Get the upper hand

Owner-operators who fashion professional images of themselves and cultivate key relationships will win the hearts of potential clients.

Besides a truck, an owner-operator’s biggest need is something to haul. That means finding jobs, which means marketing: selling yourself and your service.

That’s especially true for independents, but it goes for leased operators as well. To partner with a carrier that has plenty of freight you prefer to haul, and to get the best hauls, you need to sell yourself to the fleet – and its customers – early and often.

“If you don’t market yourself, how can you expect to maintain the business or grow the business?” asks Richard Shaffer, chairman of the West Palm Beach, Fla., chapter of the Service Corps of Retired Executives, which advises small businesses. “Marketing is a key part of what the owner-operator must do every day.”

One-truck independent Steve Williams of Peach Bottom, Pa., is doing well, as demonstrated by his customized 2007 Peterbilt 379. More than a hobby, his showy rig also is a key part of his making an immediate positive impression in his sales pitch. Williams’ personal appearance and demeanor help his business, S.L. Williams Trucking.

“I use my truck, myself and word of mouth,” he says. “That’s not good for everybody, but I’ve found that if I do my job well, word gets around. Basically, you let your actions speak for you.”

The first impression includes the truck, the first thing many potential clients see. The truck doesn’t have to be brand-new or a potential trophy winner, just clean and in good repair.

“You need a great reputation,” Shaffer says. “Along with a great reputation come word-of-mouth endorsements from prior clients.”

The other obvious component of first – and subsequent – impressions is personal appearance. It shouldn’t be an issue among owner-operators, but often it is.

“You can go out here in a truck stop and pick out the inexperienced drivers,” says retired 44-year trucker Charlie Wandle of Cherryvale, Kan. “They’re out here wearing cutoffs and sandals” – footwear he calls “Jerusalem cruisers.”

“I wear cowboy boots, jeans without holes in them and a shirt with a collar,” says Wandle’s friend and part-time boss, owner-operator Vaughn Miller of Halfway, Mo.

“It’s what you might call ‘old school,'” Williams says. “My grandfather was a trucker, and he always wore a pair of slacks and a dress shirt.”

Behavior and attitude also form lasting impressions, good and bad. In the movies, smart-mouthed jerks often win; not so in real life. “Unprofessional language or walking in with a chip on your shoulder or an attitude will destroy your image,” says Kevin Storm of Yankton, S.D., whose business is Gavins Point Trucking.

That includes how you handle your rig. If you speed into a customer’s lot, dust and gravel flying, engine brakes popping and stereo blasting, the impression is anything but professional. “Would you want a reckless driver hauling your high-dollar car?” asks Williams.

Impressions are but the first step in relationships, and owner-operator business relationships with a potential customer or carrier usually need to extend beyond the first person you meet.

“You sell yourself to the transportation and shipping managers, the foremen on the warehouse docks, and the other people who work there,” Storm says. “Meet and interact with people who are in positions to provide you with good freight, or point you toward good companies to haul for.”

“If it’s a huge corporation, you won’t be able to impress the CEO,” Shaffer says. “But you can make a good impression on the people you’re working with.”

“Ultimately, you want to get to the warehouse or shipping manager,” Storm says. “They’re the ones who will help you get that good freight. But you have to earn the right to see him by getting along with the people two and three layers below him.” Noticing that many of the workers at warehouses he visited were Hispanic, Storm took the time to learn Spanish.

While impolite or hostile truckers are a common complaint among shippers and receivers, drivers have endless stories about monumentally rude shipper and receiver employees. But like learning to drive on ice, learning to deal discreetly with unavoidable jerks is a skill that can help an owner-operator retain customers and get new ones.

“You don’t have to take everything, but you have to take a lot,” Williams says. “I hear a lot of guys talking about, ‘This guy did this to me, and that guy did that.’ Remember, you’re out here because you want to be. People are going to give you a hard time. If they do, just keep talking with them, about anything. The next thing you know, the two of you are talking, and he’s your best buddy.”

Besides, patient listening can yield more than you expect, Shaffer says. “The customer might have a legitimate complaint that you have to know about so you can fix it.”

This worked for Storm. One regular customer wanted part of his reefer deliveries frozen and part chilled, but drivers kept delivering all the freight frozen. The customer complained, so Storm made a bulkhead to separate the frozen and chilled freight.

“He said it was perfect,” Storm says. “He looked in my trailer and saw the bulkhead I’d put up, and that wound up being the start of a good business relationship.”

Reliability and punctuality are as important as ever. “Do what you say you’re going to do when you say you’re going to do it,” Shaffer says. “You won’t make a good impression by showing up late or under the influence of alcohol or drugs.”

An unstable home life won’t help you, either, if it damages your performance, attitude or appearance. Simply being normal can be a standout quality. “If your personal life is organized, that’s going to spill over into your business and help you see success,” Shaffer says.

“A mistake a lot of guys make is they get a new truck, and they think they have to let everything else go,” says Williams, who has a wife and three children. “You’re there to make a living for your family.”

Five small ways to polish your image
Name your business

Start with a company name that sounds professional, sticks in potential customers’ minds and, if possible, describes your service.

Learn phone etiquette
Answer the phone professionally, including the cell phone. Any message on your answering machine or voice messaging system also should sound professional. Don’t postpone returning calls – a delay could mean the loss of a job to someone else – or allow your voice-mail box to become so full that no one can leave a message.

Design a logo
It should reflect the overall image you want to convey, though in most areas of trucking conservative is better than flamboyant. Logos can be symbols, or versions of the company’s name or initials, or both. For example, a log-hauler might have initials formed by pieces of lumber. If you’re not artistically inclined, a good print shop can help you design a logo.

Hand out cards
Business cards must include all your contact information and logo, as well as a short, tasteful and memorable slogan that describes what you have to offer. They can feature photos of you and your truck. Make sure you have plenty in your wallet, and carry extras in the cab and in your personal vehicle.

Think broadly, design simply
Beyond business cards, consider other promotional materials: fliers, e-mail solicitations, Web sites, as well as gift items imprinted with your logo and phone number, such as coffee mugs or mouse pads. Remember that less is more; fewer words and large type get read more than lengthy copy. Create interest in your service by addressing the customers’ needs.

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