Managing drivers as people first

Managing drivers as people first

carriers must go beyond meeting drivers’ financial needs and focus on their needs as people as well. Figuring out what makes them tick and giving them a way to voice complaints and issues without fear of reprisals are key

<i>Brian Helton (left) and Dale Corum (right) stand in front of a Mercer truck owned and operated by husband-and-wife team Jeff

LOUISVILLE, KY. The way Mercer Transportation officials see it, drivers are the lifeblood of any trucking company -- without them, freight doesn’t get moved and money isn’t made. So carriers must go beyond meeting drivers’ financial needs and focus on their needs as people as well. Figuring out what makes them tick and giving them a way to voice complaints and issues without fear of reprisals are key.

“You have to pick up on the subtleties to figure out what works for each driver on a personal level and what doesn’t,” Dale Corum, gm, told FleetOwner.

“The biggest barrier to doing that is communication,” he explained. “We encourage our drivers to talk with their coordinator [the title Mercer gives its dispatchers] to discuss any issues they have. Problem is, most drivers aren’t used to doing that, so it takes time to break that communication barrier down so we can learn, understand and hopefully solve their problems.”

“Drivers by and large are conditioned…not to communicate their issues,” added Brian Helton, contractor-relations manager. “That’s driven by the fear that if they speak frankly with their dispatcher, they may suffer financially – that they won’t get good loads anymore. That’s a valid fear for many of them; that’s happened to them so much in this industry.”

This isn’t “pop psychology” on Mercer’s part, either. Founded in 1977, the company leases 2,000 owner-operators exclusively to haul freight for its customers. The fleet generated $412 million in revenues last year, up 7% from 2005. Mercer’s driver turnover rate was only 32%, a far cry from the 121% average turnover for TL fleets.

The secret to keeping turnover low and revenues up is to not only pay drivers well, but to really get inside their heads and figure out what works best for them. The process starts in operations during driver orientation. In addition to reviewing their equipment and safety record, this is where a candidate’s likes, dislikes and needs are discussed.

“We start talking about their money needs, where they need to run, what their family needs are, what they like to do, hobbies they have, etc.,” explained Corum. “We then try to match up our coordinators to drivers with similar interests. For example, putting former Marines together, or those who follow the same NASCAR drivers, or who like fishing. We try to create that personal connection between coordinators and drivers to make them feel more like teammates than adversaries.”

To ensure that communication with drivers remains strong, last year Mercer created the position of driver liaison. Veteran coordinator Steve Porter is the first person to hold that spot. Porter’s primary job is to stay focused on new drivers for the first 90 days, calling them every couple of weeks to make sure they are getting what they need.

“His job is to see what’s working for them and what’s not, so a new driver doesn’t just get upset and quit,” said Helton. “But he’s not serving just new drivers alone. Any of our contractors can call him up and discuss any issue they have. His role is to be that neutral third party who can take up a driver’s issue and go to bat for them so the driver, dispatch, and operations can keep focused on their jobs.”

Corum said the company introduced the liaison position as way to channel driver issues out of operations to someone who could focus more attention on them. “We wanted to make sure we dedicated time and resources to solving driver issues without slowing down operations,” he said.

This year Mercer hopes to launch a series of 30-minute sessions for each department of the company so that safety, payroll, and other administrative groups can understand how their jobs impact a driver’s life at the company and vice versa.

Corum is a firm believer that such efforts pay off in the long run as well as the short run, pointing to Mercer’s second place award from the Truckload Carrier’s Assn. for having one of the lowest accident rates per million miles in the 100-million-mile-carrier category.

“We, as Mercer, didn’t win that award – our contractors did. They drove every mile of that,” he said. “That’s why we have to appreciate the driver every chance we get and make sure the entire company – not just those parts that are in daily contact with drivers – recognize them for the professionals they are.”

“It’s when you stop worrying about how you treat drivers every day that you end up with 121% turnover,” added Helton. “You can’t get complacent and wait for things to get bad before you fix them.”

To comment on this article, write to Sean Kilcarr at [email protected]

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