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March 2008 (A)

So here we are, coming off an exciting and extraordinarily active year, and the first thing we do in January of 2008 is begin one of the most ambitious undercover initiatives the TLC has ever known!  For those who have not been following the media coverage that this program has inspired, the TLC launched Operation: Secret Rider on January 23 to applause from the riding public, as well as most taxi drivers.

Here’s what it is all about…..the philosophy is relatively simple.  The TLC has done many “big” things over the years to improve customer service, most notably the new technology that was promised passengers back in 2004 and has now been realized and is already installed in almost 70% of all taxicabs.  Now, I am thinking, it is time to change the view from “macro” to “micro” and get back to some basics.

In 1996, the TLC instituted a Taxi Rider’s Bill of Rights, a document that, for the very first time, reinforced the fact that passengers should expect a basic level of service that, if not provided, could lead to complaints as well as well as a loss of tips.  It was revolutionary, and it was emulated in cities around the world.  Most recently, a top airline borrowed the concept.  We decided it was time to enforce the Taxi Rider’s Bill of Rights in a way that borrows a page from the retail industry’s successful “secret shopper” concept.  In a “secret shopper” program, professionals simulating ordinary shoppers test salespeople and cashiers for their knowledge, their courtesy and their overall helpfulness.  Like the retail industry, the taxi industry is a service industry, and so it is an apt analogy to go undercover to test drivers in a similar way for the things that matter to their own customers……most notably, we will be testing for courtesy, allowing passengers to use their credit and debit cards hassle-free, and not using a cell phone (hands-free OR hand-held).

As mentioned above, we call this effort Operation: Secret Rider.

I want to be very clear, however, in stating my belief that our taxicab drivers are simply the best in the world.  To say that driving a taxicab is a difficult profession does not really do justice to the challenge it represents, yet I have met literally thousands of drivers who do it while projecting honesty, integrity, positivity, and even a smile for every passenger right up to their last pickup of the day or night.  This Operation isn’t about penalizing drivers.  Rather, it is about giving drivers a tool that they can use constructively to enhance the riding public’s confidence in them.  Remember, it is the riding public that is paying drivers’ bills and putting food on their tables…..maintaining and enhancing the public’s confidence in the taxi industry is a win-win for everybody.  Those bad apples that have been the subject of a number of news articles lately, refusing to take credit cards, even allegedly assaulting a passenger in one instance, may have already cost the industry some riders.  Operation: Secret Rider is an opportunity to win them back, and as anyone that is successful in business will tell you, opportunities don’t come along every day!

So, how does Operation: Secret Rider work?  Very simply, an officer, or teams of two, three and four officers (just to mix things up!) will hail a taxicab and give the driver a destination….usually a short distance away.  During the trip, officers will be following the whole checklist of items that represents the level of service that the Bill of Rights guarantees, such as those listed above, and others like the functionality of the seat belts, the cleanliness of the cab and many others.  Drivers will be paid for the rides, and those that pass the test will even receive a tip from the TLC!  Those who do not pass will get a certificate of their own, soon to be followed with appropriate summonses.

The concept gelled in my mind after several negative experiences I myself had months ago when several drivers would not allow me to use my own credit card for a ride.  Of course, as the readers of this column know, I was far from alone in experiencing this problem.  But as I have told the media, and reinforced above, I know that this problem is limited to a relatively small number of drivers, and that the vast majority are doing an outstanding job of serving the public.  That is precisely why our officers are instructed to look for the good as much they do for the bad.  In other words, drivers who pass their “tests” and who provide exemplary service will receive a certificate, and will be considered for inclusion in the TLC’s annual Driver Recognition Ceremony, where drivers have the opportunity to win fabulous prizes such as hotel stays, dinners at top restaurants, and much more.

While I was pleased to see that the media has found a refreshingly significant number of drivers who have acclimated so successfully to the credit card requirement that they have told reporters they actually prefer plastic to cash, I know there are those who still disagree with our actions in requiring the new technology almost four years ago.  Other drivers who were interviewed echoed the opinion of many passengers, saying “if they are doing everything right, they have nothing to worry about!”  In any event, however, credit card convenience is something the public has asked for, deserves, and is now the law.

For the time being, I have devoted the TLC’s entire enforcement complement to Operation: Secret Rider.  I will gladly share with you all my optimism that this undercover initiative will strike a chord in the industry, and make it very clear to drivers that they must give passengers their undivided attention and focus.  Spread the word!

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