March 19, 2012

Do Wichita cab drivers need a crash course in customer service?

Taxi drivers often are the first people visitors to Wichita meet, and the city wants to make sure that first impression is a good one.

Taxi drivers often are the first people visitors to Wichita meet, and the city wants to make sure that first impression is a good one.

That’s one reason why the city is reviewing its ordinances for cab companies – which haven’t changed since 1984 – and wants to send cab drivers to customer service classes through Go Wichita, the city’s convention and visitors bureau.

The Wichita City Council will talk about the proposed changes at a workshop Tuesday.

“We certainly hear what I would call a disproportionate amount of complaints in terms of how many people I think probably use a cab,” City Council member Jeff Longwell said.

Visitors arriving at Wichita Mid-Continent Airport sometimes complain, and residents enjoying Old Town sometimes gripe, Longwell said.

“It’s been something that’s been bubbling for a while now,” he said. “We’ve never really addressed it. I think this is our real first attempt to try to address some of those complaints.”

Complaints range and include things like how long it takes to get a cab, smoking in taxis, and the attitude of drivers.

Jan Hiebert, director of visitor services for Go Wichita, said first impressions are crucial.

“We certainly want everyone to have the most positive experience they can,” Hiebert said.

Go Wichita offers quarterly hospitality training courses to its members and has been talking with the city about tailoring the classes for cab drivers.

“We want to be sure that we have the right information, and we can present it in such a manner that the drivers will accept it and run with it,” Hiebert said.

Three cab companies — ABC, American and Best Cabs — serve Wichita. ABC and American have the same owner.

There are about 165 licensed cab drivers in the city, said Brandon McGuire, a public management fellow in the City Manager’s Office. They work in shifts, and about half are on the road at any given time.

McGuire said there were four driving forces for updating the city’s rules.

“There’s a lot of old language and standards that need to be brought up to speed,” he said.

The city also wants to move administrative oversight from Wichita Transit Authority, which operates the city’s bus system, to the city’s finance department.

“That’s to avoid a conflict of interest,” McGuire said.

The city also is seeking better and more professional customer service. The proposed changes would make smoking in a cab illegal and would require drivers to wear a shirt and prohibit them from wearing tank tops.

Asked whether there are drivers who don’t wear shirts when picking up fares, McGuire said, “We hear things.”

A final reason is to try to recoup money the city spends inspecting and licensing cab companies, drivers and taxis.

Some fees would increase. For example, the price of a new license to drive a cab would increase from $7.50 to $15. An annual renewal would increase from $5 to $15.

The city would begin to charge for the background checks it says it conducts on drivers. Those checks are free now but would cost $10 under the proposed changes.

The annual license to operate a cab company would stay the same at $200.

Annual permits for cabs, including inspections of vehicles, would increase from $50 to $100.

The city recovers less than half of what it costs now to regulate cabs, according to briefing material given to City Council members.

“We worked with the owners to work out a fee structure that minimizes the negative impact on them,” McGuire said.

Staff at ABC and American said owner Ted Hill was too busy Monday to discuss the changes.

Timothy Armbrust has managed Best Cabs since 1993. His parents have owned it for almost 20 years, he said.

The proposed changes, he said, “are good for both parties.”

He joked that some of the rules regarding drivers would allow him to “pass the buck” and say, “Hey, it’s not me – it’s the city.”

He said it’s difficult to give too many rules to independent contractors.

“They didn’t leave us out,” he said of the city. “We had our say-so. We arm wrestled a little bit, and I won some and lost some.”

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