Business results, crash rates, turnover, tenure (loyalty), and attitudes can be directly affected by how we communicate with drivers and what message we choose to take to them. Even more importantly, their willingness to “step up” and help our companies meet the challenge may be dictated by how well and how sincerely we listen to them.
These interpersonal “soft skills” often get pushed to the side in the urgency of completing schedules, making inspections and completing audits. Merely meeting the technical requirements of managing drivers can only get us so far towards our goal of an effective operation.
When fleets practice a communication plan with their drivers (crews / job site teams, etc.) on a consistent basis, they can recognize benefits like:
- increased loyalty (tenure)
- decreased turnover
- better cooperation between drivers and dispatchers or supervisors
- the potential to convert “whine-ers” into “winners” by changing their attitudes or perceptions
There’s little doubt that trying to make a driver feel like he or she is part of a larger team is a good idea.
While researching this article, I contacted several of our largest clients to ask how they communicate with their drivers. I wanted to learn what they think is important to influence favorable driver retention and what they felt was important to include in a driver communication plan. I also expected that they face the greatest challenges since they have a large number of drivers in many locations (complicating their communication plan), but that they would also have a greater pool of resources available to them. What I learned from them could apply to fleet operations of any size.
A large motor coach fleet with over 300 drivers said;
- “…the quality of the front line supervisory team is essential to the recruitment and retention of drivers. Drivers want to be treated with Dignity & Respect with consideration of their skills. Many “old line” dispatchers can not make “the transition”
- The other thing we all must do better is forget about taking care of the constant whine-ers. As management we can fall into the trap of spending 90% of our time on the 10% of the employees who are never happy. By doing so we ignore the best people and forget to recognize them.
An arborist with thousands of drivers said;
- “…It’s all about focus and not wasting the employee’s time with a bunch of stuff that doesn’t matter. Tell them what matters.”
- “The big question is…what is that?”
One of our key contacts within the insurance industry had recently worked for one of the largest private fleets in the USA. She offered the following comments:
- “Communication with drivers can be challenging and I have found, to be effective, you need to do it frequently by multiple methods.”
- “Periodic meetings – should have some type of recognition for drivers that perform well or made some type of improvement, give drivers updates and provide a brief time for drivers to ask questions. At subsequent meetings, management should have addressed these questions, or be able to give a status of previously submitted suggestions.”
Other clients stressed the need to ensure drivers “feel the love” – that their supervisors and dispatchers “value” the contribution being made by the driver’s consistent job performance. Some of the ideas included: placing notes on drivers windshields for them to find when picking up their equipment, or placing a letter for each day that they are on the road in separate envelops (so that they get a fresh message each morning). Most of our clients stressed that it was important to demonstrate a simple sincerity in exchanging suggestions, concerns and ideas.
The Real Challenge
Drivers are largely isolated from the rest of the company due to the nature of their work. Even those who report to a specific location to start their day, spend the remainder of it on their own.
An author once remarked; “Isolation is a dream killer”. If we substitute the word “goal” for “dream”, it would be easy to see how letting drivers feel isolated could minimize their contributions to revenue, safety or other business goals. At the same time, if managers never attempt to understand what their driver’s goals or dreams may be, the drivers will continue to feel isolated even with an aggressive communication plan.
Every company talks “at” their drivers, but does the “communication plan” extend beyond sending instructions? Tommy Lasorda, the major league baseball coach, once said; “I motivate players through: communication, being honest with them, having them respect and appreciate my ability and my help.” Tommy’s quote didn’t end at clear communications “to” the players, it completes a thought by developing his player’s trust in him by helping them and by demonstrating his abilities to them. He didn’t demand their respect and trust, he took time to earn it.
It can be very difficult to “break the ice” with drivers. They tend to be fiercely independent and “love the freedom of the road”. Is this a defense mechanism for dealing with being alone most of their days? Every driver I’ve ever met loves to talk, complain, or “give suggestions”. I have to wonder whether it’s their intent to incessantly talk or a psychological cry to want to be heard.
My suspicions have been formed from meeting with many commercial fleets to conduct driver training sessions while employed in the insurance industry. Immediately following the training session, I’d be swarmed with drivers asking me to carry messages back to their management team (who were standing less then fifty feet away). Most of these messages focused on trying to improve conditions or make managers aware of perceived injustices. As an “outsider” from the insurance company, they confided that I would be “listened to” by their management team (clearly demonstrating their belief that they would not be heard by their own managers).
A colleague who continues to consult with fleets through his insurance career reminded me of these meetings with the following story. He participated in a driver’s annual dinner and business meeting:
- “Like many companies, they are struggling with turnover. However, one branch has had essentially zero turnover, with very high driver morale.
- At the annual meeting; “…driver after driver, as they received their years-of-service awards, pointed to the branch manager…and they all said the same thing.”
- They said; “…when they go into his office with a question, problem, or concern, they feel they are the most important and most respected person in the world.”
That manager made time to listen to their dreams, concerns, frustrations, and, in turn, he earned the right to get them to listen to his (the company’s). All I’m suggesting is that “communication” will require some key listening along with talking.
Dennis Hall, an Olympian said; “If I teach them nothing else, they will learn about teamwork, we do not leave anyone alone. If we don’t do it together, we don’t do it” Does your management team “leave anyone alone” or do you “do it together” with your drivers as a team?
Check out PART TWO of this discussion. If you’re looking for practical ways to increase the two-way communication, please check out our client networking group on LinkedIn.