Stuck In the Middle: The Art of Dispatching

by 2005 June

Being a dispatcher is one of the most demanding, rewarding, frustrating, and satisfying jobs in transportation. The central figure in any trucking operation, dispatchers are beset from all sides. The sales force relays the good, the bad, and the ugly from the customers. Management wants more efficiency at a lower cost and they want it now. The service manager pulls needed equipment into the shop.

And if a driver isn’t complaining about wanting a different run, he’s calling to say he’s not running on schedule. (I know one company where, when told their trip was downtown multiple drops, the drivers would call in sick two hours later. So management made a policy not to tell drivers what their runs were for the next shift.)

Indeed, good dispatchers will have a broad base of aptitudes and skills. Dispatchers require an excellent knowledge of routes and geography, and a detailed memory of the policies, rules, and regulations governing transportation and safety. They need to know specifics on the equipment and service schedules.

The best dispatchers have all of this plus the gift of diplomacy. It’s a rare mix to find in one individual, let alone an entire dispatching crew. Considerate drivers will make it a point to work effectively with their dispatchers. A lad I once worked with had just started to dispatch. Things went OK with the drivers for a week or two before they started to test him. After a particularly ugly conversation, he stormed into his boss’s office to demand, “Am I dispatcher or a den mother?” The boss replied, “Both!”

It takes a good manager to keep the channels of communication open and clear between your drivers and dispatchers, and dispatchers and customers. Here are some ideas:

o The “walk a mile in the other guy’s shoes” theory. Make it a mandatory part of their training and orientation for your dispatchers to go out on trips with drivers. If the dispatcher doesn’t understand the hornets’ nests drivers are sent into, then it will be difficult if not impossible for him to earn respect and co-operation from drivers.

Conversely, every driver should answer the phones for a day or two. Dispatchers often protect drivers by filtering the verbal abuse they take. Imagine you have 12 trucks on the road on their way to make 36 deliveries. There’s a blizzard raging. Drivers are stuck in stop-and-stop traffic, or parked at a tiny truck stop waiting for the sanders and salters to pass by, or driving through the storm because there’s no place to pull over. Meanwhile, back at the terminal, all the customers are calling dispatch wondering why they haven’t received their load yet. “Have you looked out the window, sir?”

o Make clear your overriding priority. Dispatchers often find themselves acting as messengers between drivers and the customers, each with their own agenda. Make sure they understand the overriding priority: I did a driving assignment a few years ago where I found myself trapped between the “wants” of a demanding customer and some of the foulest weather Canada can produce. When I called in, I was enraged that the dispatcher kept insisting I get back to the terminal on schedule. I asked him what he thought about jumping into his car and motoring about 600 kilometres to where I was. Dispatchers need to understand it’s better to drive in late than not at all-and that this is a policy you’ll back them up on.

o Step in early when communication breaks down. Sour relationships can easily lead to rotten assignments. These situations can of course be taken up with management, and you should make sure everyone knows it. But who needs the aggravation? Trust and mutual respect may be rare in business today, but when these qualities exist between drivers and dispatchers, things will run smoothly.

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