Lessons from the best in the biz

by James Menzies

MISSISSAUGA, Ont. – Just being nominated as a Best Fleet to Drive For and then going through the extensive evaluation process is an eye-opening process of self-awareness for fleets that have had the opportunity. Mark Murrell, president of Canadian online training firm CarriersEdge, which runs the popular program for the Truckload Carriers Association, said during his cross-country seminar series that the bar has been raised each of the five years the competition has existed.

Carriers who’ve taken part find out how they stack up against other fleets that have been recognized by their drivers as the best in the business to work for.

This year’s Best Fleet for Owner/Operators, Landstar System, solicited more than 900 owner/operator surveys as part of the evaluation process. Asking for input from drivers and owner/operators, according to Murrell, is one of the easiest and most effective ways to ensure happiness and harmony among the driving force.

Drivers who feel their opinions on issues are valued are generally the most satisfied, according to driver surveys collected by CarriersEdge during the evaluation process.

“The trick is to ask the right questions,” Murrell said of driver surveys, noting it’s more effective to ask for feedback before an event or decision than after the fact, when decisions have already been made without driver input.

Communication is among the most important things drivers and owner/operators are looking for from their carriers. Fleets that are regularly asking drivers and O/Os for their feedback tend to score better under the Best Fleets’ scoring criteria, Murrell said.

Interestingly, the things drivers value from their carrier have changed, even in the five years the Best Fleets competition has existed. Five years ago, said Murrell, the word ‘Facebook’ didn’t appear on a single driver survey. This year, it was a recurring theme, with drivers lauding their company’s Facebook page or wishing they had one.

“Facebook is by far the most effective community-building tool we see fleets using right now,” Murrell said. But its effectiveness depends on how well it’s used. Some carrier use their Facebook page to do little more than post job openings while others use it as a bulletin board to post pictures and updates on a wide range of company activities, and encourage drivers to do so as well.

“The companies that view it like a community centre are the ones that have great success with it,” Murrell said.

Another trend noticed for the first time this year involved drivers expressing an interest in dash-mounted cameras. What previously was viewed by most drivers as an invasion of privacy is now being welcomed, according to the driver surveys collected by the Best Fleets program.

“This year, out of the blue, a whole bunch of drivers want dashboard cameras,” Murrell said. “I think a lot of this has to do with YouTube. Drivers want to be able to capture the crazy stuff they see on the road. All of a sudden, drivers are recognizing this as valuable.”

The surveys also have shown that drivers appreciate the increasing use of driver scorecards and performance-based pay. Drivers appreciate knowing how they are performing across a variety of categories and they like to be compensated for above-average performance.

Another tactic employed by the top-scoring carriers involved in the program is to assign driver advocates to new hires. It could be someone in the operations department or another, more senior, driver.

As the industry has evolved, so too has the competition itself. For the first time this year, CarriersEdge asked fleets to indicate how much they spend on training each year per driver. This question was added to the survey because, in the past, 26% of nominated fleets said they had a training budget, but couldn’t say how much it was. Outside the trucking industry, Murrell said it’s normal for companies to allocate $1,200-$1,500 per employee for training each year.

This year’s surveys revealed the training budgets allocated by carriers are all over the map, ranging from practically zip right on up to $5,000 per driver.

“It’s all over the place,” Murrell said, but when averaged out, it came to about $1,160 per driver. “It turns out, as an industry, we are spending a lot more to train our drivers than we think we are, and we’re pretty much on par with other industries.”

While the Best Fleets to Drive For program reveals many best practices, it also has uncovered a few areas for improvement. One of those is driver retention, or maybe driver re-recruitment. Murrell said fleets have identified the two main reasons drivers leave their company are to go to another job outside the industry or for medical reasons – either their own or a family member’s.

“But neither of those are what most retention programs focus on,” Murrell pointed out. “Most focus on keeping drivers from going to the carrier down the street. That’s not why (most) drivers are leaving, they’re leaving because of these other reasons.”

Many fleets have reported that drivers often return after a period of time, and some progressive companies actively work to bring former employees back. One company issues a “return ticket” to any driver who leaves on good terms, so they know they’re welcome to come back in the future. Tennant Truck Lines sends a letter to former drivers six months to a year after they’ve left, letting them know the company would love to have them back.

Tips from the winners
Landstar System, winner of the owner/operator category, stood apart from other publicly-traded companies in its willingness to provide candid answers throughout the evaluation process, Murrell said. Landstar has more than 8,000 owner/operators, or in Landstar-lingo: Business Capacity Owners (BCOs). These operators are able to choose their own loads from Landstar’s proprietary load board. A BCO Services department has been established to help operators manage the system and effectively run their businesses.

New recruits are put through a three-day CABS (Continuous Awareness of Business and Safety) orientation program, which must be repeated every three years, bringing together a mix of new and experienced O/Os.

Landstar also runs what it calls Safety Thursday, during which operators – and even customers – can call in from wherever they may be for an update on industry issues and safety initiatives. About 600 people call in each week, according to the company.

“They’re the first company we’ve come across that regularly invites customers to attend their safety meetings,” Murrell said. “They want their customers to understand the same things their drivers understand, and they want everybody to be on the same page.”

For that reason, Landstar also sends customers its safety policies and even sends a representative to their facilities to teach them about safety policies before a new customer is brought on. Landstar also won the approval of its operators because of its Landstar Contractors Advantage Purchasing Program (LCAPP), which offers them preferred rates on almost anything they need to buy. The LCAPP department is dedicated to negotiating new deals for its owner/operators, providing significant savings on everything from fuel, to tires and trailers.

For company drivers, Grand Island Express, a 160-truck fleet out of Grand Island, Neb. was named the 2013 Best Fleet to Drive For. Among its initiatives, the company compensates its drivers an extra 2.5 cents/mile if they agree to have a speed limiter activated on their truck, taking a carrot – rather than stick – approach to reducing speeds.

The company has a flexible dispatch system that gives drivers the ability to choose their own routes, and assigns a “dedicated dispatcher” for each driver, whose goal is to help that driver maximize their earning potential.

Grand Island Express provides drivers with weekly scorecards, so they are continuously aware of how they’re performing against company-wide benchmarks. The other benefit for the company is that they can discuss incidents (near misses or hard braking, for example) while they’re still fresh in the driver’s mind.

A whopping 92% of drivers said they were satisfied with the scorecard system employed by Grand Island Express, Murrell noted, indicating a preference for timely feedback. The carrier also got top marks for its processes for when drivers leave the company. Grand Island can tell, right down to the decimal point, why its drivers opted to leave the company.

“It’s very precise information,” Murrell said. “No other fleet came close to this level of detail in answering this question.”

Like Landstar, Grand Island Express sends its safety policies to customers, so there aren’t any surprises that come up related to safety and compliance obligations.

How they’re graded
Of course, declaring any fleet “the best” is a dicey proposition, sure to court some controversy. Murrell provided some insight into what goes into the scoring process. Fleets are asked 90 questions across a range of categories, exploring everything from benefits and compensation, to how they promote work/life balance and professional development.

Some categories are numerically scored while others are not. Of those that are assigned a score, Murrell said evaluators take all responses and then create a sliding scale that ranges from the most basic program through to the best. An absolutely perfect score would be 102, and Murrell said fleets are beginning to come close to that seemingly impossible target. This year’s top scorer was awarded an impressive 95. The Best Fleets to Drive For program is open to any North American for-hire carrier with 10 trucks or more. Fleets must be nominated by one of their drivers or owner/operators. This year, 119 fleets were nominated.

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