Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Roman Cab Ride

The Fear of Open End Pricing & Getting Take For a Ride

Have you ever arrived in a city and worried about the cost of a cab from the airport into town?  Try it in a foreign country where you can't speak the language.  In my case, the foreign country was Italy.

My wife, in-laws, and I left Dallas at 7:00 p.m. and arrived in London the next morning.  After clearing European customs, we spent the next several hours in Heathrow Airport's Terminal 5, which may be the only airport terminal in the world where it's enjoyable to spend a few hours.  Late in the afternoon, we caught a flight for Rome and arrived, wrung out from traveling, at Rome's Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport in the evening. 

Upon arriving, we discovered that the in-laws' 50 pound duffle bag was waiting while our luggage stayed in London, adding frustration to weariness.  We completed the necessary forms with British Air and hit an ATM before figuring out how to get to the apartment we rented for the week.

We planned on taking a taxi to the apartment.  The guidebooks all recommend taxis from the airport to take advantage of the fixed 40 Euro rate for four people and luggage.  By contrast, an airport shuttle to the main train station in Rome costs 11 Euros per person.  Not only is it more expensive, but once you're at the station, it's still necessary to figure out how to navigate the subway and bus system (or take a taxi) to get to your final destination.  As a party of four the cab was a no-brainer.  In fact, I never really considered anything else.

At the cab stand, I learned the flaw in my plan.  The fixed rate was to central Rome only.  The apartment was in a neighborhood located outside of "central" Rome.  When I tried to argue that the apartment was still in Rome, the guy at the cab stand's English started to disappear.  I felt like we were getting played.  Though our apartment was closer to the airport than central Rome, cab stand guy said it was going to cost us more to get there.    

"How much more?" I asked cab stand guy.

He shrugged and held out his hands out to his side as his English suddenly improved.  "Could be 80.  Could be more."

I did some quick math.  At 1.4 Euros to the Dollar that was $112 bucksplus.  Plus how much?  I didn't know.  

"You want a private driver?" cab stand guy asks.  "You save money.  You share a ride."

Cab stand guy motioned to a guy standing beside an unmarked van and engaged him in an fast dialogue, where the apartment's street was mentioned several times.  

Unmarked taxis are not recommended by the guidebooks.  

"Avoid unmarked, unmetered taxis," warns guidebook author, Rick Steves.  "These guys will try to tempt you away from the taxi-stand lineup by offering an immediate (rip-off) ride."

They didn't need to tempt us.  Cab stand guy was doing it for them.

"Quanto?" I asked, showing cab stand guy I memorized a few phrases in Italian.  This was a mistake.

"Cinquantacinque," he said.  I wasn't sure if this was either five, fifteen, fifty, or five hundred.

I switched back to English.  "How much?"


Standing there, wrung out from travel, irritated by the lack of luggage, hungry, and uncertain, I had two choices.  We could take an official taxi that would cost who knows how much or take the unmarked one that cost a flat 55 Euros.

The driver of the unmarked taxi was better dressed and cleaner cut than the taxi drivers.  His van looked in better shape than the official taxis too.  He had an official looking photo ID hanging from a lanyard around his neck.

I bucked the advice of Rick Steves and went with the unmarked car.  We had to wait while he added other passengers heading to a hotel near our apartment, and then he took off.  The guy's driving skills lay somewhere between a NASCAR driver's and a lunatic's, but he got us to the apartment.

After helping take the luggage out of the van, the driver presented a card and offered us a special price of 50 Euros for the return trip.  At the end of the week we took him up on it.  We never even considered another option.

Standing in front of cab stand guy, I was in the same position as most consumers who are standing in front of your field service personnel.  They're anxious.  They're frustrated.  They're worried about getting taken for a ride.

The most reassuring thing you can do is offer them a fixed price.  It takes most of the uncertainty of the unknown away.  This can be complemented with a professional appearance, photo ID badge, and clean, late model service vehicle.  Each is a tangible clue that reassures the consumer about your legitimacy.

Some aspects of the service business are not hard.  Give a price upfront.  Wear uniforms.  Use ID badges.  Take care of your trucks.  Make the customer feel at ease.

Winning a customer's business the first time is the biggest challenge.  Once he's had a good experience with you, it's easier to do business with you again.  However, don't take it for granted.  Like our driver, ask for his business and give him a reason to call you back.  Give the customer a bounce back coupon or other repeat business incentive.

(c) 2011 Matt Michel