Image Is Almost Everything

Clothes, grooming, truck appearance – these and other things affect how people perceive your ability to do business. First impressions count for a lot in the formula for success.

Your personal appearance represents who you are, especially to those who don’t know you.

Presenting a respectable image is more about cleanliness and manners than being handsome or physically fit, or wearing a certain style of clothes. It’s primarily about showing enough respect for yourself and your equipment that everyone you deal with treats you – and any carrier you represent – with respect. And that translates into better business for you.

“The old cliché about making a good first impression is a cliché because it’s true,” says Kevin McKelvy, vice president of recruiting for Contract Freighters Inc. “The way you look and the way you present yourself give an idea about the condition of your equipment and how you run your business.”

McKelvy says he’s surprised at how often unkempt drivers come into orientation, with torn and dirty clothes. “We’re not running a CD store at the mall; we’re dealing with large corporations.”

Because Dart Transit’s fleet is completely made up of 2,200 owner-operators – quite a few of whom have received some of the industry’s top driver awards – the company scrutinizes more than driving ability. “We look at the whole picture, and we decide if we want this person representing us,” says Darin Heinemeyer, Dart Transit’s director of recruiting. “But with our reputation, people know that we expect them to step it up a notch to another level of professionalism.”

“You can tell which ones shouldn’t be in a truck,” says Linn Turner, an independent owner-operator from Germansville, Pa. “If they have no quality in themselves, how can they have quality in their work?”

SUPPORTING YOUR FLEET PARTNER
Someone’s image can be a touchy thing to discuss, Heinemeyer says. “But we’re business partners, so we try to help them.”

“You get into an argument if you say anything,” says Turner, who hauls mostly agricultural products. “It’s one thing for them to work and get dirty, but what do they expect when they wear the same clothes for four days?”

McKelvy says similar attitudes exist at CFI. “We’re not in the business of telling them how to operate their business,” he says. “But as a professional and a partner in business, you would like to think that they wouldn’t wear inappropriate clothing. You don’t have to wear a tie or be handsome, but you should be clean and mended.”

Chuck Kracker of Santa Rosa, Calif., knows how important image is. His eight-truck operation, Kracker Transportation, hauls for wineries and distribution centers. “I realize everyone needs to be comfortable, and we don’t have a strict dress code, but my drivers can’t wear tank tops,” he says. “We’re handling food product, and they need to be neat and clean.”

One of Dart’s solutions to the delicate problem of image is to offer its contractors the option of buying at cost Dart-logo apparel such as shirts, caps and jackets.

“We call it the pro shop,” Heinemeyer says. Contractors also can purchase items to give to their customers as promotional gifts, so maybe they’ll get unloaded a little quicker next time.

Unfortunately, most feedback fleets get from customers about drivers tends to be negative, McKelvy says. “It’s so much easier not to call when things go right because that’s what we expect,” McKelvy says. “But what a wonderful thing to get a note or call to say that a driver was courteous and professional.”

Kracker makes a special effort to check up on his drivers, especially new ones. He calls and asks customers about his drivers’ performance, including attitude and cleanliness of the equipment.

EQUIPMENT SAYS A LOT
Have you ever stepped into a grungy bathroom in a restaurant and made a mental note never to return? Likewise, your customers see your truck and have a choice about whether to trust their products in your equipment. Driving up to a customer’s loading dock with a dirty clunker is a good indication of how you take care of your possessions – and how you’ll take care of theirs.

As a general rule, fleets have guidelines for the quality of trucks. Dart’s Heinemeyer says they’ve had to ask a contractor to update the look of a truck with a paint job, even though safety was not an issue. Dart also frowns upon grill decorations that give the industry a bad image.

CFI has age requirements on equipment. “But we have made exceptions. Maybe the truck was a few months over the time limit, but it was wonderfully clean and well-maintained,” McKelvy says. “When they’re flying our flag, they’re representing us. We keep our terminals, ground, lobby and orientations room very clean because we’re representing them, and they appreciate that.”

Turner remembers when customers would have to inspect equipment before loading freight, but it’s not like that anymore. “It seems customers don’t care – as long as there aren’t holes in the floor,” he says. “I try to keep my truck clean, within reason, but sometimes it seems that customers don’t appreciate it because they’ll beat up on it when they’re loading it.”

Kracker likes to think that his practice of regularly painting his fleet and polishing the aluminum helps keep his customers coming back. He’s had two that have been with him for 28 years.

PAPER CHASE
Wrinkled receipts on the dashboard. Coffee-stained logbook. Holes or guesstimations in your expenditures. All very bad business practices, and all very telling about how meticulous you are with your business.

Russell Fullingim, of Truckers Financial Service in Corning, Calif., sees a correlation between the paperwork and the image of the trucker behind the business.

“If the paperwork is messy and smells and is not complete, I can almost predict what the person will look like,” Fullingim says. “The sharper they look, the more money they make, especially in van lines, and especially teams,” says Fullingim, who still hits the road if a friend needs a replacement driver. “The sharper looking people aren’t going to stay in lower paying jobs, so they make more money.”

Fullingim has had more than one husband-and-wife team come in with struggling finances until he directed them toward the van line business. “I was so impressed with them. They were sharp looking, and you’d never believe they are truck drivers, and they’re bringing in about $300,000 gross.”

Other than simply keeping your routine paperwork in order, you might want to create some of your own in terms of stationery and business cards, especially if you operate under your own authority. Having a business card that looks professional – maybe even with a picture of your truck on it – and possibly letterhead and envelopes with a slick and memorable logo gives your business more credibility.

There are dozens of websites, such as www.vistaprint.com and www.business-cards.com, that allow you to create logos and business cards using their templates or by importing your own photos. Vendors at the major truck shows also offer these services. You can have such items printed for as low as $10. A lot of the same vendors and websites also offer other marketing products, such as magnets, pens and brochures.

Successful independents learn that putting the time and money into buying such supplies and using them regularly helps their small business make a big impression on all who have contact with it.

“It’s about discipline,” says Heinemeyer. “We have many contractors who were in the military, and so often they are disciplined in their daily lives from regimented hygiene practices to business tactics. It’s all image, and it translates into profitability.”


GOING THE EXTRA MILE
In addition to practicing good hygiene and dressing neatly, consider these ways to improve the image of you and your business. Though some ideas might seem unrelated to image, the discipline of doing them tends to rub off in other positive ways:

  • Refrain from smoking, eating or drinking when meeting your fleet’s personnel or shippers and receivers.
  • Carry spare clothing in your truck.
  • Avoid using profanity and bad grammar.
  • If your company has official apparel, consider wearing it when interacting with customers.
  • Get your business records more organized.
  • Keep your truck exterior clean. Polish wheels and chrome occasionally.
  • Budget for a new paint job or body repair, if needed.
  • Keep your interior – driving area as well as sleeper – free of litter, dirty clothes and unnecessary items.
  • Invest in items to promote your business, such as business cards and pens, especially if you operate independently.
The Business Manual for Owner-Operators
Overdrive editors and ATBS present the industry’s best manual for prospective and committed owner-operators. You’ll find exceptional depth on many issues in the 2021 edition of Partners in Business.
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