Owner-driver Brian Barakat has been driving taxis for nearly 30 years. In an era of unprecedented change in the industry, he talks to us about service, success and why he loves his job now more than ever.
Giving a passenger a free ride when they are rude or aggressive may not seem like a smart move to most taxi drivers, but it’s one veteran cabbie Brian Barakat has used on more than one occasion, with surprising results.
Central to Brian’s philosophy – one that has served him well in his long and successful career in the taxi industry – is to treat people with respect. Sometimes, that means doing something extraordinary, even when it might seem undeserved.
“If the passenger is aggressive, you don’t have to be aggressive back,” Brian says.
“If the passenger is aggressive, I just am nice to them or try to change the subject. I’ve even given them a free ride home.”
He tells the story of one customer who accused him, and other drivers, of trying to “rip him off”.
“I said, ‘You don’t have to be aggressive; tell me which way you want to go and let’s go home’. As soon as we arrived I said, ‘Listen mate. Have a lovely evening and enjoy your weekend. But don’t treat taxi drivers the way you treated me.
“He then chucked the $50 on the seat. I said ‘I’ve driven you home for free; I don’t want money. Just don’t treat taxi drivers that way’. He just went quiet, then he said ‘you’re the best driver’.”
It’s a good illustration of the superior level of service Brian offers and why he has enjoyed such a long career to date, including being a Silver Service driver.
He says he started driving in 1988 as a way to make a bit of extra money.
“I had a mortgage to pay off and I was doing a security job and the taxis at the same time,” Brian says.
“I tried for many years to be a Silver Service owner-driver, and then I had the chance last year to do it. It’s a big change from the driver to the owner; it’s a lot of responsibility.
“I’ve got a very nice car and I’m proud of it. And my customers like my car and the way I treat them. They’re happy and I’m happy. It’s my dream come true.”
Brian starts at the Melbourne Airport most days but drives all over the city. He also takes pride in being “very involved” with Melbourne Airport security and staff issues in an unofficial capacity. It’s not surprising Brian’s taxi has no shortage of repeat customers.
“The most important thing is the way you talk to customers. Especially with Silver Service. We need to treat them very well, and [it’s the interaction] between the driver and the passenger that’s important.
“Some people call me regularly and they keep calling me because of the way I treat them and the way I provide my service to them,” Brian says.
Short fares are no problem for Brian, who is adamant it’s all part of the service. In fact, he insists on a similar attitude from his own drivers.
“I had one guy working for me and he only cared about making money for himself, not about my clients. He thought it was a waste of time to drive from Melbourne Airport to the city to pick up a $10 job,” Brian says.
“I said, ‘I don’t care if you’re in Bendigo, you go pick him up, he’s my regular customer’. Unfortunately, I couldn’t have that driver in my group.”
It’s not only respect between drivers and passengers that Brian is passionate about. It’s also vital, he says, for drivers to respect each other. He cites examples of drivers trying to cheat each other out of fares and jump queues, especially at Melbourne Airport, where Brian largely operates from. He is adamant drivers need to unite rather than compete against each other if they are to counteract the effects of ride-hailing on the industry.
“The industry is changing. Uber is here to stay. Now it’s up to the government and the TSC to look after us and make it a level playing field.”
One of the most powerful ways of achieving effective change and encouraging drivers to respect each other is driver training, says Brian.
“We need to educate our drivers. That’s number one. They need to be educated to treat people with respect and not to refuse a fare,” he explains.
“We’re not supposed to be refusing short fares at all. To get customers’ trust back we need to start respecting the passenger and treating them nicely so they will come back to the taxi industry.
Brian says he has no plans to retire from the taxi industry in the near future.
“I’m in the industry to stay until I die,” he laughs. “And the more drivers give me a hard time, I’ll just teach them to be a nice person.”