Given that first-rate driving skills are table stakes for a job at Commonwealth Worldwide Chauffeured Transportation, I can't imagine how Brett Tyler intends to fill 40 hours with new-hire orientation. But the company's training chief assures me that he needs at least a week to bring each class of new chauffeurs up to Commonwealth snuff -- and will count on more advanced and reinforcement classes down the road to keep them there.
An hour into my day of training, I believe him. For a full 15 minutes, we have been talking about pickups. Well, actually, airport pickups. Well, actually, the signs chauffeurs hold up at airport pickups. Among other things, we have learned exactly how to hold the sign for maximum visibility.
We have learned to carry a briefcase in which to store the sign rather than fold it up and tuck it in a pocket. We have learned not to throw the sign away in front of the client. We have learned the trick of holding the sign against a clipboard so it doesn't flutter in the wind. And we have learned to include only the client's last name on the sign. (A scam artist will occasionally try to cadge a free ride by claiming to be Mr. Wilberforce. The driver can check the client's identity by requesting his first name.)
"Make sure you only use black markers," says Joe Rucker, director of driver services, as he paces in front of the room. "No colors. No rainbows. And make sure you always dot your Is and close your Os. You go to airport all the time and see people who couldn't bother to close up their Os. That's sloppy. It shows you don't respect the customer."
The 11 men in my class are impeccably dressed in dark suits and ties; I have offered to bring my own cap but Commonwealth, apparently, doesn't use them.
The new chauffeurs, many of which have cab or limo experience, are full of good ideas. One describes how he always backs into driveways rather than risk rattling a customer by backing out. And although the drivers hail from many places -- Morocco, Honduras, Nigeria, Puerto Rico -- they all speak perfect English. "People think an ethnically diverse workforce means communication is going to be a problem, but that isn't necessarily so," Rutter tells me later.
Now I haven't been in many limousines (hear that, accounting department at Inc.?) but those I have taken never offered anything like the experience Tyler and Rucker are describing. No driver has ever placed his hand flat beneath the door frame to prevent me from bumping my head. None has ever opened the trunk after a hotel doorman shut it and checked with me that the correct number of suitcases has been stored. None has ever asked me if I cared to make any stops on the way to my destination. None has ever offered me a venti Americano with an extra shot.
Tyler is explaining the importance of never initiating a conversation with a client. I am reminded of the sedan driver I met once in New York who spent the whole ride asking me in a heavy Schwarzenegger accent whether various people I knew thought they were "big shots" and repeatedly plying me with Tic Tacs.
Toward the end of the afternoon Tyler, Rucker, and some other managers assemble a car from four chairs and an overturned box and run the students through scenarios with difficult clients. I watch as the recruits struggle gamely to accommodate a group of five people confident they can squeeze into three seats and a man who insists on taking the worst possible route downtown. "Well, there were a few problems there," Rucker says to a trainee after one clumsy effort. "But, boy, you never stopped smiling. I love that you never stopped smiling."