Time to Tear Down Those Invisible Walls

Picture your typical terminal.  Dispatch and Operations staff are glued to their computers.  Safety people are trying to determine the best way to implement the latest regulation that is coming down the turnpike.  The driver manager is grumbling out loud about the driver doing the Sheboygan lane being late “yet again”.  And there is your driver, standing behind the half door (that prevents them from entering the office), hoping to get directions to that new customer that she has never delivered to.  She’s witnessing the office whirlwind firsthand, and wondering what is being said about her when she’s out on the road.  She is disconnected. Just after leaving, she speaks with a friend who tells her about how well he is being treated at his new carrier.  Deb likes the runs and the pay where she is, but something is telling her to look at this new place.

We all know that driver retention is an issue – it’s always been one.  Putting drivers in seats is what’s holding a lot of carriers back from growing their business, and taking advantage of one of the best freight markets in decades.  So why do we keep treating drivers differently from the office staff?  Richard Branson has a perspective on human capital that many should adopt, perfectly framed by this quote: “Your employees are your company’s real competitive advantage.  They are the ones making the magic happen – so long as their needs are being met”. Notice he didn’t state some of your employees. A Fast Company article put it this way:

It’s tough to argue with Branson’s logic.  Satisfied employees are simply more productive and more efficient.  They tend to work harder, contribute more and call in sick less.  They feel empowered, appreciated, and are more loyal.  They stick around so companies don’t have to spend as much time and money recruiting and training new workers.  Happy employees also tend to rave about their workplace, which can often attract new talent.  When job seekers are clamoring to work for a company, that company gets to choose the cream of the crop to join the team.  – Fast Company – 06-18-2015

Let’s address something right off the bat – drivers know that they get different treatment.  Follow a few of them on Facebook, if you don’t know what I mean.  Let’s take Driver Appreciation Week as an example.  You will see posts like “driver appreciation week – when the office gets a BBQ and the drivers are out on the road!”.  Some may also have other special events throughout the year that get great attendance from the office but there are only a few drivers who happened to be there.   Others have gotten away from holding golf tournaments or Christmas parties simply because so many of their drivers are on the road and can’t make it.  While this does level the playing field it might be causing the office staff to “blame” the drivers for causing “them to lose something”.

So, what can we do better?  First, individual attention matters.  Stop treating your drivers like they are being a pain.  These are the public faces of your company. So why are you sending out demotivated people to be in front of your customers.  Finding business is not the issue these days. If you have customers that are not ‘driver friendly’, time to put them on notice and take the step in the right direction. Further, drivers get this is a competitive and fast-paced business, but they do want to hear when they do things right, not just get blasted when they mess it up.  Sometimes it might just be that they have spent the last 7 days on the road, and need to have someone listen to them.  While they are part of a team, they still need some personal recognition to make them feel appreciated and that their efforts do make a difference.

Two, leaders set the example.  Make sure that senior managers are spending time on the loading docks, or in the orientation room getting to know your employees.  If you want your operations staff to break down the barriers, you need to be doing similar things.  Just telling people that there is now an open-door policy isn’t enough (everyone says they have an ‘Open Door’ policy, but very few mean it).

One dedicated carrier that I know once landed what was the company’s second largest account doing store delivery milk runs.  The customer was transitioning from using LTL carriers and shipping whenever it was needed to setting up a schedule and lanes that would balance the customer’s need with what a driver could reasonably do in a day.  One thing that the general manager did was send the salesperson in charge of the account out with one of the drivers for the first week’s worth of runs so that they understood exactly what was being asked of these drivers.  This had two major results – one, the manager got to see some of the tight places that they were asking the drivers to squeeze a 53-foot trailer into.  The second was that the carrier now had first hand driver input into the runs and adjusted what equipment we were using for the final deliveries.  Yes, it meant they had to go back to the customer and make some changes, but they now had happy drivers and the result was they only had one driver ask to get off these runs over the three years that the contract ran.

Finally, having physical barriers between drivers and dispatch should be minimized.  To paraphrase Ronald Reagan: “Mister dispatcher, tear down these walls”.  Communication needs to be two ways.  PC Miler might tell you that a certain route is the best, but a veteran driver may look at it and say that a particular state route is great in the summer time, but it becomes treacherous in the winter.  By taking that input and modifying the routes in the winter may add a few miles but reduce accidents and minimize hours of service issues.

Your drivers just want to be treated equitably.  They are on the road a lot so they may not get equal treatment, but it needs to be seen as fair.  Little things like giving a restaurant gift certificate to drivers who were on their runs during the company BBQ or Christmas party, will go a long way towards correcting things.  Consider having company-branded items that are unique to the drivers, or at least get distributed to them first.  Finally, consider having your orientations to include having drivers sit in dispatch and dispatchers going on day runs so that both sides understand what the other must deal with.  A little understanding can go a long, long way.  By getting rid of these differences you should have a more motivated team of drivers, a reduction in turnover and your company spending more time improving your driver force instead of always looking for another new employee.  Drivers are the face of your company to the customers – wouldn’t you rather it be a happy one (or at the very least – content)?

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