Recruiting matches drivers to company goals

April 1, 2004
Although trucking executives like to talk about being in a service industry, their companies deal with raw materials just like manufacturers, say Steve

Although trucking executives like to talk about being in a service industry, their companies deal with raw materials just like manufacturers, say Steve Prelipp of Prelipp Consulting and Greg Mechler of The Human Advantage. Both are consultants to truckload carriers, and both say that the primary raw materials in trucking consist of drivers first, followed by freight.

Carriers are becoming much more sophisticated about the freight they seek, the two consultants say. Carriers want freight that fits into the most profitable traffic lanes. They also want freight that has the right amount of labor content, such as no hand unloading. A good example of undesirable freight for many carriers would be a load with high labor content that requires only 750 miles of travel. Not only does such a load require a lot of work, but it also is just long enough to take up two days of equipment and driver time rather than the single day that a shorter length of haul would allow, they say.

The same logic applies to drivers. Carriers need drivers who are a good personal fit to the organization. That is why recruiting is such an important factor. Many carriers spend a great deal of time and resources training field sales personnel, but they put a much lower priority on recruiters. At times, the recruiting department is a storage area for employees who have not been especially productive at their original jobs, the consultants say.

Recruiting as a sales exercise

Recruiting actually requires exceptional sales skills if the recruiters are to attract and retain drivers who are an asset to the company. In the current environment, many carriers say that business is improving and that they have all the freight they can handle. What these carriers are not saying, perhaps because they do not recognize the problem, is that their capacity is driver-limited, the consultants say. More quality drivers would allow most companies to increase the amount of freight handled.

Using the manufacturing analogy for trucking leads to the conclusion that a carrier's product is made in the operations department. Everything else in a motor carrier organization is there to support the drivers and help them succeed.

In general, drivers are fairly easy to keep satisfied as long as a few simple needs are met. A predictable chain of communication is probably the most important factor for driver job satisfaction. Drivers want to know where to go and who to ask questions about their job. Carriers communicate in many ways — remote communication while on the road, newsletters, pay envelope inserts, and through fleet managers. The most important of these is probably the fleet manager. Channeling most communication through a fleet manager gives a driver a consistent relationship and helps to keep drivers from dealing with random sources of information. Obviously drivers will deal with the payroll department and safety as well as other parts of the company, but the best point of contact remains the fleet manager, Mechler and Prelipp say. “Drivers need to know who is looking out for their interests — who is responsible for their performance,” they say.

Give fleet manager authority

A potential problem with making the fleet manager responsible for driver performance is that many companies give the fleet managers little authority other than assigning loads. Authority is as necessary as a change in title. The consultants recommend that the term “dispatcher” be banished from motor carrier vocabulary.

Some carriers like to place a driver advocate in charge of handling driver issues. Often, this official comes out of the safety department. The problem with this organizational structure is the amount of authority given to the driver advocate. If that person does not have the authority to make statements that stick — the authority to override an operational decision — the driver advocate may not make much impact on driver retention.

Driver advocates can result in a somewhat messy organization, Mechler and Prelipp say. This happens because the driver advocate often has to resolve conflicts between drivers and operations. The advocate is supposed to take the side of the drivers, a situation that can lead to conflict with the operations manager. In these conflicts, operations usually wins, they say. Driver advocate tends to be a thankless job, because drivers quickly learn who has the power — their advocate or operations — and begin to pit the two positions against one another.

However, a driver advocate can help communicate with drivers by explaining in detail how decisions made by operations are probably in the best interests of the company. It is a matter of time budgeting, one carrier says. The advocate has the time to talk and explain things while operations may be under too much pressure to take that time away from other issues.

High-performing frontline managers

One solution to the issue of driver communication is for carriers to place their highest performing personnel at the interface between the company and drivers, Mechler and Prelipp say. At the same time, this job, usually that of fleet manager, must be structured so that the manager can influence driver performance and the relationship drivers have with the rest of the company. To make this work, fleet managers must be given the tools to succeed. These tools include a high level of training as well as authority to make most of the decisions that affect drivers directly.

This creates a clearly defined structure so that drivers understand where to go for information. A clear structure also helps operations personnel, because simple lines of authority give company executives a tool to measure personal and departmental success. The two consultants suggest that carriers should leave the authority to handle driver issues in the operations department. The solution to problems may be to move more resources into operations to relieve some of the pressure cooker atmosphere.

Recruiting is a tough job, particularly, because many recruiters do not have a clear idea of what the company wants. They don't know the company that well; they don't know operations; they don't know what management is looking for, but they do know that they are expected to have a big class for orientation starting on Monday, Mechler and Prelipp say. Filling an orientation class is not enough for a company that wants to improve its retention performance and cut the cost of recruiting drivers. The best recruiters usually are people who come out of the operations department, because they know what the driving job is really like.

Recruiting equals selling

At the most basic level, recruiters are selling the business. They need to have a basic understanding of what drivers will face as a part of a truckload carrier operation. They need to have a planned sales process that attracts the applicant to the company, Mechler and Prelipp say. An effective recruiter focuses completely on the caller one at a time. They do not multi-task, talking to an applicant while working on other projects. Recognizing that recruiting is a sales process, a good recruiter spends as much time with each applicant as it takes to work through the interview process. In particular, an effective recruiter asks questions that are centered on the applicant. In the end, a good recruiter matches the company program to the expressed needs of a driver applicant. When the company and the applicant seek the same results, improved retention becomes a likely outcome.

Building a company that is attractive to drivers means molding an organization that accepts change. In trucking, this is difficult, because no two operations are the same. The principles involved are the same from company to company, but the differences between carriers prevent a simple, cookie-cutter solution.

Changing a company requires a plan that provides a clear picture of the goal and a definition of the factors that define success. Making the plan work requires adhering to a predetermined process. The process needs to make the roles of each part of the company clear. This includes everybody in the company from the drivers to the administrators all the way up to the executives. It is critical to take the time necessary to lay out the process for the whole program.

Plan first, change second

One of the problems with planning a major change within a motor carrier is that trucking companies have a tendency to try to do things too fast. The result is often superficial, Mechler and Prelipp say. A better solution is to spend more time at the beginning to define the goals and planning the process. This will give them a much better chance of reaching the goals. Perhaps more importantly, taking the time to plan and explain the process may keep the program from starting and stopping while adjustments are made, they say.

It's important to remember that change doesn't happen unless it is accompanied by discomfort. Organizations may know that change is required. They may know the goal and how to get there, but if people in the organization are comfortable with the way things are, actual change is unlikely. This is where the role of upper management becomes critical, Mechler and Prelipp say. At this point, executives must introduce enough discomfort into the business that change takes place as a way of alleviating the pain. Essentially, managers must use discomfort to make the case that failure to change is not an option. However, the total cost of change must be less than the combination of the reason for change, the process required to make the change, and the pain required to implement change, they say.

As the process of change progresses, managers must provide reinforcement to ensure that it continues. Some managers prefer to use positive reinforcement, while others take the easier way out by using negative reinforcement — basically threats. “Positive reinforcement maximizes performance; however, negative reinforcement generates a level of performance that is just good enough to get by,” Mechler and Prelipp say. “Negative reinforcement is the best way to achieve quick results, but those results are usually short-lived. People will do what is necessary to stay out of trouble. The problem is that the results of negative reinforcement are much less than can be achieved with positive reinforcement. Workers who want to do something will make bigger changes than those who are forced to do something.”

Make orientation positive

Most trucking company orientation sessions for new drivers provide a good example of negative reinforcement. Usually, orientation is built around negatives. Probably the first part of most orientation involves the regulatory environment of trucking, Mechler and Prelipp say. After covering the regulations, most orientation sessions move to a discussion of all the reasons a driver can be fired.

A more positive approach would be to provide a welcoming message about the company and its goals. New drivers should get a positive message from orientation. The company has gone to a lot of trouble and spent a lot of money to hire them. If the new drivers are not wanted, the company should not have hired them in the first place, the consultants says. Drivers are needed; they've been hired; they should be made to feel wanted and needed, Mechler and Prelipp say.

At the same time, orientation must present a bluntly honest picture of the basic job drivers will be asked to perform. It must cover the pay issue in a realistic way, giving drivers an actual example of what they can expect to earn rather than describing a best-case scenario. Drivers need a realistic idea of how often they can expect to be home. They need to know what sort of equipment they will be operating, and they should get a description of the work required from them. If they will be responsible for a lot of loading and unloading, they should know that from the first. Essentially, orientation needs to give drivers a picture of what it is really like to work for the company. One of the best things an orientation session can do is to address the company's reputation. Managers should make it a point to learn what drivers think of their company and address that truckstop buzz as a part of the orientation, Mechler and Prelipp say.

Give drivers consistency

Where drivers are concerned, the barriers to change always have to do with people, Mechler and Prelipp say. One way to solve the problem is training that ensures that every fleet manager does the job in the same way as the manager seated at the next desk. A benefit of this training is that fleet managers learn that they actually have more time to listen to driver discussions than they think.

The time a fleet manager spends with a driver as well as the time the manager spends working for a driver becomes a matter of trust. If a fleet manager promises to check on a problem for a driver but never provides a response, the driver's trust in the fleet manager usually disappears. Good fleet managers organize their workload in a way that allows them to follow through on promises to drivers. “A promise without follow-through can end a driver/manager relationship,” the consultants say.

Drivers usually deal with two overriding issues — getting assigned to loads that cover enough miles to generate an adequate level of income and routing that gets them home on a regular basis. At least one large refrigerated carrier suggests that the best solution to driver retention problems is to reduce the number of drivers handled by an individual fleet manager so that managers have the time to be true driver advocates. This approach shows promise, the consultants say, because fleet managers are in the best position to influence the miles a driver runs for pay and when the driver gets home.

Technology breaks personal bonds

The advent of advanced technology has allowed carriers, inadvertently, to break the personal relationships with drivers. Some companies actually have a policy that requires drivers to use the satellite communication system to get messages to fleet managers. These companies do not want drivers and fleet managers to spend time on the telephone. Such a policy breaks one of the only personal bonds that most drivers have with their company, they say.

Getting rid of the term “dispatcher” can go a long way toward rebuilding trust between drivers and managers. Dispatching a load implies a one-way conversation, Mechler and Prelipp say. Once instructions have been given to the driver, the dispatcher's job is finished. A fleet manager has more to do, just as the title implies. The job is to manage driver performance and produce positive results for the company and the driver.

Improving fleet manager performance sometimes is a matter of organization. Like most operations personnel, fleet managers like to solve problems. They tend to react, to be fire fighters more than planners and managers. Teaching fleet managers to plan and to deal with driver issues in a calm, consistent manner can go a long way toward improving driver retention, the two consultants say.

For more information, contact Gregory Mechler, senior partner, The Human Advantage, Plano, Texas, 972-618-0520 or Steve Prelipp, president, Prelipp Consulting, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 919-933-9107.

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