Truck News


In Search of the Right Man in the Middle

More than just mouthpiece and headset, the dispatcher is the primary link to your drivers and customers -- a voice of reason when customers need an update on the status of their loads; a sympathetic e...

More than just mouthpiece and headset, the dispatcher is the primary link to your drivers and customers — a voice of reason when customers need an update on the status of their loads; a sympathetic ear when drivers need moral support.

As well, good dispatchers can play a major role in driver retention, and though job experience and knowledge of the industry are of paramount importance, personality and the soft skills, such as the ability to communicate, make for decisive factors when you are evaluating a candidate for the dispatch position.

So what does it take to recruit, and retain, the right dispatcher?

Determine the role your dispatcher will play.

First of all, it helps to have a well-defined set of job responsibilities. Dispatchers frequently complain that they are under a lot of stress and are overwhelmed by the tasks they are performing. Much of this stress results from the fact that dispatchers often juggle the tasks of customer service specialist, planner, and driver manager, among others. And many feel that the dispatcher’s role has indeed become more stressful as carriers have moved to provide JIT transport and a competitive edge in customer service.

In fact, Cerno Research, which a couple of years ago started tackling the issue of compensation in the trucking industry, suggests trucking’s high turnover rates may be at least partially attributable to dispatch turnover. Stephen Harrington, special projects director with Cerno Research, says he will look at dispatcher turnover separately and examine this position in further detail in the upcoming 2002 Trucking Operations Compensation & Benefits Reports.

According to Marg Matthews, a human resources specialist with Erb Transport, what any study of dispatchers will reveal is a job role undergoing a great deal of change.

“I think the dispatcher role has changed. As a dispatcher, you’ve got to try to explain the big picture to the driver. The dispatcher has to both understand the lifestyle and negotiate a win-win scenario for the customer. Dispatchers must also have an understanding of legal matters. There’s often some perception on the drivers’ part of the dispatcher not understanding, especially on issues like hours of service, logbooks. (And then there’s) the needs of the customers and helping them understand that sometimes, we can’t legally do this,” says Matthews.

To solve the problem of dispatcher task overload, some companies, such as Challenger Motor Freight, have made a distinction between ‘planners’ and ‘driver managers’ who work together to perform the dispatch function.

“We don’t call people dispatchers. You’ll hear this term more often in a smaller company though. Our planners plan the trucks’ routings and ensure the equipment is well utilized, while the driver managers ensure that the team of drivers is being treated fairly. These two positions coordinate greatly on driver allocation of jobs/miles,”says Sylvia Bordignon, CHRP, human resources manager at Challenger Motor Freight.

Bordignon says this approach ensures a smoother operation for the fleet and allows the planners and driver managers to concentrate on their core competencies.

“It’s role-clarity. In the past, you had a lot of people (or too few) scrambling to do a lot of things.”

Bordignon says that recruitment for the planner role typically comes from promotion within the company, usually from the driver manager role.

“If I was to hire a driver manager I’m looking for a really good communicator, a well organized individual who can also write and speak well and deal with other departments such as customer service as well as the 45-55 other personalities and nationalities working as drivers. The driver manager has to be a good problem solver with honesty and integrity. It’s up to the driver manager to communicate all issues to the driver and also to communicate with the planner on that driver’s HOS issues, for example,” she says. “A planner, meanwhile, is expert at putting the puzzle together, and thinking outside the box. Planners tend to be more senior people and this position is probably classed as a higher position in terms of pay and skill. They also have a lot more communication with the customers,” Bordignon adds.

Whom you recruit will depend on how you recruit.

The trucking industry has been experiencing a shortage of drivers for some time, and a bad driver-dispatcher relationship is one of the main reasons for driver resignations. Not to mention that trucking companies seeking a competitive edge must concentrate more on client relations.

Linda Gauthier, who heads the Canadian Trucking Human Resources Council (CTHRC), says a driver once commented to her that his dispatcher was the only thing keeping him from quitting, because he knew when to pull the driver off the long hauls. Yet too few carriers, says Gauthier, are seeking out professional help when they hire, and may be missing the boat when it comes to hiring a dispatcher that will look out for both the driver and the fleet.

“We found that no more than 20 per cent of trucking companies had a human resources specialist,” says Gauthier. “Hiring people is a skill and there is an expertise behind it. There are companies out there that can help you, as well as tests you can use. Interpersonal skills have become key issues today. You have to be a people person to work in these positions. I think as a company you’ve got to start looking at aptitude and attitude tests. Any of the companies specializing in human resources can give you lots of resources in these areas,” she says.

In 1999, the Canadian Trucking Human Resources Council produced a document entitled Report on a National Occupational Analysis Validation and an Essential Skills Profile for Dispatchers.

Gauthier says that this is a useful tool during recruitment, especially if carriers refer to the DACUM chart, which lists skills and attributes that are desirable for the dispatcher to have, and a list of tasks that will demonstrate to the prospective employer where that candidate’s experience lies.

“One thing I’d recommend is if the carrier has the booklet there are assessment tools within. You can’t just count on your gut feeling during the interview. Carriers have used it so that candidates can check off tasks under which they had experience. Normally you’ll present a generic job description to prospective employees. Although not every company assigns the same tasks to the dispatcher they can evaluate the candidate based on actual job tasks that person has experience in,” says Gauthier.

At Challenger Motor Freight, says Bordignon, they also make use of behavioural techniques at the interview, such as the Hogan Personality Inventory that predicts behaviour.

It also helps to see dispatch as a function within the organization, not just a title, says Gauthier.

“Often, many employees work together and seem to have responsibilities under the dispatch umbrella. So the (DACUM) chart proves valuable in assigning tasks and responsibilities,” she says.

Demand a well-trained dispatcher

but be prepared to give that training.

Some companies will hire former drivers as dispatchers or driver managers. Some will look outside the company to bring in candidates skilled at computer work and planning. But it seems too few have a system in place to make sure these dispatchers are well trained in all the tasks they will be expected to perform.

“Many dispatchers have said there’s very little training for them apart from one-day orientations and then they’re to ‘go to it.’ But one of the difficulties with ongoing training is the availability of materials,” says Gauthier. “Companies either have to put it together themselves or go with our distance learning package, which so far covers legal requirements, planning and soft skills.”

The CTHRC is in the process of developing some further distance training for dispatchers based on demand.

“In our publicity so far we’ve indicated that online training for dispatchers was coming. We had a questionnaire go out via the trucking associations on what they
‘d like to see, and the response was positive enough for us to go ahead with the modules,” says Gauthier.

The CTHRC online programs are still under development and slated for an early 2002 release.

At Erb Transport, says Matthews, there has been a major effort towards dispatcher training over the last two years, specifically on communication and organization skills and conflict management.

“We’ve connected it with driver retention. Part of it is that dispatchers usually don’t know what it’s like on the road. Maybe they can use a computer to the nth degree, but they also need a sense of understanding about the uncontrollables on the road, and that trucking is a lonely life,” she says.

Matthews says Erb Transport will also send its dispatchers out with drivers on trips so they can get a feel for the experience.

“We know there is a driver shortage and that dispatchers are sometimes pushing drivers to do more than they could possibly do. To show how important organization skills are, we had a video that showed a disorganized dispatcher, and we covered how to make sure you are prepared to write down details, etc.”

Erb dispatchers were also given computer training, anger management training and even advised to start taking breaks to ease the buildup of stress that can compromise performance. “Many don’t feel they can take a break,” says Matthews.

Ultimately, though, she says, if the wrong type of personality becomes a dispatcher, training might not be of much help.

“Attitude is the biggest thing we look for, beyond knowledge and experience of the industry. We can teach them all the rules and regulations. We really look for someone with a calm personality, who can handle multiple tasks. Someone really hyper doesn’t really succeed. A good dispatcher can retain drivers,” says Matthews.

Monitor performance and get input from other areas of the company.

While the interview and the training process will help you decide on the kind of candidate you want to hire and keep, it doesn’t stop there. Continue to monitor dispatchers’ performance and get their feedback, as well as that of other employees.

“Do reference checks before hiring,

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