal card swipes are convenient and easy to install, external allow for easy replacement in the event of failure. Card swipes can be used for driver id cards, Para transit id cards and billing, private credit cards and with an card swipe upgrade, smart card functionality.
Many of the older MDT’s are not capable of incorporating GPS into the dispatch process. Some systems use internal GPS receivers, others external receivers. Companies wishing to grow their fleet to use GPS should select their MDT’s carefully.
Baud rate is a measure of the number of times per second a signal in a communications channel varies, or makes a transition between states (states being frequencies, voltage levels, or phase angles). One baud is one such change. Thus, a 300-baud modem's signal changes state 300 times each second, while a 600- baud modem's signal changes state 600 times per second. There are means to improve the bits per second at a particular baud rate, allowing more information at slower baud rates. The effective range of the radio is, in part, determined by the baud rate of the MDT. The higher the baud rate the shorter the effective range of the radio. Some MDT’s transmit at the same baud rate as the base computer. Others maximize range by transmitting at a slower baud rate from the mobile radio, which has lower power out.
One of the most important features of an MDT is durability. An MDT may be able to do everything and have every possible feature, but if it’s in the repair shop constantly it’s useless. Drivers quickly become frustrated with equipment that require constant tuning or repair.
Utilizing GPS, some MDT’s can provide a visual display of where the cab is and where the trip is. This is a good feature for newer drivers and can allow them to maneuver through the city without utilizing a map.
The ability of the MDT to make decisions in the dispatch process determines the number of channels that a company will require to function. Some terminals require base confirmation of locations to post in a zone, others have the entire zone structure in the MDT and make the decision itself. Understand what methods the system you are looking at uses prior to purchase.
Almost every MDT has a duress alarm feature. How this feature is handled varies widely, with the associated variety of results. Some systems use a key sequence, while others use remote switches. GPS systems generally report the location of the cab if the duress alarm is pressed. One such system reports the location and sends audio from the cab.
There is a variety of equipment available in today’s market, from simple bidding systems to full GPS. Deciding which system is best for your current needs and will be able to handle your needs going forward is not easy. Patience and study will be required to grasp the fundamental principles of each system to determine which system gives you the most for your dispatch dollar.
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PMR, GSM, CDPD, WAP, what does it all mean and why can’t they just speak English? Various computer systems communicate in different ways and how they communicate can affect how much they cost to operate. The tried and true method of communication in the transportation industry is PMR, or Private Mobile Radio. Once the frequencies are acquired and the mobiles and base stations are paid for, these systems are the most inexpensive to operate. They are also the most popular with taxicab, livery and black cars services, what a coincidence. Usually the other methods have ongoing costs associated with the purchase of time or volume on someone else’s network. The others are protocols used for wireless networking of computers. If you view the terminals in the cars as computers on a network, which in fact they are, it’s a little easier to understand how you can utilize various protocols to connect the network. Like all newer technologies, it can be a little pricey. The fact that you’re dispatching over someone else’s network is also a serious consideration. I know, when I was a manager of a taxicab company, I liked to have complete control of all facets of my radio network. Network outages for routine maintenance can wreck havoc on a dispatch system.
Initially, GSM was Groupe Spécial Mobile, a group organized in Europe to produce standards for mobile phones. The Europeans recognized early on that using a variety of protocols was counter productive and a standard needed to be established. That group evolved into the European Telecommunication Standards Institute (ETSI), GSM eventually came to stand for Global System for Mobile telecommunications, the standard digital mobile phone protocol.
CDPD is the acronym for Cellular Digital Packet Data and is a method of breaking data down into digital “packets” that can be reconstructed by the computer receiving the data. CDPD networks are becoming common and can be accessed for around $70 per unit, per month.
WAP is Wireless Application Protocol and it works over a variety of network types. It enables it’s users to use email and other web functions on their mobile device.
There are a variety of different technologies that can be used in wireless computing, for dispatch or otherwise, many of which were not mentioned here. The range, price and dependability are all issues that must be addressed prior to purchasing hardware to interface with any system. Larger cities tend to have a greater variety of products available, so be sure what you buy hardware for what is available in your area. A network vendors commitment to that technology is also important, it’s of no benefit to you if the vendor you select goes out of business in a cutthroat wireless world and they are using a proprietary protocol. Good Luck.
Next issue Card Swipes, what good are they.
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There are several types of card swipes and several types of cards for them to read. Credit cards, debit cards, and smart cards. Each has it’s own function and abilities and each can provide the taxicab company with advantages. The use and acceptance of these cards is assumed to place the company in an advantageous position from a customer base standpoint. Since business travelers often use credit cards for business travel the company has access to a very lucrative segment of the market if they accept credit cards.
Credit cards are the most common form of card used and currently account for over 90% of all card transactions. Normally the information regarding the customer is stored on a magnetic strip on the back of the card and is read by the card swipe. This information is read on Track I or II on the card’s magnetic stripe. These swipes are fairly cheap and a variety of software is available to accept and cashier credit card transactions. Credit card companies are migrating to Smart Cards, so be careful before investing in swipes that will only read the magnetic stripes.
There are fundamentally two types of Debit Cards, ATM Cards and Check Cards. ATM cards are less functional than Check Cards, since the Check Card is used in the same way as a credit card, although it is still a debit card. The significant feature of debit cards is that they take the money from the customer’s bank account. It’s a little trickier to be able to accept ATM cards and it is not common for dispatch software to be able to accept them. The issue is that the money is not reserved for the transaction if it’s preauthorized, but actually taken from the customer’s account. This can lead to double billing if the transaction is processed with a preauthorization and then a closing transaction. For this reason Check Cards are widely accepted while ATM cards are not.
Smart cards have been used in Europe, for a number years, with great success. In Germany every citizen has a smart card for their health care. Smart cards contain a chip with processing and storage ability. Smart cards can be read, and written to in the vehicle. This allows for prepaid transactions to be stored on the card, retrieved and new balances written to the card, in the vehicle. In theory a customer could give the driver $100 and the driver could simply write it to the card for future use. Companies could develop frequent rider programs, Para transit ID cards, store account information and sell prepaid taxi scrip on a chip. The card swipe to read and write to smart cards is considerably more expensive so before purchasing a card reader system be sure of what you’re getting and what it’s potential is.
Although currently a blip on the e-commerce radar screen, smart cards and other digital payment methods are likely to start gaining a share of the market now dominated by magnetic strip credit cards. Predictions are that credit cards, which now account for 98.5 percent of all online transactions, will decline as new payment technologies emerge. In addition forecasts are that smart card and e-wallet transaction volumes will grow from $500 million (US$) in 2000 to $20 billion in 2002. Companies that position themselves correctly can take advantage of these new payment methods and have a leg up on their competition.
Smart, Debit and Credit cards acceptance gives a company access to a larger customer base and should be accepted, if a company desires to remain competitive. Business travelers, a staple of the transportation industry, frequently use various cards to keep track of their expenses. Movement to “cashless cabs” in some municipalities has accelerated the process, but it is a major advantage to accept card payments. Imagine shopping at a department store that didn’t accept card payment, pretty unthinkable. The same holds true for limo and cab companies, how primitive would you be perceived if you didn’t accept card payment?
Next issue, Dispatch Procedures and their effect on Independent Contractor.
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One of the fundamental structural realities of the taxicab business is independent contractor. Having a driver declared an employee by a court or governmental body can cost the company a fortune just to get the ruling overturned or a fortune in court settlements. Understanding the company’s potential liability and how to prevent adverse rulings is crucial for a company’s continued success. “Control” being the premier “proof” of independent contractor status it is important that efforts to improve customer service do not appear to attempt control of the driver.
Many computer systems allow for a reject penalty, that is; a punishment for behavior an independent contractor. “Punishing” independent contractor behavior indicates an attempt at coercing (read that controlling) driver behavior and therefore would constitute a negative finding on IC. I recommend not allowing rejects period. The driver can reject a trip by failing to accept it, but there is no punishment, the cab is simply removed from the queue. How is this not punishment for rejecting? We don’t use that feature (reject), so how can there be a reject penalty?
Trip Recall Request
Many computer systems allow for a driver to recall a job, that is; return it to the computer system for re-dispatch. The motivation for this is to allow the driver to pick up a flag or load a stand if they have just accepted a radio job. The practical application of this is that drivers will recall any job they don’t like the looks of. To try to prevent this behavior companies have developed various levels of “punishment” for recalling one or more jobs. Again, the attempt at coercing behavior on the part of the driver could lead to an adverse judgment on IC. I recommend simply not using this function.
No jobs or meter flashing
Most GPS systems provide for notification of the radio channel operator in the event a driver books a no job or flashes the meter and they are not at the locations of pickup. This is an outstanding feature and allows for superior quality assurance. The issue becomes related to IC when the company installs “policies” or procedures that effect punishment on the driver for not loading the trip. Some companies will de-authorized the car for a number of hours or other punishment. My approach was quite different, although I did de-authorize the car’s computer. Normally every city has a refusal to convey clause in their city ordinance regarding taxicabs. Since the driver has, in effect, refused service this would appear to be a violation of the city code. Since I don’t want the driver to get in trouble with the city it is important that the car be de-authorized until the driver can come to the base and get a copy of the violated ordinance and get help “understanding” the violation. Drivers that continue to degrade service levels by engaging in these counter productive behaviors have their contract canceled.
Many companies I have visited in my travels “suspend” drivers for various violations of dispatch procedures. That would be a little like my electric provider “suspending” my electrical service because I didn’t do enough to conserve. Independent contractors cannot be “suspended”. They can have their contract canceled, with a provision that they “may” apply for contract re-instatement after some criteria are agree to, and some time passes.
How you phrase ordinary life events, like “firing” an employee or canceling the contract of an independent contractor, can lead to the perception of control. Training an independent contractor is not allowed, but pre contractual orientation is. The basis for independent contractor relationship is the contract. Make sure your contracts are up to date and legally sound.
For more information on these and any subjects I’ve written on please feel free to email me at email@example.com
Next issue, automated call taking.
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Reducing the cost of taking a telephone request for service has been a goal of radio room managers since the advent of the telephone call. There have been many innovations in the call taking process that have reduced operator talk time, but none has the eye popping potential of Automated Call Taking (ACT). Imagine being able to take telephone requests for service with no operator input at all! What radio room manager wouldn't salivate at that opportunity? There are several versions of this on the market, including internet versions the customer enters directly. We'll review the internet versions in the future, for now let's look at the dial in variety.
There are several products available to accomplish ACT, ranging from press one dialing to voice recognition. In theory voice recognition software could take every call, without operator input. However, in practical application it doesn't exactly work that way. There are always foreign accents that the voice recognition cannot pick up, so operators will remain a necessity.
Digital Dispatch Systems (DDS) incorporates automatic call taker as a standard feature. The customer must be created in the system by the system administrator or someone they train to enter the information. The customer dials a separate number and enters a pin number and password to verify their identity. The caller has up to four pick up location options, pre entered in the system. It is up to the customer to remember what number corresponds with what address. The pickup address is not repeated back to the customer at the time of the call. This feature does not read caller ID.
Raywood Communications offers, as a paid upgrade, automated call taking on the main number. They call this feature Interactive Voice Response (IVR). That is, the customer dials the usual number to get a cab and they are offered the option of ordering a standard cab by pressing 1. The customer is automatically entered into the IVR database upon their first successfully dispatched job. The entry may be modified by the system manager if the customer requests to not be offered IVR service. The feature is modifiable to allow it to be always on or only when the customer holds for an extended period.
Unified Dispatch specializes in automated call entry, offering configurable products that work with a variety of dispatch systems. They offer automated call taking on the main number, with verbal verification, by the computer, of the pickup address. The system utilizes caller id for customer identification. If the customer is not in the system they offer voice recognition features to actually take a call from a customer that has never called before. They currently have functioning systems integrated with PC Dispatch, on the street, DDS, Mobile Knowledge and other custom applications.
There are several other software and hardware manufacturers that promote various products for automatic call taking. The major point to bear in mind is the ease of use of the product from the customer's perspective. Customers are not going to appreciate "voice mail hell" when attempting to order a vehicle. Simple, easy and fast are the features customers are going to appreciate. A complicated ACT feature will not get the level of customer acceptance necessary to achieve any meaningful decrease in operator costs. Think about what you like when calling a company for service.
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Simply stated, restricted posting disallows a driver to post his vehicle in a queue or zone that they are not within a reasonable distance of. The computer system must have GPS (Global Positioning System) to support this feature. The purpose of this feature is to keep drivers from posting and accepting trips in areas that they cannot service in a reasonable amount of time. A reasonable distance is perceived differently by drivers, customers and companies, with companies being somewhere in the middle of the two other groups. Generically customers would prefer the vehicle be waiting out front when they call, but drivers feel that thirty minutes is not excessive. Company’s opinions vary, but most find fifteen minutes acceptable. Proper utilization of restricted posting can dramatically reduce customer service time. Utilizing restricted posting in a DDS (Digital Dispatch System) I was able to reduce average response time by three full minutes. Not only did this improve customer service, but it also made the fleet more efficient during the busy times. Efficiency and improved customer service are especially important in competitive markets being magnified by poor economic times.
How it’s Done
Different companies approach this feature in different ways. A brief description of DDS and Raywood Communications systems is included. I attempted contact with other dispatch companies for inclusion, but received no replies complete enough to derive a working knowledge from.
DDS calls this Book in Validation. A driver cannot book in a zone queue unless they are in the area of the zone. GPS coordinates are entered into the zone database that create a box around the zone that the vehicle must be in to post in that queue. When the driver requests to book in the MDT (Mobile Data Terminal) transmits a message to the base computer system which looks at their last know location to determine if the vehicle is allowed to book in. If the vehicle’s last know location is outside of the box a message is sent to the vehicle denying the book in, if the vehicle is inside the box a queue position message is returned to the vehicle. This method does require a minimum of four radio transmissions to accomplish, if the car is posted or not. There is an issue with utilizing the last know location, since a driver can be outside the box when booking “Soon to Clear” (a function that allows a driver to reserve a space prior to turning off the meter) and get booked off when they turn the meter off because the base computer is using the last known location. If the driver receives an error message or is booked off the driver must reinitiate the book in sequence again to post in the zone.
Raywood calls this feature Restricted Plotting. The Raywood system approaches this feature from the MDT end of the system. The zone database still has the GPS coordinates around each zone, but it is all loaded into the MDT, in the car. The MDT validates the vehicles position and gives the driver an error message if the car is outside the box. Since the vehicle knows it’s location it does not have the issue of using the last know location. The system requires two radio transmissions for the pre-validated posting. Raywood has a variation of the feature called “Adjacent Restricted Plotting”, which allows a driver to post if they are in any zone adjacent to the zone they desire to post.
Setup and Activation
Generally, restricted posting is not well received by drivers so it is important that the activation go smoothly. I recommend a phase in of the process with the initial GPS coordinates covering the entire city when the feature is activated. This enables any issues with faulty installations, GPS receivers or GPS antennas to be detected prior to reducing the “box” size around each zone. After all vehicles equipment has been determined to be in good working order the restriction boxes should be reduced to what the company finds acceptable. This can be accomplished en masse or incrementally, to the desires of the company. I recommend an incremental reduction starting with the least busy zones.
Restricted posting prevents drivers from making decisions that will adversely affect customer service without it becoming an issue that requires management input.
The next article will discuss the front line of quality control, the radio channel operator. Once you’ve purchased just the right system for your company what will the person who used to be called the dispatcher do?
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One of the issues that is rarely discussed when purchasing a computerized dispatch system is how many issues it creates as it is solving other issues. The computerized dispatch system creates an impersonal relationship with the driver and removes some of the learning opportunities they have using voice radio. Voice radio allows a driver to hear the consequences of another driver’s mistakes. It is, of course, embarrassing for the driver who made the mistake, but it allows the rest of the fleet to learn from that experience. Rarely does a driver know what mistakes another driver has made at a computer dispatched company, since they are rarely on the voice channel to hear the driver be redressed by the radio operator. In response to this the computer dispatch manufacturers have installed a variety of warnings and alerts to assist the radio operator in determining if the driver is conducting business in a manner consistent with their contract and the long term interests of both the company and the driver. Development of repeat business requires good service and the radio operator is the front line of maintaining that quality.
Excessive Dispatch Time
This feature informs the radio operator that the trip has not been assigned a vehicle after a given time has expired. The parameter is usually configurable by zone. Some systems allow the operator to add extended backup zone, expand the GPS catchments or offer the trip globally.
Each area of the city is assigned a routine loading time, usually slightly over the average service time, called the late meter time. When the timer expires the operator is notified that the driver has not turned the meter on in the prescribed time. The operator can then check with the driver to see if there are issues loading the customer or assistance is needed.
The Fast Meter timer informs the operator if the driver turns the meter on and then off in a period deemed too short by the system parameters. This warning generally indicates that there is a problem with the trip of one kind or another. Usually the driver has decided that the trip is of no interest and has flashed the meter to clear their computer to get another trip.
Meter on wide of job. (requires GPS)
This feature informs the operator if the driver turns the meter on and is not within a reasonable distance of the trip. When the driver’s mobile data terminal reports the meter being turned on to the host computer it also reports the GPS coordinates when the event occurred. The host compares this to the coordinates of the trip and reports if the car is not within an acceptable distance.
No job wide of job
This feature informs the operator if the driver attempts to book a no job (no customer found) and is not within a reasonable distance of the trip. When the driver’s mobile data terminal reports the no job to the host computer it also reports the GPS coordinates when the event occurred. The host compares this to the coordinates of the trip and reports if the car is not within an acceptable distance.
These are the fundamental warnings available to the radio operator regarding the activity of the fleet. Most of these require a procedure be followed in the event of observing one or more of these warnings on a given trip. How the warning is handled varies from company to company and may rely on local ordinances or simply the company’s dispatch procedures. All warn of a possible problem situation with a rider receiving service and should have written procedures in place on how the operator is to deal with each situation. Operators, left to their own devices, may incorporate remedies that put the company in jeopardy if the event of a challenge to independent contractor status.
Next article, What is the future of the Mobile Data Terminal. There have been some interesting developments in the palm computing world, will this change things?
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Generally Mobile Data Terminals (MDT’s) are engineered and built by the company that writes the software that controls terminal. Due to the size of the available market the price for MDT’s can be quite high, for the amount of processing power provided. Unlike handheld PDA’s (Personal Digital Assistants) that can expect to sell tens of thousands of units, MDT’s have a much smaller audience. Understanding how MDT’s function within the system is critical to purchasing MDT’s that will meet the companies current needs and be flexible enough to not be obsolete before that get installed. There are companies that write only the software and can utilize any brand of MDT on the market, which brings us to the non traditional MDT. The race is on for software developers to interface with today’s PDA’s and cell phones. They have even come out with cell phones with GPS, so the possibilities are endless. Unlike the old single function MDT the newer PDA’s can run a variety of programs drivers will find useful, including games to play while they wait for their next trip.
Nextel and ActSoft
ActSoft, one of the many software development companies, initially developed courier software, until they were approached by Manassas Cab in Virginia. Manassas was looking for a high tech, low cost solution to replacing their radio towers. Working with Manassas Cab, ActSoft developed taxi dispatch software that interfaces to Nextel’s cell phones. The system is available with the usual variety of features for the radio room, but utilizes Nextel’s network for all data and voice transmissions. This approach resolves quite a few issues smaller companies encounter when attempting to switch to computerized dispatch, one of which is radio frequencies. Many companies only have one radio channel if any at all, so they require increased infrastructure to be able to utilize traditional MDT’s. The price of the phone is considerably less than a traditional MDT and can also be utilized as a cell phone. Drivers are especially happy with the ability to get out of the car and not lose business. Currently there is not a meter interface, so some driver trust is involved.
Tranware and all
Tranware has functioning dispatch systems utilizing pagers, cell phones and a variety of different brands of MDT’s. Several companies, including Express Cab in Cicero, Illinois utilize one way paging. The dispatcher sends the trip information via pager and the driver acknowledges on voice. The system is very inexpensive and the ongoing costs are minimal. Express Cab reports three main advantages, accuracy of information, speed, and privacy of the transmission. The pagers are not connected to the meter, but as an inexpensive evolution from voice it gets the Express Cab the in house computer system to build on.
Prime Executive Service of Chantilly, Virginia utilizes the Tranware dispatch with Nextel Phones. Prime reports the system to be fast and inexpensive to obtain and maintain. The system has been in for six months and is reported to be well received by the drivers or, as they are called in the computer world, the end users.
Tranware reports the system utilizing the Compaq Ipaq is ready to go but has not been installed in the field yet. They also have extensive in house software including cashiering and maintenance packages.
Currently there are at least three other software companies that are developing software platforms that give of all their in house functionality to PDA based systems. Companies can now budget their communications needs as they would budget any other utility. By utilizing Nextel’s phones Manassas Cab was able to eliminate their radio technician, reduce down time, and substantially reduce capital expenditures on equipment required to introduce computerized dispatch. By purchasing the insurance on the equipment they are able to eliminate the ongoing maintenance contracts with traditional MDT manufacturers. Certainly there will be applications that require traditional MDT’s, but for the smaller companies the time has come when they can compete, technologically, with the big boys for substantially less cash outlay up front and only modest costs going forward. As handheld computers get smaller and more powerful look for the capabilities of them as MDT’s to improve. Features that small companies only dreamed of are around the corner. I wonder how long it will be before some smart meter manufacturer has a Bluetooth interface programmable to tell the PDA when the meter is on and what the amount is when it’s turned off? As always, be cautious with what you buy and do your homework. Make sure that what you buy meets your current needs and is flexible enough to grow with your business.
I have recently entered into discussions with a company requesting assistance setting up a call center, so next month we’ll discuss Call Center Design and Installation. Making your call center as bullet proof as possible we reduce the number of late night wake up calls.
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Often the design of a call center for a transportation provider is a free form, as space allows sort of assembly. I have designed call centers for voice and computer operation and have found that building in features to improve efficiency can save the company money and grief. Simple solutions to local employment laws, such as smoking regulations, can improve call center productivity. There are features that can give the company a competitive edge in difficult situations. This article will cover some of the basics for companies utilizing computer dispatch.
A UPS (uninterruptible power supply) is a critical feature for computer dispatch companies. Not only does the UPS provide power in the event of a power failure, it conditions the power provided by the electric utility company. Voltage spikes and brown outs can wreck havoc with computers and cause a variety of mysterious symptoms that technicians find impossible to trace. The size of the UPS should be determined by the amount of equipment connected and the time estimated to provide auxiliary power in the event of a catastrophic loss of electrical power. It is important to resist the urge to put everything on UPS power. The critical systems may require extra capacity in the event auxiliary power is delayed in becoming available.
I have witnessed companies that considered a mobile radio with a car battery to be sufficient emergency equipment in the event of a power failure. Is a generator necessary? That depends on what your local power company’s track record is for power outages and their recovery from them. I prefer a generator, natural gas if available. The ability to provide service when others cannot is a considerable service advantage and looks very professional when bidding for Para transit contracts.
Most modern telephone systems are TAPI (Telephony Application Programming Interface) compliant, but this is of little value if you are attempting to interface it to a non Windows dispatch system. If you have plans to utilize or are utilizing computer dispatch it is important to plan ahead and purchase a telephone system that your potential computer dispatch vendor has interfaced with already. This will save you headaches later and will allow you to utilize the full functionality of your dispatch system’s telephone interface abilities. Be sure you allow for expansion of the telephone system. It can be very costly and frustrating to have to purchase a new system if the one you buy now cannot handle the load of future growth.
Proper wiring of a call center is critical to it’s current performance and it’s ability to be expanded going forward. If you are ever planning to install computer dispatching it is important to have proper wiring installed when the call center is under construction. It is much cheaper to install the computer wiring with the telephone system wiring and can often be done by the same crew. There have been substantial improvements in wireless networking technology, so if your call center is already built you may look into this alternative. Be sure your computer dispatch vendor will support this technology, it could lead to serious problems if they don’t and you attempt to install it.
Generator and UPS wiring is also of serious consequence and should be carefully planned for maximum benefit of the tools.
Durable and comfortable furniture is important to the long term success of any call center. Desks at an incorrect typing height can cause physical problems for the operator and increase worker’s compensation insurance claims, followed by increasing insurance costs. Cheap furniture that must be replaced every year is no bargain. The more professional the appearance of the facility the more professional the attitude of the workers in that facility.
The physical layout of a call center can vastly improve it’s functionality and efficiency, whether computer or voice. The most recent call center I designed incorporated a separately ventilated smoking area for operators who smoked. This reduced the number of breaks the operators took to smoke and improved productivity. Other call centers I’ve seen afforded the supervisor a view of the entire department along with the radio operator’s computer terminals. If a problem was on a radio operators screen it was visible to their immediate supervisor. Physical layout can create or solve problems and should be carefully considered when designing a call center.
There are certainly many variables in designing a call center and how it’s approached can have serious long term effects on the company as a whole. Poor design can create problems that were never an issue before. Take care in laying out your call center and be sure you allow for future expansion.
Next issue I’ll discuss Driver Safety Procedures for Voice and Computer Dispatch. This is always a hot topic, so hopefully I can share some of my experiences you may find helpful. If you have any question regarding this article or any others please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Driver safety procedures are an often forgotten, little used process of informal instructions that are passed on from driver to driver without a definite logic or process. Drivers may end up in a difficult situation with no idea how to alert the radio operator without tipping off the passenger. Proper procedures save everyone a lot of time and distress in the event of an emergency. It is important the both ends of the radio know what to expect from the other.
Having procedures in writing is important to their success. Training new drivers or radio operators with written procedures can help facilitate a complete understanding of what is expected in emergency situation. Having a convenient handout can keep drivers reminded of what to do and how to do it.
The best of all scenarios would be to prevent an attack on the driver by providing witnesses to the potential event. Drivers that become aware of a developing situation can signal the radio operator that they have a developing situation and the radio operator can provide other drivers on the scene to prevent a situation from escalating. One way to accomplish this is by having escalating alarm levels.
Escalating Alarm Levels
Not all situations are life threatening, nor do all problems require the police to resolve. However, in a serious life and death situation it is important that the information that the situation is serious be conveyed without confusion. Here are two examples of escalating alarm levels that are handled quite differently:
Suspicious Passenger For this alarm the driver is not being threatened by the passenger, but the driver is concerned about the passengers intentions. The object is to provide another driver on the scene to observe the situation. Responding drivers should be advised to stay out of the situation. Often the presence of another cab will dissuade an unruly passenger.
Life Threatening Situation This alarm level should be reserved for situations that require the police. Immediate action is required on the part of the radio operator in contacting the authorities. Other drivers can be sent to the scene, if the location is known, but they must know in advance that the situation has been deemed life threatening.
Companies using voice radio should have designated radio codes to allow the driver to alert the radio operator that there is a potential issue in the cab. Different codes should be used for different levels of concern on the part of the driver. Drivers that initially view the passenger as a potential problem can send a lower level of alarm with a destination. If the driver has been dispatched the call the radio operator is aware of the pickup point, and can project a possible route to the destination the driver has given. Simply repeating the radio code, the pickup address and the destination will alert the fleet without alarming the passenger. Drivers can simply claim it’s procedure if the passenger becomes interested. Should the driver escalate the alarm the radio operator can then notify the police of the pickup and destination.
Computerized dispatching increases the options for safety procedures. Most computer systems allow for some sort of messaging from the car. Pre assigned messages can be used to indicate lower level alarms. Most systems also have a panic button. There are various approaches to the panic button and it should be used as the highest level of alarm. Some systems come with a panic button on the Mobile Data Terminal (MDT), while others offer a remote switch. Remote switches are preferable, since touching the terminal is often not an option in a life threatening situation. Systems that do not offer an external panic buttons as a standard feature often will have the ability to add one. If you are not sure if your terminal allows for this, contact your vendor. Possibly others have already engineered a successful design and will be willing to share their experience.
Message Alarms Radio operators can appear to be contacting the driver for totally unrelated reasons, if the driver sends a message alarm. If the driver sends a suspicious passenger message the radio operator can the contact the driver regarding a “personal” and request a location, destination and an approximate time of arrival at the destination. The exact verbiage should be scripted in advance, with the driver and radio operator both being instructed to stick to the script.
Panic Button Alarms Panic button alarms operate differently on different computer systems. Some systems disable the MDT, making future contact dependent on the driver. Others will actually key the radio and allow the radio operator to hear what is transpiring in car. Base your procedure on the response you get from pressing the panic button on your MDT’s .
Dispatch systems that utilize GPS add an entirely new dimension to the alarm process. Such systems will normally have the vehicle reporting it’s location, if the panic button is pushed, at short intervals to enable tracking by the radio operator. The level of alarm will often determine how the MDT reacts to it. Radio operators should know how to update the position of the car if a lower level alarm is reported. GPS allows the driver to receive assistance with no apparent initiation of a request for assistance, allowing the arrival of other vehicles to be dismissed a chance.
Training and Testing
New drivers and radio operators must be trained in the proper procedures in order for the procedures to be effective. Testing radio operators with various alarm levels will help keep them up to speed on handling various alarms. I would recommend that the radio operator be observed during any tests to keep the alarm from being passed to the police, who may not be interested in participating. The importance of both training and testing cannot be over stated. The time to learn the procedure is well before any genuine alarm event.
There are a lot of factors to be considered when developing driver safety procedures. I have been fortunate to have developed procedures for voice, computer and computer with GPS. The procedures varied greatly, based on the equipment available, and one size does not fit all. Develop your procedures based on what you have and how you use it. If you would like assistance establishing safety procedures or free brochures on driver safety contact:
International Taxi Drivers Safety Council
1050 10th Ave.
Huntington, WV 25701
As always you can contact me at email@example.com if you have any questions or comments regarding this or any of my articles.
Next issue: Address Database Features and Refinement.
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Every computerized dispatch system comes with a database of addresses for the service area of the company purchasing it. These databases can cost extra if the service area covers several towns or counties. The information in the database can be stored in a variety of ways and can contain inherent bad addresses. The most common problem I’ve encountered is the “range of addresses” issue. Though pretty much a standard approach, the “range of addresses” method leads to incorrect address validation in some cases. These problems can be minimized through database refinement. Some features of are fairly standard and can be quite helpful in call entry.
A “named building” is basically a physical address that has a popular building, hotel, stadium, hospital, etc attached to it. The operator simply types in the name of the building and the computer retrieves the address. There are a variety of approaches to address validation, but most systems require an address of some type to be entered for a trip to be dispatched into the system. Named buildings assist the operator in entering the trip without asking the address of Madison Square Garden. Asking the address of a major building is often disconcerting to the caller, since most don’t know the physical address of the building they are at. Creating a logical naming convention for named buildings is important to operator productivity, so serious thought should go into how you name buildings. Companies that are switching over from voice dispatch often use the terms the dispatchers have used in the past that have no logic or method of development, but just seemed to have evolved. This method is very difficult to teach new operators and should be discouraged.
Abbreviations, or “codes”, are shortcuts to named buildings or major streets and should also follow a logical naming convention. Refinements can also be added based on the logistics of loading at the building, such as what side or door the passenger will be waiting at. These refinements can also assist the operator in gathering the necessary information to load the customer. An example of this would be the state capital building in Austin, Texas. The building has four doors, north south east and west. The operator was required to put the door designator in order for the trip to be dispatched. The code would be CAP N for the capital building at the north door. This substantially reduced the time necessary for the trip to be entered and prompted the operator to ask the customer which door they would be at.
Street types (such as street, boulevard, circle, way, lane, etc) are an important part of the address and should not be overlooked. Leaving a street type off of a particular type of street can cause enormous headaches if the database covers more than one city or has to be migrated to a new database to add GPS coordinates.
System databases normally allow for dispatching of vehicles to suburbs and have a suburb designator. Adding suburb designators to areas within the city can cause problems for callers that don’t know what the area is called, but just know it’s in the city. Some systems allow for suburbs to be dispatched to separate companies and care should be taken in setting them up.
Map Page and Grid
Most system databases include an entry for the map page and grid that is sent to the driver to assist in finding the street. Often the information can be obtained from the mapping company electronically and will be easily transferred to the database. Some map companies do not offer this, so care should be taken in selecting the “official” map the company uses. Depending on the size of the service area, manually entering the map page and grid can be quite time consuming and expensive.
Initial database setup can be fairly easy, but not without costs. Entering a street as a range of addresses can easily cause confusion later on. Often there will be more than one city or suburb in the service area that have similar addresses. Refining the database will make the system less prone to operator or customer error that lead to drivers not loading and customers not getting loaded. An example of this is the One American Center, 600 Congress Avenue in Austin. The original database had the range of addresses from 600 to 698 as being valid, even though no such addresses existed. The GPS location also used a range, even though there was only one area that customers loaded. By reducing the range to 600 to 600 the possibility of invalid address be dispatched, that were really on another city or on South Congress, was reduced. In highly developed areas it is easily possible to refine the database to only the addresses that actually exist. This can be done for the physical street addresses and the GPS location, improving the systems accuracy and efficiency. Database refinement is a time consuming project that may take years to fully complete. Having a dedicated database administrator is often a hard sell to management, leaving refinement to the system administrator or undone completely. Over the years I have trained numerous telephone operators to do database refinement, so it could get done without additional expense. Telephone operators often find database refinement rewarding and view it as a level of trust that is being shown of their abilities. Caution is advised in giving anyone database access that does not fully understand what it is they are doing and why.
As always you can contact me regarding the information in this or any of my articles at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Next article will be the Fundamentals of ACD Software and Operator Scheduling.
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ACD (automatic call distribution) software is critical to the successful operation of any call center. Knowing the number of calls offered, answered and the average duration are essential to the proper scheduling of telephone operators. There are several terms that are common in ACD software and we’ll cover what they are and what they mean.
Calls offered is the number of calls the operators had the opportunity to answer if all calls could have been answered. This number is somewhat predictable by day of the week in the taxicab business, but there are other factors that will affect this number. Foul weather, major sporting events, concerts, and conventions are a few of the other factors. Careful assessment of previous events of a similar nature should provide insight to operator needs.
Abandoned calls are calls that hang up before an operator answers, possibly the only thing worse is a busy signal. Abandoned calls indicate a shortage of telephone operators and can usually be attributed to poor scheduling or unanticipated call volume. Proper research of upcoming events can assist a call center manager in planning ahead for sufficient staffing, but there are occasionally circumstances that are not predictable, like the weather. Presented as a percentage of calls offered abandoned calls should not exceed 5 percent, the approximate percentage that will abandon in a short time.
Average Time to Abandon
Average time to abandon is the time the customer waits before they hang up without speaking to an operator. Generally I disregarded calls that abandoned in less than 7 seconds. The telephone system requires about 4 seconds to transfer the call to an operator so the customer hung up as soon as the hold recording came on.
Average Time to Answer
Average time to answer is an important number, since it relates directly to abandoned calls. Telephone systems have a few seconds lag time from when the switch recognizes the incoming call until it is placed through to an operator. As time to answer increases abandoned calls increase. This figure can be broken down by operator or system wide by hour.
Average Call Duration
Average call duration can be system wide by hour, or by operator. This number is extremely important in operator evaluation. A higher than average call duration for an individual operator can indicate the need for additional training or replacement. There will certainly be a difference between operators handling routine calls and specialty operators. There are other factors that will affect call duration, such as an unusually high number of call backs, customers calling back to find out what happened to the vehicle they previously ordered or operators receiving personal calls. Too short a call duration could indicate abruptness, rudeness or a failure to obtain sufficient customer information.
Time Logged On
This is an operator statistic that tells the manager exactly how long each operator was “logged on” to the phone system. Normally this will be less than the number of hours they get paid for.
Time unavailable is time the operator is logged onto the system but has pressed the unavailable (name varies by phone system) key to prevent being offered inbound calls. Operators that know they are being graded on their call duration will process lengthy calls or difficult calls after hanging up with the customer. Often this results in a poor quality of trip information, or inadequate trip information. Careful monitoring of this time should produce an average time unavailable that can be used to compare operator’s performance.
Every call center has a budget and maintaining the proper number of operators is critical to staying within that budget. Scheduling too many operators can drain valuable resources, too few can cost valuable business. The correct number of operators can cover the business available without unnecessary expense. The calculation would seem simple enough, divide the total number of calls offered, per hour, by the average call duration and viola, you have the correct number of operators. Unfortunately it’s not quite that simple. If incoming calls were offered in a flat steady steam then the formula would work, but calls generally come in bursts. In theory an operator that has a 30 second average duration could take 120 calls an hour. However the maximum I have ever seen an operator take was 888 in an 8 hour shift. Developing a spreadsheet that tracks the average number of calls per hour, by each operator and overall, operators take will establish a baseline for operator scheduling. It will also point out operators that consistently do not carry their load.
There are certainly methods to improve operator efficiency, the most critical being proper training. There are a wide variety of products available to assist in training, videos, courses, seminars, etc. Regular meetings of the communications staff will help the manager maintain good contact with their operators and an understanding of issues the operator consider serious. Most dispatch systems can interface with the telephone system and vastly improve operator efficiency, as discussed in previous articles.
As always if you have a questions or comments regarding this or any of my articles you can reach me by email at email@example.com
Next issue I will discuss methods of training operators.
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The most common method of operator training I’ve encountered is the trainee sits with an experienced operator and watches. The veteran teaches the trainee for a period and then the trainee takes the calls and is coached by the veteran for a period. Then you have a “trained” operator. A tried and true method, but it does have a few flaws. My main problem with this method is that the trainee will invariably end up with the same bad habits the trainer has. To minimize this effect I worked out a training schedule for both telephone operators and radio operators.
Pre Training Discussion
Prior to the trainee sitting with a veteran operator I held a short discussion with them discussing their goals for the training period and issued them a manual with a training sheet with written objectives. This established my expectations in their mind and established a basis for my relationship with them, a very important factor. The training sheet covered every type of call that the trainee should request information on and acted as a check off list to determine that all subjects had been touched on. Since most radio operators had already been telephone operators they were considerably easier to train and I already had an established relationship with them.
The next part of their training was to sit with a veteran operator. I rotated operators that they sat with so they were exposed to a variety of approaches, not just a single operator’s opinion of how things should proceed.
After much cussing and discussing I decided that a formal, structured training class was necessary to dispel some of the myths the trainee had acquired during their sessions with the veteran operator and to clarify the information they had received. Since the operation was computer dispatched I covered every possible entry for each field. The class included every type of trip entry they could expect to encounter and the special instructions for all types of contract trips. Proper greetings, call control and closings were discussed at length.
Non Coverage Training with Assistance
After training class telephone operators would be assigned a day shift to train on the phones with a veteran operator assisting. I would have no expectations of any acceptable level of coverage from the trainee or the veteran assisting. They both were scheduled in addition to the staffing necessary to adequately cover the inbound call volume. This allows for the trainer to discuss each call with the trainee prior to accepting the next call.
Non Coverage Call Taking
The trainee was then placed on the shift that they would normally be assigned for at least a week with no expectation of coverage. Daily assessment via ACD stats and discussions with their immediate supervisor regarding of their progress should be conducted during this period.
Normal Shift Assignment
The operator is then assigned to a regular shift with a reduced anticipation of coverage as their skills develop. Normally the process takes about three weeks to get to this point.
I preferred to closely observe my operators at several points during their training period, to get both of us a comfort level with their ability and attitude. This also improved our personal relationship and reduced their nervousness at my presence. It has been my experience that managers that maintain a level of aloofness from their staff get less production and inspire discomfort when they are present.
I consider it extremely important to have continuing staff meetings where operators can discuss their problems freely and openly. Departmental problems must be able to be discussed and potentially resolved at these meetings. Knowing what the problems of the “front line” staff is will often enable the manager to improve departmental efficiency and moral by promptly responding to what the operators feel are real issues. Often operators will have creative solutions to departmental issues that will give the group pride of ownership, if enacted, and assist them in achieving some self actualization from their jobs, which is imperative to maximizing their productivity.
Testing and Evaluation
After a few years as a call center manager I found myself grading everyone that I called for whatever product or support. The various levels of training demonstrated went from smooth and professional to poorly reading a prepared script. I then called my own staff at all hours of the day and night to evaluate their training. I varied my routine from a customer that didn’t know where they were to a rude drunk and evaluated their response. The vast majority of the time the operators performed positively and for those times they didn’t I would evaluate the operator for retraining or just an attitude check. Radio operators presented a special challenge for testing as they were required to handle emergency procedures. A coconspirator would be necessary to keep the “emergency” from getting passed to the police, but the veteran radio operators enjoyed initiating the trainees into the fraternity and were more than willing to assist.
The smoothness and professional demeanor of your operators says a lot for how your company is received by your customers so proper training is very important. Unprofessional openings or closings, such as “bye bye now” should be avoided, as should displays of emotion. Operators looking for an excuses to hang up on customers can be detrimental to maintaining market share and should be trained to deal with problem customers prior to them getting any such calls.
As always if you have a questions or comments regarding this or any of my articles you can reach me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Next issue, Independent Contractor Orientation or Pre-contractual Training.
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According to my attorney, the only training allowed for Independent Contractors is pre contractual. From a computer dispatch standpoint IC orientation is critical to the success of the driver. If they get out in the car and don’t know how to use the computer system they’re not going to survive. Since the survival of rookie drivers is critical to the success of the company it behooves the company to give the rookies the best possible chance at success. The following are some of the techniques I’ve seen used to orient drivers to the computer system.
A good class outline should accompany any pre contractual training class. This enables the instructor to make sure that all necessary information is covered and that the class doesn’t end up as a series of war stories. Going over the class outline, with the instructor, periodically will help you keep your instructor sharp and you informed. Be sure that any computer configuration changes are immediately reflected in the outline and the manual.
Computers in Class
Larger companies I’ve seen have complete separate system for their training class. The system is configured to sign the driver’s in using station numbers and the instructor enters trips for the wannabe cab drivers to accept. The system has full functionality, including credit cards, so the students can see and ask question regarding all aspects of the system. Every type of service the company offers is shown to the students with detailed explanations of what it all means to them, along with what the radio operator sees and what the response will be.
Smaller companies are often unwilling to pay the price for a separate system and will configure some terminals, radios and all, on the real system. Special training zones or even a training company can be set up to offer trips to the terminals so there is no loss of opportunity for the students.
On the road
Other companies send their students out with an experienced driver to learn the computer system. The selection of the experienced driver is critical to the success of the student. Drivers that just take the student for a ride should be avoided, along with drivers that depend on their personals to make a living. Learning all about the importance of personals is not going to help the student learn the computer system or help them get over the fear of using it. A check list should be given to the veteran and the student so both know what needs to be covered. An effort should be made to train the trainer and drivers with anti company attitudes should be weeded out.
The driver’s manual, or the Independent Contractor Orientation Guide as we called it, is also critical to the rookie’s success. I have found “off the shelf” driver manuals to be seriously lacking and can actually be counter productive. “Off the shelf” manuals will often contain features of the system that the company has chosen not to use and will confuse the rookies or worse give the veterans ideas on how the system should be configured so they can avail themselves of some of the more interesting features. Drivers can always find perfectly plausible reasons why worthless features will improve service to the customer, when practical application has proven otherwise. Sydney, Australia is a perfect example. There the driver gets the entire trip information, including destination, in the trip offer. The drivers claim this improves service to the customer. Of course it does, unless you happen to be going to a laundry. A customized manual is more effective and can also cover paperwork for special trips and a variety of other things. I would be a good idea to have your attorney look over the manual and make sure there is nothing in it that would cause problems for you in court. Having these manuals available for any and all drivers allowed for veteran drivers to stay abreast of procedure changes or zone map adjustments.
The driver’s manual’s I’ve written, all of which were working documents, all had two cheat sheets. One that provided step by step process to log on, starting with turn on the radio. This enabled drivers that didn’t remember a thing from class to get in the car and follow the directions and be able work. Don’t assume they remember anything.
The second cheat sheet covered every function of the computer with a short bullet as to how it worked. Full explanations were elsewhere in the book and both of the cheat sheets were on the same single page.
Short videos can be highly effective in driver pre contractual training, but should be kept short and to a minimum. The positive side of videos is that you know what the driver is seeing, the negative side is that they’re not interactive and drivers will often forget questions they had during the video. I recommend that a tape be done of any emergency procedures so that you have a consistent presentation that can also be shown to the radio operators. This gets all parties on the same page. During my stint as instructor I found that the most naps were taken during videos so pay especially close attention to that. I recommend that the instructor remain in the class during videos so they may be paused to answer questions or expand on points made on the video.
Power Point Presentations
Power Point can be a very effective tool. It helps the instructor stay on message gives the class a better ability to follow along. Short video and audio inserts can be informative and attention grabbing. A projector to put the presentation on the wall would be a good investment.
The ability of the instructor is another key component in a successful pre contractual training class. A boring presentation in a dull monotone is not going to be effective. Encourage your instructor to animated and interactive. Ask questions of individuals, especially if their eyes are glazing over. Yes, I understand that he’s your brother in law, but if your rookies are unprepared not only will he not be able to feed your sister, but you won’t be able to feed your family.
Guest speakers can be very effective, if not overdone. I have seen instructors that had all aspects of class taught by guest speakers, which is certainly easier for the instructor, but sort of makes them useless. In Houston we had the crime prevention office of the police department come in and discuss robbery prevention techniques and found this very effective.
Tour the plant
Giving new drivers a tour of the facility is important. A short presentation from the communications manager, should you be fortunate enough to have one of these, will save a lot of misinformation. Special thought should be given to the tour of the communications department, since this is the part of the company that will have the most contact with the driver. Yet it is often the most mysterious.
Pre contractual training in critical to the success of any transportation company. Having drivers that are well prepared, know what to expect and what’s expected reduces problems and increases rookie survivability. Planning, preparation and execution of proper pre contractual training can set your company apart from you competition both in the driver’s mind and the riders. Not all companies require everything discussed here, so customization is the rule, not the exception. As always, if you have any questions or require assistance setting up a training program, you can contact me at email@example.com
Next issue, “Driver and Call Taker Computer Statistics”, what them mean and who needs them.
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A variety of statistics are available, on most computerized dispatch systems, to evaluate the performance of drivers and call takers. These statistics can generally be sorted by cab number, driver ID number and call taker ID number. They can also be arranged in ascending or descending order, by range of time, by range of values, or by other specific criteria. Observing these statistics can assist the taxicab company manager in determining if drivers or call takers are in need of additional training or have developed counter productive work habits. Here are a few reports I reviewed daily and why.
Driver No Trip Report
The Driver No Trip Report points up one of the most common ways drivers attempt to “beat the system”. Various methods can be used on the drivers end to achieve this, (high flagging, meter switches, etcetera) but all are generally detectable on the no trip report. Drivers simply load the passenger, arrange a flat rate and book a no trip to go back first up. Companies often devise methods of defending against this that are counter productive to the honest driver, and end up punishing the fleet for the misdeeds of a few drivers. Setting the value of the no trip parameter in the report to a range of 5 to 99 and printing it in descending order will immediately identify the worst offenders. I have encountered drivers that no tripped every single call they received, which was obviously a situation that needed to be dealt with. Allowing drivers to “beat the system” simply allows them to cheat other drivers out of their rightful position and makes it harder for the honest driver to make lease. I prefer to sort this report by driver ID number so that drivers that share cabs and day lease drivers can be successfully tracked.
Call Taker No Trip Report
All call takers are going to have no trips, it’s a fact of life. Careful evaluation of years of statistics has shown me that the average value of no trips by call taker is generally very close, but variable by shift. The day shift having the least and the night shift having the most. I establish a base line percentage for each shift and look for call takers that are consistently better or worse than average. Call takers that exhibit a consistently high percentage of no trips may not be getting enough information and require more training. Evaluating no trip records and the telephone statistics, discussed in a previous article, enable the manager to get a picture of the overall ability and job performance of each operator. Simply grading an operator on “talk time” can give a skewed view of their value and actually encourage bad habits. A simple system of values attached to certain priorities give the manager a “score” for each operator that can assist in assigning raises and promotions.
Time logged on
Time logged on can be a very enlightening statistic for call takers. I have often found that call takers that punch in exactly on time rarely log onto their computer sooner than 10 minutes after their shift started. This statistic, along with the others discussed in the call accounting article, is valuable in gauging a call takers overall performance.
Time logged on for a taxicab driver can indicate a variety of problems. If a driver is logged on 24 hours, it may indicate that the driver is driving an unusually long shift or has an unregistered driver. Allowing unregistered drivers to utilize someone else’s logon number can have serious ramifications for the company if the unregistered driver does not meet company standards for safety or criminal history.
This statistic cab be an indicator of a variety of problems, depending on the system configuration. Companies that post a driver last in the queue after a no trip may find that drivers simply “roll” (turn on they off) their meter and post back in the queue upon receipt of a trip. This enables the driver to reestablish their position prior to loading and flat rate the customer, if the trip stays short.
A high percentage of rapid meters may also be an indicator of “trip stacking” (accepting a second or third trip prior to loading the first) and will eventually lead to missed trips, call backs, or simply poor customer service. One of the primary advantages of computerized dispatch is that the car accepting the trip is available to service that trip immediately and efforts to circumvent that advantage should be discouraged.
Flag trips are defined, in the computer dispatch world, as meter activations without a dispatched trip. Tracking flag trips assists the manager in evaluating the actual level of business being handled by the fleet. A driver with a high number of flag trips can be an indicator of a solid driver with a high level of “personals” or simply another indicator of attempts to circumvent the system. When coupled with a high number of no trips or rapid meter trips excessive flag trips can be an indication of trip stacking.
Personals by Operator/Driver
Most computer dispatch systems allow some method of assigning a “personal” (a customer that has requested a specific car or driver) to a specific cab. This is the simplest way for an operator to divert calls to a specific car and should be watched carefully. Sorting personals by operator then car number is an easy way to detect this. It has been my experience that operators will rarely send more than one personal, legitimately, to a specific car in a single shift, depending on the size of the company. Three or more in a single shift is almost unheard of and has consistently been an indicator of collusion between the operator and the driver.
The event log is a compilation of events stored in a single log file for the entire dispatch system. Learning to read, sort and evaluate the system event log is an important to assist in explaining what happened, either to a specific cab or during a specific time period. Determining system, or individual cab, problems can assist the manager in determining if an issue brought forth by a driver was system related or simply an issue with the car’s equipment. Consistent book offs can be identified and may be an indicator of a vehicle’s equipment being out of tune or failing. The event log is very useful in investigating those periodic requests for information from the local police or taxicab authority.
An MDT log is a compilation of events to a specific mobile data terminal. Every transaction with the specific terminal is recorded, including message acknowledgements. The MDT log is a very useful diagnostic tool and can be very informative, especially if it records GPS locations. Reconstructing events using the MDT log can be quite tedious, but learning to read, sort and interpret them can be very useful tool in diagnosing system or behavioral issues.
In conclusion there are a variety of other reports available to the manager to keep their system and company functioning at optimum levels. The attachment of significance to events and behaviors is up to the individual company management. It was always my opinion that providing fair dispatching was critical to driver satisfaction and retention. Believing that they are being cheated can cause serious driver attitude problems, even in the driver cheating. I’m certainly not a psychologist, but it seems to demean the credibility of the company, in the driver’s mind, if poor behavior on their part goes unchallenged. Since there will always be drivers attempting to “get an edge” by endearing themselves the call takers and dispatchers, companies serious about providing fair dispatching should always have a watchdog.
Next issue I will discuss what my “dream system” would be able to do. As always, if you have any questions or comments regarding this or any of my articles you can contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
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A computerized dispatch system can be a huge technological edge. Ideally it would alleviate more problems that it would create, but this is not always the case. Most available systems have been created as a stand alone system that dispatches taxicabs. As an add on software companies have developed modules that will bill account customers, answer the phone, cashier and (in rare cases) provide a maintenance package. Accounting, vehicle repair analysis, driver analysis, parts inventory and claims have never really been options. System integration could easily solve a lot of problems for taxicab companies and afford the opportunity to evaluate various people, parts and machines to determine the profitability of each. This issue we will identify the different components that would assist a taxi company in achieving a higher profitability through system integration.
Of course any discussion of a computerized dispatch system would include taxicab dispatch. Ultimately it would include GPS, IVR, screen pops, easily configurable reports and a fast telephone operator interface.
GPS (Global Positioning System) dispatch is handled in a variety of ways. The method I prefer is mobile data terminal (MDT) decision making. This method allows for reduced radio traffic and real time position assignment of trips. The GPS dispatch should allow for restricted posting zone dispatch, full GPS dispatch or a combination of both, to the desire of the taxi company. Allowing GPS trips to be offered prior to posting, on systems using any type of zone dispatch, affords the value of full GPS at peak business periods and zone dispatch during normal trip volume times.
Interactive Voice Response (IVR) allows for automated call taking for repeat customers. Some systems require the customer to call a separate telephone number, others operate off of the main number. Given the level of today’s technology I see little value in the second number option.
Integration with the telephone system allows for the call taker screen to be populated with the customer information, if the customer has ever called before. This can speed the process of call taking, but has some pitfalls. Automatic saving of the information can allow PBX telephone numbers that may be displayed can provide the operator with false information. The same is true with cell phones. Manual saving of the telephone number solves these issues, but the operator must remember to save them.
A variety of driver, cab, system, and billing should be available to the system manager, with a reasonably easy interface to update old reports or generate new ones. Systems that require new reports to be generated by the software company should be avoided.
Cashiering can be a difficult module for software companies. There are a variety of approaches to the industry in the US and most applications will require customization to each company’s needs. Some system designers like to have one version of software for the ease of maintaining the system. That’s all fine if their method of cashiering is consistent with the taxi company’s needs, if not these systems may create more problems than they solve. Cashiering should be configurable to the needs of the taxi company.
Accounting is a complicated feature for a system and need not be written by the software vendor. Being able to provide necessary data to some of the more common accounting software packages would give the taxi company the flexibility to select the accounting package of their choice. It would be important for the cashier module to be able to interface with the accounting system to avoid costly manual entry. Often companies write their own interfaces which can lead to a lot of finger pointing when a compatibility issue arises. It would be best if the interface was supported by the dispatch software vendor.
Maintenance, like accounting, is an opportunity for the dispatch software vendor to interface with existing fleet management software to achieve the maximum results without reinventing the wheel. Automated notification of required preventative maintenance milestones can prevent a lot of problems and should be included in any interface.
Although most of these features are not typically in a dispatch system, they are all common needs for a taxicab company. The labor required to manually interface various “stand alone” systems is often a large expense that companies don’t recognize. The savings from integrating various systems have led many companies to write their own software interfaces, which they are reluctant to give up. The dispatch software vendors are expanding their offerings to cover this need, but there is much work to be done.
Currently I have a customer that is going through the system selection and installation process and I will follow their progress in the next few articles. If you have any questions regarding this or any other articles please contact me at email@example.com
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With the Liberty Cab project up and running I am now involved in developing a driver training program for a major US city. The city ordinance requires vehicle for hire drivers to attend an “approved” training class so a Request for Proposals was issued. The city had a specific list of training requirements that had to be addressed in the proposal. The requirements went well beyond the usual geography demands, which made it noteworthy. The training class is to be paid for by the driver and all drivers are required to attend the training prior to getting or renewing their vehicle for hire license. A friend, Charles Johnson, and I agreed to bid the contract through his company, Total Contract Solutions. TCS won the bid and we are now in the process of generating the classroom materials specific to that city, but with generic Vehicle for Hire materials also. The specifics of dispatch methods are not included since all of the local companies vary their methods somewhat. The following is the basic outline of the class with a brief description of each section.
Defensive driving, from a professional driver standpoint, is the first section. The concepts of following distance, recognizing potential hazards, traffic law, road rage, distracted driving, the dangers of crossing traffic, and residential neighborhood driving are all discussed. The deviation from the normal defensive driving curriculum is the discussion of being and acting professionally, with the idea that anyone you meet on the highways may be a future customer. Professionalism, courtesy and safety of the passenger and public are stressed throughout.
Drivers are instructed on how to minimize their exposure to dangerous situations, with an eye on how to recognize potential problems. The discussions included in this section are recognizing potential “problem” fares, setting the stage, evaluation of the situation, dealing with a problem, escalating duress codes, developing duress codes, available resources for safety training and information, Cabs on Patrol programs, digital security cameras, Global Positioning Systems (GPS), safety shields, how, why and where to keep your money, the value of those uneasy feelings, the value of eye contact, the perils of crack runs, and the local handgun laws.
The vehicle safety section deals with how and why you want to maintain your vehicle properly in a vehicle for hire business. The items discussed are pre-shift vehicle inspection, city and state vehicle safety requirements, customer perceptions of unsafe vehicles, the driver’s responsibility for maintaining a safe vehicle and those seemingly insignificant details that go un-repaired.
A lot of cities and states do not allow the carrying of concealed weapons so this section would be considerably different from area to area. In this course the North Carolina concealed carry law will be covered. Other topics in this section cover laws against carrying concealed weapons, what can be considered a weapon, why a driver may believe they need to carry a weapon and potential downsides to carrying a weapon.
Knowing the City
The section on knowing the city covers a variety of information important to vehicle for hire drivers and their customers. Visitors attractions cover shopping, entertainment, sports, hotels, motels, restaurants, and other venues are covered, with specific attention the airport loading and unloading procedures. Along with specific attractions there are sections on map reading, back streets, trip planning and knowing your resources to help find addresses and businesses.
The section on driver professionalism expands on the idea of driving professionally to include extending your professional image to your customers. Driver appearance, customer service and satisfaction, assisting customers with disabilities, business management, insurance and understanding the personal vehicle for hire ordinance.
Driver training has become somewhat of a hot button issue in the realm of independent contractor and several companies have found themselves on the wrong side of court judgments as a result of exerting too much control over drivers, including required training. While pre contractual orientation to dispatch procedures and business practices have been generally accepted, required training after a contract has been sign can cause problems. Since the independent contractor drivers in this scenario are being required to take the training by the city, and the training is paid for by the driver, the issue of company control is not a factor. The training is simply a licensing issue. There has been increase in the number of cities requiring approved, third party training over the last few years, including the “Ambassador Course” required by Toronto before a driver can receive an “Ambassador” plate. Cities have become increasingly concerned about the level of knowledge and professionalism their vehicle for hire drivers display, in an independent contractor world, and more are taking steps to see that the driver receives training that will enable them to be successful and present the image the city wishes to display to visitors.
As always you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org regarding this or any of my articles. If you would like more information about setting up a training program you may contact Charles Johnson at email@example.com.
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Vehicle for Hire driver training classes started up last month, with a better than expected driver enthusiasm. The Vehicle for Hire Ordinance requires that all drivers complete the course prior to renewal of driving permits and some resistance was expected from the more experienced drivers. To date the classroom instruction has been well received by the vast majority of drivers attending, including the shuttle and limousine drivers who’s companies initially had reservations as to the value of the class for their drivers.
Lack of Knowledge
The vast majority of class members initially exhibited an extremely poor knowledge of the local ordinance, resulting in $9000 worth of fines being imposed in the two months prior to the class commencing. Although the ordinance is two years old, drivers were being cited for the most basic of requirements. Most were not even aware of the posting requirements for their vehicle and driver permits. Some were in denial of the obvious need for training. Many had no idea that they were independent contractors.
Clearing the air
At the start of each class there is an introduction period, with a general discussion of why the city has decided that all drivers should attend the class and the learning purpose of the class. Focusing on “the city” requiring the class and why removes any potential conflict the drivers may have with me. I am presented as a service provider, not the reason they are attending the class. Generally the “why the city required the class” question ignites a lively discussion and is a great ice breaker.
Developing Classroom participation
Instruction which includes posing questions during lessons is more effective in producing classroom participation and knowledge retention than instruction carried out without questioning students. Especially in the ordinance section, questions regarding the reasoning behind an ordinance section draws the students into the discussion. What the city was trying to achieve with a section helps the students absorb and retain the information the city is concerned with the driver knowing.
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Last year Zingo, a passenger to driver dispatch service, started up in London. Zingo has been heavily marketed in London and claims to have over 1100 drivers involved. Zingo’s service area is currently being expanded nation wide. Installed in the cab, along with the “hands free” mobile phone, is GPS and credit card processing equipment. Zingo has also introduced their own “account card” with monthly billing and “journey records”.
How Zingo works
After dialing, passengers are first connected with Zingo’s Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system – which manages the call for a few seconds while the caller’s location is identified using their mobile phone network’s location-based services (LBS) technology.
The nearest available taxi is identified from the Zingo pool of vehicles. Zingo then automatically connects the passenger to the taxi driver’s hands-free mobile phone.
The passenger then talks directly with the driver – rather than an intermediary call center – to confirm the exact pick-up point.
Zingo has won two awards for their innovation, CNET Networks Technology award for Mobile Technology Product or Initiative of the Year and Mobile Choice Consumer Awards Best Mobile Service. Zingo faced stiff competition from well known companies in receiving the awards.
Trouble in Paradise
Zingo, one of the first examples of how mobile-phone positioning data can be used commercially, has not proven to be as popular as the company had hoped. While they are currently expanding the service to areas around London they have less than 10% of the available London black cabs utilizing their service. By contrast, Computer Cab of London boasts 3700 cabs.
Potentially existing competition could prove to be an issue when a likely expansion into the US market is undertaken. While it could prove valuable in open entry cities like Washington DC, it faces stiff competition from larger companies that have invested heavily in dispatch technologies. It will be a hard sell to companies that have worked hard to establish themselves as the company to use in their area. Another factor not easily recognized in the US markets is the range of quality of the available taxi services. While some companies work hard to maintain their image, others do not and Zingo may have some quality control issues that the London black cab market doesn’t have.
While having one nationwide telephone number to call would make life very convenient for travelers, it’s not a natural fit for the taxi industry, ask 1-800-TAXICAB. Would New York’s Taxi and Limousine Commission allow New York cabs to be connected to the system? Would the New York black car industry be crying foul? Since many dispatch companies have little or no advertising it would be feasible for Zingo to attempt to establish itself in areas that have a large number of independent operators. Pooling these independent operators into a “fleet”, of sorts, would enable them to compete, service time wise, with larger companies that would have little interest in sharing a dispatch service with their competitors. Meanwhile the small time operator would have access to GPS dispatch and customers not previously available.
While larger operators may want to freeze Zingo out, since the companies are providing the service to the driver now, they may end up competing against Zingo for control of their local markets. In the day of independent contractor drivers it will be interesting to see the driver and company reactions to Zingo arriving on the scene. For the driver it’s simply doing the math, does Zingo provide enough business to justify the amount the driver pays them? For the companies it’s a bit tougher issue. Zingo could lead to the company losing it’s individual identity and thereby it’s value to the driver. How long would it be until drivers were demanding individual permits so they could avoid paying the traditional taxicab companies anything?
Is Zingo ready for prime time?
It could very well be. Individual market selection could make the day for Zingo when they attempt to break into the US market. There will most certainly be issues to be overcome, especially since there are few drivers in the US with the level of knowledge and experience of a London black cab driver. That aside, the US taxicab riding public is ready for prompt service. Stories abound from passenger and driver alike about the dispatching process costing time and customers. It will take perseverance and a bucket full of cash to turn the trick, but Zingo has the potential to revolutionize the industry. Now if it came with a built in translator, that would be plus.
If you have any questions regarding this or any of my articles feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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