There’s a correlation between how quickly the snow melts and how fast a salesman can fill his Day-Timer with golf dates. “Sales meetings,” he’ll call them-a chance to spend some one-on-one time with a customer and shore up the business relationship for the rest of the year.
I suppose a little fresh air never hurt anyone. But there’s another way to establish closer ties with your customers: let them forge closer ties with your drivers.
Drivers are your eyes and ears on the road. There’s no one in your company better positioned to provide a high level of continuous, personal customer service. But it requires a serious commitment on your part to make that relationship flourish. Here are three things you can do to strengthen the connection between your customers and drivers.
o Teach your drivers about customer service. There’s an expectation in this business that truck drivers should be more than just skilled, safe equipment operators. They need to be ambassadors for both the industry and the company they work for.
If that’s what you believe, it’s just lip service unless you treat your drivers as a legitimate part of your customer service team. That means providing ongoing customer service training, starting from their initial driver orientation.
If you’re stumped for training topics, ask your drivers. They’ll tell you about the situations where they feel the most uncomfortable or ill-prepared: the times they’ve had to face an angry customer, or a demanding receiver.
We take these situations and turn them into a role-playing game. Role playing is a way to address problems as a group (and to put drivers in the shipper’s shoes). Not everyone is eager to stand up in a driver meeting and perform, but even from the audience drivers can learn how to handle themselves appropriately when they’re at your customers’ locations.
o Keep your customers in the loop. A positive, productive customer relationship is founded on a contract that clearly states who is responsible for what jobs (and how much each will cost). Tell shippers when you have a problem, and explain the consequences. If waiting times are excessive, ask your customer what would happen if he told his staff that, on Wednesday afternoons, no one gets paid for the work they do. That’s the situation we face: we can’t expect drivers, who are trying to pay mortgages and put food on their tables to sit around for hours on end and not get paid.
o Bring your customers and staff together. If you want to know what’s important to your customer, ask him. A couple times a year, we bring customers and staff together over a weekend to face the issues of the day.
Some of these customers come from a long way. Our drivers play host: their responsibilities are to meet their guest at the lobby of the hotel at 8:30 in the morning, escort him to the meeting room, and formally introduce the person he’s hosting when the meeting begins. Drivers sit with their guest and help him with any questions he has or anything he needs. At the end of the meeting, they thank the customer on behalf of the company for taking the time to help us improve our level of service. They have a thank-you card from the company that they fill out in their own words, in their own writing, as part of that presentation.
The driver may never have seen this customer before, but we make sure he knows who the customer is and what he does. By the end of the meeting, a personal relationship has developed. Even if the driver doesn’t go delivering to that customer, he still knows that customer. And over a period of several years, you have a lot of drivers who have good relationships with your customers.
The exercise gives drivers responsibility and accountability in an important setting. And they thrive on the responsibility: for a recent meeting we needed 18 hosts. We had 18 volunteers As for the customer, the impact is different than a round of golf with a salesman. For the cost of a plane ticket and a couple of nights in a hotel-we might be spending $1000 a client-the value for the driver, the company, and the customer pays back.
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