February 17, 2023

8 practices to improve your driver coaching strategy


How to better navigate tough conversations with drivers

Though each company’s approach to driver coaching is different, one thing usually remains the same: When the safety office calls, the driver’s first thought is probably: “What did I do this time?”

If the only time drivers ever hear from the safety office, or a fleet manager for that matter, is when they’re being told they did something wrong, they will always associate that phone number with news that might ruin the rest of their day.

One of the first things you as a safety professional or fleet manager can do is to start calling drivers to congratulate them on their improvement rather than just when they’ve broken the rules.

The next step you can take should be to improve your coaching strategy in order to make these tough conversations more respectful and productive for both the driver and the company.

Brian Runnels, vice president of safety at Reliance Partners, an innovative risk management-minded trucking and logistics insurance company, offers the following tips for effective driver coaching:

1. Talk to drivers, don’t yell at them.

No one likes to be yelled at. One of the simplest forms of respect that should automatically be given to drivers when coaching is just to talk to them, not raise your voice.

“As soon as you yell at a driver, they shut down and they’re resistant to the coaching. That doesn’t work,” Runnels said.

2. Have all the facts.

Why is the coaching taking place? You need to be able to explain who, what, when and where an incident occurred that prompted coaching. Have facts to support your claim and provide the driver context why they’re being coached.

Additionally, use all the information at your disposal, including any statistics or industry news going on that might lend credence to the importance of the coaching.

3. Use coaching as an opportunity to teach.

According to the dictionary, coach means to “give instruction or advice.” Therefore, it shouldn’t be simply a conversation telling the driver what they did was wrong with no follow-up advice on how to improve. If a driver views coaching as chastising it’s unlikely they’re going to get much out of the conversation.

“If you’re retraining with video content, approach it as an opportunity for the driver to learn something new rather than it being a punishment. If they treat it as a punishment, they’re not really retaining information,” Runnels said.

4. Decide whether coaching is enough.

There are times when coaching is not enough and disciplinary action should begin. If coaching has already taken place in the past regarding the same issue, according to your company policy you may determine disciplinary action is needed.

“You have to think to yourself, ‘If this driver has something happen, and we have to go to court, and we’ve done coaching but there hasn’t been any improvement, can we still defend him in court?’” Runnels said. “If the answer is no, then you probably can’t keep that driver.”

5. Document all coaching sessions.

Verbal coaching needs written verification to support it. Documentation that coaching occurred can help defend the driver and the company in court or an audit. Insurance companies also tend to be more comfortable with carriers that document driver coaching sessions.

When insurance renewal time comes around, driver coaching, especially around technology, can make it easier to manage insurance costs if driver coaching produces good results.

“If you don’t have it in writing, it didn’t happen. Each driver should have a personnel file where this documentation goes,” Runnels said. “If you’re going to have a policy about coaching before disciplinary action, it needs to be consistent across the board and written.”

6. Know your stuff.

Most trucks are now outfitted with multiple telematics devices, such as an ELD or GPS, which companies use to gather data about a driver’s actions and habits. Companies can know exactly where their driver is, their hours of service, their speed, hard braking and more.

The person doing the coaching should be knowledgeable and ideally, have experience with the subject they’re coaching the driver on and any technology involved.

“You need to make sure whoever’s doing the coaching knows what the product is, how it’s used and understands the approach to take with it and the facts behind it,” Runnels said. “If the coaching is on a hard brake that occurred, and the person doing the coaching doesn’t know what the difference between a ‘minus 15’ and a ‘minus 25’ on a hard brake is, it’s not going to come across as effective.”

7. When possible, get face time.

Though at most trucking companies the majority of conversations happen over the phone, nothing beats face-to-face conversations. For safety professionals and driver managers, face-to-face coaching sessions are a way to build respect and get better results.

However, be aware that sometimes, if a driver goes into the office for coaching, it may have the opposite effect. It’s possible the driver could feel as though everybody else in the office knows what happened.

For the most effective results, coaching should be done on the driver’s turf, such as in the yard or by the truck. This levels the playing field and facilitates a more natural conversation.

“Now you’ve taken some of the sting out of the conversation,” Runnels said.

8. Listen to drivers.

Don’t shut down a driver when they’re explaining the circumstances around the subject they’re being coached on.

A driver may provide context around the situation or that can help you learn more about them and make determinations moving forward.

“A good safety professional isn’t always just a safety person. It’s possible to be one of the driver’s best allies, and if you have that sort of relationship with your driver, it makes the hard conversations much easier,” Runnels said.