Fat paychecks. Solid benefits. Cushy trucks. These expensive avenues to boosting driver retention are so widely accepted that rolling them back is no more than wishful thinking for fleet owners. But bringing a personal touch to driver interaction can also sharply curb turnover.

What may be surprising is this softer side of driver management can be applied simply and consistently at relatively low cost and over long distances thanks to something as essentially impersonal as information technology.

That is to say fleets can tap computer power in any number of ways to improve how they work with drivers.

The IT goal is to help drivers feel the carrier not only recognizes their crucial contribution but also takes steps to improve their time on — and off — the road.

SMART TALK

“More and more, whether a driver stays or goes will come down to the quality of communication and the recognition they receive from the company,” contends industry consultant Duff Swain, president of Columbus, OH-based Trincon Group.

As Swain sees it, the crux of the driver-shortage issue is retention. “The industry has proven it can recruit. It's been recruiting and supporting a 100% or more annualized turnover rate for years,” he states. “The issue is keeping the drivers who have been recruited.”

Plain and simple, Swain recommends personalizing the employer-employee relationship as much as possible to keep drivers from easing on down the road to the next carrier. “Pay is not everything,” he states. “Drivers leave because there's not enough communication or they don't feel respected.”

Small fleets of course have the advantage here. The owner likely was a driver — and may still be one — so knows where drivers are coming from and, for that matter, will likely see them each time they're at home base.

The trick is for larger fleets to figure out how to foster that kind of up-close-and-personal communication when it can't happen in the flesh. Hence, it's more than time that fleets begin tapping the power of information technology.

Short of cloning the fleet owner, IT is the best way to make communication with drivers as rewarding as possible for all concerned.

IT has become “an incredible tool” for building bridges between Louisville-based Mercer Transportation's mangers and its driving force of some 2,000 owner-operators, says general manager Dale Corum.

Mercer is a truckload carrier that mainly hauls building materials and can report a turnover rate for independent contractors last year of just 24.4%.

“We keep drivers by treating them as our customers,” says Corum. “That requires a high level of communication, respect and above all trust on our part.”

Seeking to be more driver-friendly, Mercer developed a new dispatch system in-house. It was expressly designed to benefit owner-operators without detracting from fleet-management requirements.

“A couple of years ago we beefed up and streamlined our dispatch system,” explains Corum. “We made it easy to input and then update details on each driver's preferences regarding routes and loads.

“The system knows what kind of freight a driver will haul, where he'll go and when he needs to be home, so we don't waste our time or his offering freight that's too heavy or specialized or when he's not going to be available.”

To drive the system, each owner-operator gives Mercer the scoop on the equipment they run and the times when they are available to run. “The driver preferences can be changed, even hour by hour,” Corum notes. “A driver may even tell us their minimum cents per mile to run. Or he may want to know about every load within a certain mileage parameter.

INCREDIBLE TOOL

“The computer accesses all that information and then begins offering loads based on what the drivers want,” says Corum. “It's an incredible tool. No longer do we have to call drivers on each load — we're offering only the loads they want.”

On top of that, drivers no longer wait till they're empty to call in to dispatch to scope out the next load. “It saves a lot of time,” says Corum. “We put in loads as soon as we get them and start looking for the takers 48 hours in advance. This also helps drivers plan what they'll be doing two days out or two loads out if, say, they want to stay east with shorter hauls. Knowing what's coming up takes a lot of stress off them.”

Corum says the new approach to securing loads was initially a “tougher sale” to veteran drivers who were in general resistant to change but that every new driver “loves the system” from the get-go.

The reality is “communication is becoming more and more important,” he remarks. “Twenty years ago we might have had days to move some freight, especially if it was headed to a warehouse to sit anyway. Those days are gone.”

Corum points out that the modern breed of driver is also pushing the communications envelope. “We once wanted drivers to have pagers; then came cell phones. We do require a daily check call now but we have drivers pushing us beyond the cell.

“We don't know if a Blackberry or similar device is next,” he continues. “But we know rather than call in, many would like to check in from home or a truckstop or their cab via a laptop or other device.

“Drivers are becoming very wise about technology,” Corum observes, “and we want to help them be more in control. A study we did a few years back showed 50% of our drivers were already carrying personal laptops. We field 200 calls a day on fuel costs alone; it would be great to post that kind of information to a web site they could access.”

PONY EXPRESS IT

John Lewis, CEO of GeoLogic Solutions, which supplies wireless asset-management systems, affirms that fleets can easily integrate dispatch systems with mobile communications, vehicle tracking and business systems to “implement more sophisticated relay-type dispatching. Loads can be handed off from driver to driver. They can get home at night and still the loads move across the country.”

According to Lewis, such a system “should not result in increased operational costs as long as deadhead miles are avoided. This isn't about getting away with fewer drivers. But it can make drivers happier by getting them home more without slowing down freight.”

Lewis says this is an evolutionary strategy and it should be rolled out over a period of time to not shock drivers. “The average length of haul may fall from over 1,000 miles to significantly under 1,000 miles per driver but that will vary by operation. But in short, more drop and hook equals less time on the road.”

While relaying freight may not be every trucker's mug of joe, Lewis reports that “our more innovative customers are tackling this now and it's a trend we expect will develop further. We've been told by fleets doing this that they did so solely to reduce driver turnover.”

According to Robert Bowman, president of Accelerated Freight Group, better communication with drivers includes telling them “if they are or are not meeting company goals — not just telling them when we think they're screwing up.”

Towards that end, the Theodore, AL-based truckload carrier recently began using the ADV Monitor available with GeoLogic's MobileMax wireless system.

“Trucking margins are very thin and we have record high fuel prices,” says Bowman. “With this solution, though, we get accurate and timely performance data on each driver and each of the 70 tractors we run, including hours and miles driven, odometer readings, idle hours and mpg.

“By monitoring idle time and mpg on a real-time basis, we can be proactive rather than react to problems after they've already cost us fuel and money,” he continues. “And we can monitor idle time, the one thing drivers can completely control when it comes to fuel consumption. That alone has proven very beneficial.”

In fact, Bowman conservatively estimates Accelerated has boosted fuel economy by 5 mpg to save $230,000 in fuel costs in six months all without alienating its drivers.

WORK OF ART

That may be due largely to how artfully Accelerated leverages the dry data picture the computer develops. Each week the fleet downloads data from the ADV Monitor into an Excel spreadsheet. Using pre-set macros, customized letters are printed out detailing for example whether they're above, below, or within acceptable idle time percentages. Drivers who exceed the goals get bonuses. Those below are called to discuss contributing factors, such as a problem with the truck.

“We already have a low driver turnover rate of about 25%,” Bowman advises. “We're finding using this data is valuable for retention because it lets us communicate in a positive way with our drivers.”

Other IT maneuvers Bowman has made to keep turnover in check include implementing access to payroll settlement information at Ton Services kiosks at Flying J truckstops. “They can check their settlement sheet from the road even before the money hits the bank. It helps solve problems ahead of time.”

Another notable IT-related change is Accelerated's switch to a VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) phone system that Bowman says routes call “more quickly and with greater flexibility” so they get to a dispatcher faster.

It's another case of the computer lending a “more personal touch — to talk to a person is what they want, not being on endless hold,” he points out.

“We're always looking for ways to better the driver's day,” Bowman adds. “As long as pay is level, keeping drivers gets down to respect and communication — as in any relationship.”

Paul Erickson, McLeod Software's Internet product manager, says along with integrated dispatch systems and special web portals are IT avenues to driver satisfaction.

He points out that McLeod's Driver Event system, an adjunct to its LoadMaster enterprise solution, was engineered to “enable the driver and dispatcher to work together on routes. It gives the driver the capability to control where they go; when they get home; what loads they take, and when they get paid.

“Now fleet software's packaged to appeal to drivers with features like notifications on compliance deadlines, settlement information and directions over their Qualcomm units.”

Erickson points out drivers can now access these benefits via a passport-protected web portal dubbed the Driver Center. “Drivers can even provide family access to a site so they can know where the driver is, view benefit information etc. and communicate privately via messages.”

Using this system, a driver can go online and view all pay information and can “interface totally with the [dispatch] form to request time off, special routing etc. And they can revisit to see if their requests have been approved. This way, a driver can accomplish a lot without having to call in. They can be in touch as they like; from a laptop or a kiosk in a truckstop or terminal.”

The features of the Driver Center are highly customizable, points out Erickson, and the whole thing is designed to “reside” on a fleet's individual corporate or driver-oriented web site.

According to Mike Gabbei, vp of MIS & CIO of Celadon Inc., the big truckload carrier is “doing a lot of things in-house with IT for drivers” including communicating many automated requests via Qualcomm macros supported by dispatch optimization software and development of its own driver web portal.

“For example,” says Gabbei, “one of our drivers can quickly request time off by completing a macro in his Qualcomm unit; that's submitted to us automatically and then the optimization program ensures he is routed or relayed home. The system also tracks to ensure the original request was handled. Of course, our fleet managers must make this happen and there are [computerized] tools in place to tell them what percentage of drivers need to be off, etc. This rolls right up to the supervisory level.

“The system also drives our vacation program, which is based on productivity and can reward a driver with up to five weeks off even in their first year of employment here.”

Gabbei points out these functions come courtesy of customized programs developed by the fleet's own IT staff over the past three years.

“Our web portal, also designed in-house, has been up for over a year,” he relates. “It was based on driver feedback reflecting that one of our top internal initiatives is to improve driver satisfaction.” He notes Celadon fields 2800 trucks with 1900 piloted by company drivers and the balance by owner-operators.

Drivers may choose to give spouses their own access to the password-protected driver site. Key features of the Celadon portal include access to settlement information (which they can input at dedicated kiosks in fleet terminals) and recommended routing with fueling sites.

The system also tracks when PMs are due and determines whether to route a driver to a truckstop or through a company terminal for service. In addition, Celadon automatically rewards drivers who hit certain mpg and idling parameters by bumping up the company-set speed limit from 65 to 68 MPH.

Another technology initiative under way with drivers at least partly in mind is the outfitting of all trailers with satellite tracking systems. “We'll be able to tell them exactly where a trailer is,” he notes. “They won't have to hunt for trailers on a yard and they'll always know if they hooked to the correct trailer before leaving.”

Yet another is Wi Fi capability at Celadon's main terminal with consideration being given to extending wireless computer access to all facilities. “You may be amazed,” Gabbei says, “but we find more than 50% of our drivers now carry a laptop.”

Gabbei says Celadon is “proud to state our driver turnover is a little under 70% vs. 130% at some places. Part of that comes from taking drivers' ideas seriously and making them an IT priority. “We definitely feel we're doing a better job with drivers,” he adds. “But there's still room for improvement.”