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Pandemic inspires upgraded fleet communication

Feb. 1, 2021
Small, large and 3PL fleets agree that one positive benefit from COVID-19 is how fleet managers, drivers, and technicians communicate.

By adapting their communications methods for a remote workforce, fleets are finding at least a sliver of silver lining surrounding the dark cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic. It has led to higher efficiency, strengthened relationships with parts suppliers, and better ways to train and coach drivers and technicians.

That was the recurring theme echoed by three fleets throughout the Heavy Duty Aftermarket Dialogue’s final panel on fleets’ perspectives on parts and service.

The panel included one of North America’s largest private fleets, PepsiCo, represented by Mari Roberts, senior director of transportation for Frito-Lay; the for-hire fleet HUB Group, represented by Gerry Mead, executive vice president of maintenance and equipment; and a fleet of 20 tractors called Quality Transport Co., represented by SVP Amanda Schuier. John Blodgett, vice president of sales and marketing for MacKay & Company, led the discussion, which covered the gamut of COVID-influenced topics.

Blodgett led off by asking what was most surprising about each fleets’ response to the life-altering pandemic. “As a smaller fleet, the pandemic, in one sense, has actually been an opportunity,” Schuier said. “The pandemic has thrust us into a situation where we had to step up to the plate and to improve our technology.”

Quality Transport, based in north-central Illinois, completely overhauled its dispatching software, added trailer tracking, and upgraded its electronic logging device (ELD) hardware, Schuier explained. She had planned to make these changes since she began the role two years ago, but the current environment afforded her the time to kick the plan into “overdrive.”

The ultimate goal was to avoid layoffs at the onset, in which the fleet succeeded. Drivers also embraced the adoption of the new technology, rather than resisting it, Schuier noted. With the vaccines rolling out and a possible recovery in sight, the fleet's focus is staying ahead of the driver shortage.

“It just has so much impact on small fleets and capacity is so tight right now that it definitely has an effect on our fleet operations pretty regularly,” Schuier said.

On the large fleet side, there was little concern about driver layoffs, as Frito-Lay owns a 60% market share and chips were the second most in-demand consumable behind toilet paper over the course of the pandemic. As good drivers are also highly sought, Roberts knew driver enthusiasm was key to keeping up with consumers’ appetites. The strategy was to keep that level of enthusiasm up at all times.

“As long as we take care of the drivers, they'll take care of everything else,” Roberts explained. “So that was probably the biggest thing  just how quickly, how engaged, and how passionate they were to help keep our product moving. We never shut down.”

The end result was record-setting key performance indicators.

“Despite everything going on, we had probably the best PM (preventive maintenance) compliance and the best uptime that we've had,” said Roberts, who also attributed maintenance technicians stepping up and parts availability as integral movers.

Mead pointed out that along with drivers and other essential workers, mechanics behind the scenes deserve equal billing in a “heroic workforce.”

He was surprised his team was able to keep deliveries up “without missing a beat,” while many office workers shifted to working remotely. As such, HUB was forced to switch to virtual training with a live instructor via safe-distanced smart devices and laptops rather than in-person huddles.

“Some virtual training platforms really were better than in-person,” he said. “Because every technician that was there had an upfront view. And when you sit and attend training in a crowd, that guy that's in the back or in the middle doesn't get that upfront hands-on piece.”

Mead noted the techs he’s encountered would rather learn by doing than by reading or watching a video, and this format also allowed each tech to see the trainer handle and manipulate the component up close and in real-time. They could also chime in with questions immediately, rather than watching a video and typing out an email.

“When you have a person you can ask and get feedback from and watch that product live, that is where the learning increases,” Mead said.

Mead implored all fleets to start or continue developing this type of live virtual instruction as truck technology rapidly evolves to include more advanced driver assistance systems and electrification. He also advised all part suppliers to join the e-commerce portal bandwagon.

Some suppliers, he said, still require a phone call with counter workers.

Falling behind on the parts communication side could be detrimental to a supplier’s competitive advantage, as Millennials replace retiring Baby Boomers in these positions.

“They are computer savvy and they prefer to do business by e-commerce,” Mead said.

Mead also found a productivity boost from safe distancing. The parts person began delivering components by cart to each technicians’ workstation to keep them siloed and less likely to contract the coronavirus or spread it.

“We saw an increase in productivity,” Mead said. “So that's something we're going to continue and really develop more in-house to where that parts person can pull up that job and now deliver those parts as they come in and jobs are added.”

Frito-Lay also has started virtual meetings, which are likely to continue after the pandemic subsides.

“A lot of our drivers have a 30-minute or an hour commute, so they don't have to drive all the way in just to go to a meeting,” Roberts said.

And because drivers can attend while on the road during a break or other convenient times, Roberts is seeing increased participation.

As fleets step up and adopt more virtual training techniques, Roberts wants parts suppliers to also evolve.

“These aren't the same trucks as they used to be, and we're not hiring the same mechanics that we used to 20 or 30 years ago,” said Roberts, who mentioned PepsiCo should see its first electric Class 8 trucks on the road by the end of 2021. “It's just a completely different operating model and system.”

Roberts believes the more parts vendors can make training accessible while tying in functionality, such as quick searches, the more beneficial it will be for the fleets.

One of the best attributes of this readily available, easily deployable, and affordable technology is how it democratizes communication. Quality Transport has also begun training technicians virtually and has switched to remote new driver orientation.

“I hope that that sense of community that we've established during this pandemic doesn't go away,” Schuier said. “I've never felt so in tune with our employees as a whole as I do right now.”

About the Author

John Hitch | Editor

John Hitch, based out of Cleveland, Ohio, is the editor of Fleet Maintenance, a B2B magazine that addresses the service needs for all commercial vehicle makes and models (Classes 1-8), ranging from shop management strategies to the latest tools to enhance uptime.

He previously wrote about equipment and fleet operations and management for FleetOwner, and prior to that, manufacturing and advanced technology for IndustryWeek and New Equipment Digest. He is an award-winning journalist and former sonar technician aboard a nuclear-powered submarine.

For tips, questions or comments, email [email protected].

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