It is known to all seasoned transportation providers that there are numerous elements between booking and billing which are vital to success in our industry. A seemingly innocuous component I never realized played a major role in day to day operations is the driver wake-up process: the action plans, fail-safe mechanisms, and dynamic protocols that make up what some call “driver wake-up science.”
In Chicago, just west of Wrigley field, I had the opportunity to spend some time with Richard Ramis who operates AYS Dispatch, a small nondescript office operating 24 hours per day with a staff of 11 dispatchers/operators servicing ground transportation companies in 16 states. It was there I observed the work of a few dispatchers and their techniques in handling a mind boggling 10,000 wake-ups monthly.
Formed in 1989, AYS Dispatch is the oldest answering service company in the country devoted to ground transportation providers. Although this service, like their competitors, attempt’s to emulate the sound, feel, and performance of their clientele, Richard claims that the wake-up process is the core of what he has built his business success on.
I explained to Richard that I had no idea this was such a vital process — I have long assumed it is the driver’s obligation to wake up no differently than any other employee going to work or a student going to school. Richard interjected and made his point clear: “If it is the driver’s obligation, and if the driver pawns off the responsibility to his $18.00 alarm clock, then you just gambled your life’s investment for $18.00.”
He continued: “Truth be told, we do not perform wake-up calls. We try not to use that terminology. Professional drivers feel demeaned by that language. When we call a driver we will say ‘Good morning, just double checking.’ ” By confirming that the driver is awake the chance of a service failure drops dramatically, and after that every instance of contact only further decreases that chance. After all of these years I can’t prove that a client lost a major account due to one over sleeper, but I can confirm that an over sleeper incident has been the straw that broke the camel’s back in companies losing accounts several times over.
“Not all wake-ups calls are routine outbound calls. Roughly 25% of our drivers will call in advance to confirm they are up and good to go for their order. Some do it so we do not bother their families or significant others, some call in because they will be in the shower when the call is due. Drivers also have the option of texting their wake status, emailing, phone call or Nextel radio — it is important for drivers to have options to fit their specific needs and requirements — we strive to be flexible. We even have several clients that request for us to wake their passengers as a value added service.”
“As a default rule we wake a driver one hour prior to their first order; however, an increasing percentage of drivers and/or office dispatchers call in to have their wake-up time customized. Although they still may call in advance of their time to cancel, these customized wake-ups are usually due to logistical complications such as distance to their first order or travel time to pick up a vehicle. Each situation is unique and we are always happy to accommodate our customer’s needs.”
Richard went on to explain a few specific wake-up processes: “A popular wake scenario we perform is what we refer to as ‘The Babysitter,’ where, for example, a driver has a 6:18 AM inbound at EWR from LAX, lives only 15 minutes away, and and has the vehicle at home, and the driver or office will advise that we should call them 30 minutes before the flight arrives. In this case we monitor the flight’s progress in order to ensure that the driver receives the maximum amount of rest as possible. First, we check for proper departure/arrival time and date compared to the reservation on every order. Once confirmed, we monitor the aircraft until departure. The next phase is an intervallic monitoring every 15–30 minutes during the majority of the flight, and then in the final portion of the flight we make slight adjustments after every waypoint to take the jet stream into consideration. Again, in this case we want to allow the most amount of rest for the driver as possible.
“Another common wake is the ‘Combo,’ this is when the wake-up coincides with a directive. The wake-up is highlighted so when contact with the chauffeur is made, we know to give the message or confirm they received one electronically while they slept. Typically, these include time changes to assigned orders, new reservations being assigned, vehicle designation changes, confirming booker specific requests such as signage, water and a newspaper, or car seats needed.
“A more complex issue is the “What If” scenario. This occurs when we have to change a directive based on the result of another action. For instance, an office when closing may say that a passenger that was due in this evening at ORD from SFO, but the flight is severely delayed and may cancel, so the passenger is trying to switch flights to arrive between 5:30 AM to 7:00 AM. If earlier, give to Car #1 who is heading to the airport with an outbound, or if it arrives later, give it to Car #2 or even the morning dispatcher.
“Another possible iteration of the same scenario would be if there are multiple drivers with an outbound heading to ORD with similar ETA’s, we will advise all of them to arrive at the first pickup a little earlier. If they clear first, they can have the inbound. Routine rotation, first come, first served.
“When an early morning order changes overnight, an otherwise quiet night can suddenly leave morning dispatchers scrambling to cover orders if there are no safeguards in place. Many of our clients provide us with a schedule of on call drivers for this exact reason. We can handle reassignment on their behalf in the calm of the night rather than leaving it to be dealt with in the midst of the AM rush of orders. Some providers even authorize us to contact sub-contractors or authorized national operators. The reality is, despite all of our preparations, nothing can safeguard against a cell phone being turned off, a business line continuously ringing or going to voicemail, a cellular provider going down, power outages, or the eventual VoIP or local ISP issues we all experience.”
It was quickly becoming clear to me that there was far more to “wake-up science” than I had ever considered. I asked Richard what some of the biggest challenges he faces on a day to day basis: “Where things get frustrating is the scores of drivers who sleep with phones off and wake up at a pre-planned time. When they finally call in, they find out that we have been trying to reach them for over an hour to let them know their order cancelled and that we had a new order for them that was 20 minutes earlier; however, since contact could not be made, we have assigned the new order to another driver. These affairs happen on a near weekly basis, where time critical directives need to be delivered to someone who is unreachable, and the applicable window of notification has expired. One of our forward-thinking clients actually included a clause in their driver and farm out agreement that stated that one must have their phone or device on a minimum of 3 hours before each order. The real bottom line, the wake-up should always be timed as such to allow the house to cover the order if necessary.”
Open lines of communication are absolutely crucial to Richard’s operation. “It is my opinion that every driver should have at least two cell phones of different make and model on differing cellular services that are not reliant on the same power source to charge at night. Even then it seems that maybe the next big 80’s reboot should be the pager. As for providers themselves, not only should your office be wired with multiple ISP’s, separate VoIP carriers, and/or good old copper wired POTS lines, but even vehicles should have more than one form of GPS. The overall idea being that crisis management cannot be done effectively without secondary redundancies.
There are no valid reasons for any driver or provider to not have a 24/7 open line of communication.
“It is important for drivers to understand that the wake-up process is not in place due to a trust issue with them personally, it is simply an internal safeguard to ensure that coverage can be provided in the event of an issue. We encourage all operators to endorse these practices and recommend advising your affiliates you adhere to these guidelines. Perhaps a simple recommendation from a colleague is all it takes for some small operation to elevate themselves to the next level.”
I posed a simple question to Richard: what happens when a driver doesn’t answer their phone? “We initialize our action plans and the clock starts ticking. The first thing we do is confirm the wake-up was scheduled correctly based on the reservation info. Next, we reference GPS to check on vehicle status. After that we try backup phone numbers until exhausting all options, sending an SMS text message to their cell phone, emailing them, hitting them on their Nextel if available. Anything we can, really. We once even messaged a driver’s teenage son on Facebook asking if he could wake up his dad. Guess what? It worked! If all options at our disposal fail then we reach out to a Manager-On-Duty for assistance. When we do eventually make contact with the driver we will inquire about an alternative back-up number(s) or an emergency contact to reach in case the issue happens again. On a day to day basis we typically connect with 99% of our wake-ups. The outliers who repeatedly do not answer don’t tend to last long.”
Richard elaborated on a couple of other challenging aspect’s of his business: “A common question that comes up is if we take a change on a reservation when is the proper time to deliver said message. If all drivers were always reachable there would be no issue, but all drivers think and react differently. A few clients request that reservation changes be delivered to drivers as they come in. While we always try to accommodate our client’s requests, we also take into account the driver’s best interest. No one wants to wake a driver just to put him back to sleep. Also, messages given to a half-asleep individual are significantly less likely to be accurately retained. The key is balance, getting to know the drivers, understanding their modus operandi, and doing what is most effective for them individually.
“Every spring and autumn Daylight Savings Time also provides a unique set of challenges. There are, quite frankly, a small percentage of drivers that just don’t get it — and that is not even considering the passengers that can add to the confusion. The fall time change back one hour is inherently less risky since the worst that can happen is a driver wakes up or arrives an hour early. The spring time change forward one hour, on the other hand, is dreaded among many in the industry.
“Since our business operates in various states in all contiguous time zones of the U.S., each seasonal variation offers its own unique puzzles. On those days we dedicate a dispatcher to being a time translator for wake-ups (which we process in the Central Time Zone) making adjustments on the go as we approach 2:00 AM in four time zones. On a side note, every company should review their orders days before the change in November or March and clarify or reschedule orders between 1:00 AM and 3:00 AM in order to avoid confusion. Nothing worse than a driver showing up at 1:45 AM for a 2:00 AM, only to have the clock jump back to 1:00 AM just minutes later. On the March time change don’t book anything in the 2:00 AM hour, it literally will not exist that day.”
When I asked about his thoughts on the outsource dispatch industry at large, he had mixed views, “We can’t be all things to all people. I believe it is hard enough for operators to get 100% out of their own in-house staff. If you think you can replace them with an outsourced solution during primetime hours for twenty cents on the retail dollar you are fooling yourself.
“With a few exceptions, we primarily operate late second shift, all 3rd shift and partial early AM shifts. During this period of time we not only act as the company’s dispatcher, but as a reminder to their clients and customers that even though they are welcome to utilize technology to book online or via email or on their phone, they always have the option of a friendly interaction with a live customer service agent dedicated to their needs in the middle of the night.”
Lastly, I asked Richard what his most dreaded wake ups are. With a big grin he explains, “We have approximately a dozen drivers who wear sleep apnea masks”.