Entering the ready mix industry as a dispatcher required a quick ramp up to understand truck drivers. My initial introduction to a truck driver, Billy, left me believing all drivers were like the guy in the picture above. Looking back, I was set up to ride with Billy because he was an extreme case. Low education level. Substance abuse. Few teeth. The logic was if I could work with this guy then I could work with any of the drivers. The short-term effect was I stereotyped all drivers as a Billy.
We had three groups of drivers: union hourly, non-union hourly and owner operators. The drivers were distributed in the groups as follows:
I wasn’t prepared to work with any of them.
I sucked at 10 codes and basic radio chat. I didn’t understand our three driver types and how they were stationed among our dozen plants. Trying to schedule the driver call-in with three different sets of rules seemed impossible. At least one group was always pissed at me. Usually, two. Once in a while, when I was really doing a great job, all three groups would be pissed. I needed to understand what these guys were so upset about to have any hope of improving my relationship with them. I decided to spend early and late hours hanging out at the plants and riding with drivers.
As I spent time with the drivers I found out they came in all shapes, sizes, colors, beliefs and abilities. They weren’t dumb, either. Although they may have taken a different educational path than all of us office people, they were smart guys. I also discovered some other commonalities among the drivers: independence, pride and dedication.
My goal was to find one driver I could build a relationship with from each group. It worked. Quickly. And more effectively than I imagined. As the drivers witnessed me spending extra time in their world they all began talking to me. This experience opened my eyes to the difficult daily task the drivers faced and to the insight they had.
On the difficult side, the drivers were subjected to many decisions that had a big impact on their working lives, yet they had no representation in the process. Many of these decisions added responsibilites to the drivers with little consideration for the effect on the drivers (e.g., signaling units, more boxes to complete on tickets, over trucking jobs, dead heading…the list goes on). Our truck drivers were often the first to clock-in and the last to clock-out.
Regarding our truck drivers’ insight, they had a unique perspective of our customers, the plants and the job sites.
Customers: Our drivers had their own relationships with the people who actually used our product. They chatted with them – even advised them (for better and worse) and had the ability to calm or intensify a customer’s issue.
Plants: The drivers knew which plants loaded fast or slow based on our various mix designs. Who the best batch guys were that could be trusted to put good mud on the truck. And which plants were starting to have mechanical issues and would soon be down.
Job Sites: On the job sites the drivers knew the finishing crews, lab technicians and pump operators. Which neighborhoods had tough spots for a truck and which entrance to use on the large projects. They usually knew when the next big pour was going to happen, too.
Collectively, the drivers have more contact with the actual consumers of ready mix than any other group of people in a ready mix operation. While the finishers and foremen weren’t always the decision makers, they at least influenced the decision on what ready mix company to use. The truck drivers were they main representatives the job sites had for our company. And they had more influence over long-term buying decisions than any of us realized.
Our truck drivers seemed to know everything that was going on everywhere. They could help our hurt the business…but nobody wanted to admit this, much less try to manage it.
Despite their collective influence on our bottom line, drivers were often kept on the fringe of the organization. They were too disruptive to bring into meetings. They wouldn’t add anything worthwhile. How could they? We were all guilty of stereotyping the drivers. Something had to change if we were going to set ourselves apart as a company. After all, we were really more in the trucking business than the ready mix business.
They also had the same basic needs many of us share: being heard, a desire to contribute, and wanting to be treated with respect. Once you understand a person’s needs you can begin to empathize and build a relationship. We couldn’t do this with every individual driver, but we could do this among our three types: union hourly, non-union hourly and owner-operator.
As a start, we began meeting with the driver groups at the plants. Then we invited them into the dispatch office on a regular basis. And we all spent time riding with them. We gave them an opportunity to be heard. Helped them figure out ways to contribute beyond sitting in the truck. We started treating them with respect. Anyone can do what we did to improve your driver morale and their effect on your business.
How To Listen: Acknowledge what is being said, set a deadline and then follow up.
How to help a driver contribute: Ask what else he thinks he can do to make the company successful. Bring representatives into operational meetings, dispatch meetings, pre-pour meetings, and broad-based sales meetings.
Treating with respect: A driver’s truck is his pride. Invest in the equipment. Keep it safe, reliable, and clean. Provide a nice driver’s room. Explain why decisions have been made. Be aware of change management as new initiatives are rolled out or old policies changed.
What I discovered
Building relationships with the truck drivers was critical to our overall success as a company. The drivers, even the union leader, were willing to help once respect was established. All they needed was to be heard for trust to build.
- After about 3 years, the union dissolved. This wasn’t planned. It was a natural progression of how our management-driver relationship improved.
- Customers complimented our drivers
- Job site complaints decreased
- QC issues decreased
- Safety issues decreased
All of these were soft costs. However, they were relevant and had a big impact on our image in the market place and ultimately, a positive impact to the bottom line.
Drivers are a proud group of people. Many of them are modern day knights. Self sacrificial. Most of our accidents were single vehicle because the drivers would risk harming themselves before involving another vehicle. Any person who is willing to behave in this manner – putting himself in harms way to protect a stranger – is a person who can be trusted. Not all drivers were a fit for our company. But we did develop a strong culture among our drivers that lowered turnover and complaints while helping to increase profits. What we built was accidental yet effective. It’s also repeatable.
For the record, this is more along the lines of what our drivers looked like: