Keeping drivers as freight rebounds

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Usually when the trucking industry suffers a downturn, there’s a brief hope that a rebound will bring a seller’s market for transportation services. It never really happens, however, because carriers quickly add trucks to meet growing demand.

The rebound from the current downturn may be different, however. Carriers will find it much harder to add capacity because drivers are much harder to find than they were 10 years ago. Although carriers over the past two years have reported fewer problems finding drivers, the problem of too few drivers entering the industry remains. With demand rising, many fleets are finding themselves once again scrambling to keep their seats full.

So the driver shortage promises to remerge as the No. 1 threat to a carrier’s success. Now is a good time to review what your company’s strategy is for keeping the seats full.

Over the past few years, carriers have tried to improve retention primarily by becoming “driver friendly.” Management believes that drivers leave because carriers are so unfriendly to them. If only the company could get the fleet managers to spend a little more time with the driver, get to know them, and show some empathy, everything will be fine.
Unfortunately, this approach hasn’t really solved the problem. “Driver friendliness” campaigns can help in the short run, but sooner or later people revert back to old habits.

More important, focusing on driver friendliness often ignores the real problem. If you have to wait two hours at a restaurant to get your food, you probably won’t go back regardless of how friendly the waitress was. It is no different for a truck driver who has to wait weeks for resolution of a payroll problem.

Where does your company fall in the retention matrix?

The matrix to the left shows how a carrier is performing for its drivers along two dimensions – driver friendliness and competence. Friendliness includes all those soft touches of being nice to drivers. Competence is taking care of the details that a driver counts on the carrier performing – payroll, load waiting times, accuracy of directions, condition of equipment and so on. Most high retention carriers do well in both dimensions; low retention carriers do poorly in both.

Which quadrant of this matrix does your company fall into? If you are low on both competence and friendliness here are two pieces of advice:

Spend the majority of your efforts on improving competency first. Most of your competency problems probably stem from inaccurate record keeping, overwrought procedures and a lack of training. That’s the bad news. The good news is that all of these problems are solvable, if you are willing to take a fresh approach.

Also, you can preach the need for driver friendliness all day long and win few converts. This is particularly true when people sense that they are not doing a good job. It is hard to be a friendly dispatcher if you feel lost in the job because of a lack of training. As the organization becomes more competent it allows them to become friendlier.

Look at how quickly your organization performs functions. People associate speed with quality. If a restaurant gets food to the table quickly, most customers will overlook that the waitress wasn’t the world’s friendliest.

Measure how long it takes to perform key processes for drivers and then find ways to reduce the time required. A good one to start with is how long it takes to resolve payroll issues. Set a goal of resolving all payroll issues within 24 hours. Once that happens, set the next goal for all problems resolved within 2 hours. If you accomplish that goal, your reputation as a good place to work will start to grow out on the road.

Competence and driver friendliness might not fill all your trucks quickly as you add capacity, but they will make it easier to get them filled once you do.