By Al Muskewitz
Kevin Freeman runs a pretty straightforward dedicated refrigerated route for TLD Logistics between Tupelo and the Upper Midwest, so when his dispatcher gave him a run into Georgia and re-routed him to the carrier’s headquarters in Knoxville he figured something was up.
It’s those instincts that made him the perfect choice for what was about to go down.
Of all the things the detour could have been for – and he figured, knowing his manager, it had to have something to do with golf – little did the three-year TLD driver know he was about to become the point of the spear for a ground-breaking program within the company.
His managers were about to ask him to become TLD’s first Driver Ambassador, the first line of communication between drivers and dispatchers, customers and company designed to keep everybody in the system happy and running smoothly.
The program is the brainchild of TLD senior operations manager John Hutton. The idea is to give drivers who regularly talk among themselves on the road but may be reluctant to speak out formally or have no other outlet to air their concerns a liaison with operations and customers, mitigating the risk of losing that driver to another carrier over something that could have been resolved with just a little communication.
“Drivers talk to each other all the time,” Hutton said. “What happens is he or she might see a frustrated driver and this ambassador is going to hear him or her out. This (driver) may not want to call in to operations because he or she is frustrated, but this ambassador calls in and says this driver is upset about a delivery. If we didn’t have that ambassador call us, that’s a flight risk.
“The grass may not be greener but you’re upset at the time and no one reached out from our company to listen to you; that’s where you see people leave. With this program, we’re able to get in front of that and retain the driver.”
Senior management at TLD were on board with the program immediately. TLD president Jim Peters called a “very smart” idea.
Current turnover at TLD runs about 38 percent company-wide – well below the industry average – and 22 percent in its dedicated division. The goal is 36 percent overall, 19 percent in dedicated, and TLD officials see the ambassador program going a long way to help bring those numbers down. In addition to a specially designed seal affixed to the truck identifying the driver as a TLD Ambassador there are monetary incentives for participation and achieving/exceeding the program’s goals.
It’s just another example of things TLD does that consistently make it one of the 20 best fleets to drive for in North America, a designation it has won five years in a row now.
“We don’t have any data or anything to measure (the program’s success) at this point,” Hutton said. “In time we do feel based on what’s said about the industry it will work and it will help bridge that gap with some of those disconnects.”
The principles of the program are knowledge, support and communication and successful candidates must show proficiency in all three as well as possess “exceptional character, maintain a clean safety record and embrace the customer and driver relationships with compassion, empathy, understanding and the desire to be successful.”
Freeman was an easy choice, Hutton said, because he is “known to be very dependable by being on time for deliveries, his safety record is clean, he is conscientious about knowing what he is capable of related to Hours of Service and he is very professional while delivering and picking up freight at our customer locations.” Peters called him “an ideal candidate.”
Once you’re in the program, you’re in until you fail to meet the criteria.
A second ambassador, Bruce Everett, recently was added for the 30-truck reefer division’s western group out of Nebraska. Managers hope to add three in its 50-truck paper hauling division and later introduce the program to the OTR sector.
Freeman, 47, said he was “very surprised” when the company approached him to be the first Ambassador.
“Feeling honored more than anything because you get that feeling of appreciation,” he said from somewhere on I-94 near Watertown, Wis. “I can think of a couple other guys who probably deserve this more than me because I have a guy I call when I have an issue.
“There is a disconnect between operations and customers and that driver’s in the middle. The worst thing that can happen is to have that gap between operations and the customer and that driver is in that gap. To get that driver involved to where he joins the link is just an awesome idea. To be the first to even be offered the position, I was honored.”
While he hasn’t necessarily talked any one off the ledge yet, Freeman did have several drivers who call him for advice and information even before he became an Ambassador, whether it be questions about getting in or out of a customer’s yard or dealing with potential timing and scheduling issues. And dispatchers regularly call him when they’re confronted with questions from their charges.
Each time he gets one of those calls Freeman is eager to impart his knowledge and experience from 20 years on the road. He feels most complete when he pulls into a customer and is announced at the gate or dock by name. “Hey, Kevin’s here.”
“I’ve always prided myself in being that person you can count on; I think that’s kind of my personality,” he said. “I love accountability. Sometimes it’s a curse because when I pride myself in being accountable you tend to expect that from others and everyone’s not built that way.
“I’ve always wanted to be that go-to guy or that listening ear. Everybody needs that. Sometimes you can just fix a problem by listening.”
Hutton was quick to point out the ambassador program is not a tattling program to weed out disgruntled or unproductive drivers, but a genuine effort to improve lines of communication across the load board. He restated it is intended to nip potential problems in the bud before they become untenable or irreversible situations.
“This is just to keep the communication flowing with the liaison with the drivers and in between our customers,” he said. “The biggest part is the guys are always out on the road and operations are in the office and there’s a feeling from a driver that office people don’t really understand what goes on out there.
“I think it’s a way of bridging the gap and having that open line of communication. We can’t solve all the problems, but if we can address them and try to bridge that gap, that’s what we’re there for.”
Al Muskewitz is Editor for Wright Media Corp.
Photo: TLD driver Kevin Freeman (right) is congratulated by senior operations manager John Hutton on being named the company’s first driver ambassador.