Mark of a mature dispatcher

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David Goodson is a management consultant specializing in the transportation industry. E-mail

The shortage of qualified dispatchers is probably greater than that of qualified drivers. How many people want to be in the middle of demanding drivers and customers?

Carriers are casting their nets wider in an effort to find people who want to become dispatchers. Some people enjoy the challenge and variety in dispatch and become “lifers,” but many move on to other jobs after a short tenure. So an operations manager’s No. 1 job often is hiring and training new dispatchers. Carriers can’t afford to use the “sink or swim” method of training; the cost in driver turnover is simply too high.

The industry doesn’t offer much in the way of dispatcher training programs, so I usually recommend a “buddy” system for newcomers. Have the trainee work with a seasoned dispatcher as an assistant for two to three months. This reduces the risk of having rookies make mistakes that damage their credibility with drivers and customers.

When is a newcomer ready to go out on his own? Usually it’s when he demonstrates the ability to make what I term “preemptive calls.”

Suppose that a load a customer tells the carrier is “hot” is due to deliver at noon. It is now 10 a.m., and the truck is still 200 miles away. The dispatcher knows the truck will be at least two to three hours late. Does the dispatcher call the customer?

No one likes to make such a call. The customer probably will be irate and take it out on the messenger. Many dispatchers – even experienced ones – will ignore the situation and hope that somehow the customer will never notice.

If the load is truly hot and the late delivery will disrupt the customer’s operation, you can bet that the customer will call the carrier’s operations manager. If he is also kept in the dark by the dispatcher, he will be on the defensive with the customer from the start of the call. The best he can do is apologize and promise to call the customer back once he ascertains the load’s status.

But a preemptive call by the dispatcher to the customer at 10 a.m. would short-circuit this scenario. By calling the customer rather than waiting for the call, the dispatcher demonstrates control over the situation. The customer might be upset, but at least he has some time to minimize the possible disruption. The customer may still want to talk to the operations manager, but at least the facts are on the table. And the customer probably will be less angry than if he had to call the carrier.

Preemptive calls can avoid problems with drivers as well. Suppose that a dispatcher promises a driver $100 terminal pay in his next check for shagging trailers. The dispatcher then forgets to process the additional funds until pay day rolls around and jogs his memory. But now it’s too late for this pay cycle.

Many dispatchers would simply put it in the next cycle and hope the driver doesn’t notice. If the driver calls to complain, the dispatcher says there must have been a problem in payroll. Now the driver has the impression that payroll isn’t doing its job. They may call payroll or the operations manager to complain. At best, this wastes everyone’s time. At worst, the driver questions the dispatcher’s credibility.

Addressing the problem with the driver immediately can short-circuit this scenario as well. The driver might not be happy, but the dispatcher shows awareness and control over the problem. It’s certainly better than having the driver discover the problem through a short paycheck.

Once a dispatcher learns that facing a disappointed customer or driver on a preemptive call is preferable to watching a disaster unfold, he is ready to strike out on his own. And the operations manager finds himself with far fewer fires to put out.