Truckers don’t typically come from wealthy backgrounds. They aren’t spoon-fed types. They don’t dine with refined intellectuals. They aren’t part of an aristocracy, and they don’t know proper manners.
Most of us use conventions like “please” and “thank you” as a matter of course. We were taught to use them by our parents and by our schools. They’re practical not only in business contexts, but in virtually every area of human life. In fact, they’re so fundamental to human interaction that sociologists created the lofty term socialization to explain how and why we learn to use them.
In general, conventions like these are staples of human conduct because of family, school, and church. In fact, the vast majority of our cultural repertoire of social habits stem from immediate sources of moral authority and control like these.
But let’s save the socialization theory for another time and another place. I’d like to talk about a seemingly minor, yet very important trucker problem today.
On the whole, truckers exhibit very poor customer service skills. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard other truck drivers speak disrespectfully to dock workers or administrative personnel at distribution centers and delivery sites. It’s as if they’ve never learned appropriate speech tactics.
Actually, it’s not as if; truckers really don’t know how to speak effectively and appropriately. The sad truth is, truckers rarely say “please” and “thank you.” They were never taught to do so, and we still don’t teach them today.
Though a large percentage of truck drivers never even finish high school, they’re often expected to act according to established societal conventions. Customers hate it when issues arise and truckers overreact. Companies hate it when truckers complain. And truck stops hate it when truckers make a raucous and become an intolerable nuisance over some other trucker who parked his truck in the fuel island a little too long for the other’s liking.
But where and how would truckers learn to act any different from this?
Although we don’t have strong data to support this yet, I venture to guess that a large percentage of current truckers didn’t grow up with parents or leaders who taught them how to provide good customer service or build strong relationships with other people. Many grew up on farms or had blue-collar family backgrounds. They came from a certain class of Americans that worked hard for a living but had a culture that didn’t require them to act within a scope of dignified manners.
Furthermore, few truckers have service-oriented career histories. The new model, putting aspiring college-attendees in sales jobs at Macy’s or wherever, is something that truckers don’t typically experience. They’re of an older mold, the kind that involved harder labor and thicker skin. They didn’t need the skills we need today.
Of course, one can always learn new skills; but some are easier to learn than others. I would put “please” and “thank you” on the easier side of the slider scale. But one thing’s for certain: you don’t learn new skills, regardless of how tough they are to learn, if you’re not required to learn them or aren’t taught to.
Unsurprisingly, the trucking industry is having a very hard time making it clear to truckers that better behavior and customer service quality will make things better for them. In fact, one of the worst human capital management dilemmas in trucking is that truckers generally work alone. They’re secluded, isolated, and generally keep to themselves. They don’t get 360-degree feedback sessions or performance reviews from their managers. Their leaders don’t lead them. Truckers just get yelled at, from a distance.
Even more damning, truckers don’t just lack adequate feedback and training. Companies that employ truckers and customers that deal with them assume the worst of truckers and treat them accordingly: like low-lives. Why would truckers want to improve their conduct if all they got in return was institutional and pervasive disrespect?
As if that’s not enough, most truck drivers struggle to make $40,000 a year. They barely have enough to survive, let alone flourish in an increasingly expensive country to live in. Those that do earn more than $40k/year do so because they’ve slowly and patiently climbed to a 20-30 year experience level, earning them a measly few pennies more per mile—which doesn’t translate into the kind of money that propels them upward into higher social classes.
In effect, truckers are generally disincentivized by institutional disrespect to grow beyond what their industry expects of them.
And don’t just take my word for it. Listen to other successful truckers (as I do regularly) who represent a stark contrast.
Most of the truckers I regularly associate with haul pharmaceuticals like I do. They tend to exhibit stronger customer service skills than other truckers. They’re more polite. They’re slower to anger. They greet customers with a smile. And most importantly, they use the word “please” when they ask for something, and they say “thank you” when a job is done.
And these truckers, they make 2-3 times the average trucker salary. Gee whiz, what a surprise.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying niceties will turn undignified truckers into wealthy, high-class citizens. But I am saying, “Good luck, truckers. You probably won’t make much money if you don’t clean up your act.”
Be careful, though; this context should begin and end with truckers. The entire industry needs to build its own credibility in the business world—and in our American culture at large—by providing truckers the opportunity to grow professionally, which doesn’t just come about from annual seminars or online newsletters. It requires real change.