Doug Smith, Senior Director at Covenant Logistics, wanted to make drivers feel valued. He picked up the phone.

With more than 35 years of service, safety, and continuous improvement to its name, the Chattanooga-based Covenant Logistics was founded on the principle of putting others first.

For Doug Smith, Covenant’s Senior Director of Enterprise Driver Recruiting, every day is an exercise in bringing the company’s values to life. Not for himself, but for the 1,600 drivers who operate in Covenant’s Dedicated Business Division.

A 20-year veteran of training and development, Smith has made it his goal to understand people. In fact, at the Truckload Carriers Association Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, this fall, he presented ways to make drivers feel valued. Throughout his career, Smith has made a point of connecting with people, and more so since arriving at Covenant four-and-a-half years ago. Just six months into his current position, Smith’s new role has caused him to empathize with drivers in richer ways.

“Drivers are more than a driver ID,” Smith says. “They are more than a vessel to move freight from Point A to Point B. There is a person sitting behind that steering wheel. It’s up to us as managers to connect with them.” When effective, communication can build relationships with drivers, validate them, and inspire them to stay. Here, Smith provides valuable insights that can help fleet managers bring out the best in their drivers, and in themselves.

Step 1: Do away with transactional relationships

According to Smith, some managers are invested, others aren’t. If you approach conversations with a you-do-this-I’ll-do-that expectation, you’re probably not invested.

“Drivers want to feel part of something bigger than themselves,” Smith says. “If we continue to maintain transactional relationships, we’ll continue to see high turnover and a cycle of team members moving from company to company.”

Having a reciprocal relationship, where two people take an interest in each other as individuals, ensures that drivers feel seen. “It’s harder for drivers to walk away from a situation where they feel supported,” Smith says. “If drivers are frustrated but know they can talk to someone, they’re more likely to stick around.”

The key for recruiters and managers is to focus on building the relationship at every touchpoint. Whatever your communication preference — phone calls, email, or video chats — every interaction presents an opportunity to connect with drivers on a deeper level. Striking a compassionate tone, asking questions, and listening can help managers build the relationship. Smith suggests reflecting on interactions you have with people outside of work, then using them as inspiration for how you treat your own team.

“If we walk into a restaurant, is the mindset ‘I hope I get the server I had last time?’ Or is it ‘I hope I don’t get that person again?’” he asks. “Taking note of our customer service experiences outside of work can make us more mindful of how we treat people at work.”

For Smith and the Covenant team, the path forward is one that contributes to an individual’s growth. Covenant uses the term “career path” literally, by setting each driver up for success. The goal is for every driver to experience their last “first day” on a job, anywhere, with Covenant. “How do you get there?” Smith asks. “It starts with becoming invested.”

Step 2: Remember, commercial transportation is a family affair

When transportation companies hire a new driver, they’re bringing that driver’s family along for the ride. Covenant takes that reality to heart. When drivers need time off, whether to attend a wedding or care for a sick relative, they don’t have to worry about being perceived as disengaged. By checking in with drivers regularly, managers such as Smith can understand the issues employees are dealing with behind the scenes. Staying connected makes it easier for managers to accommodate drivers should they need to take time off or be transferred closer to home. Taking the opportunity to connect with drivers can make all the difference in retaining top talent — or losing them. As Smith says, “Quitting a job is easy. Quitting on a person you have a relationship with is what’s hard.”

Step 3: ‘Seek first to understand, then to be understood’

When trying to make drivers feel valued, Smith draws inspiration from Stephen R. Covey’s bestselling book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” It’s the source of one of his favorite quotes: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

“In seeking first to understand, the tone of any conversation softens,” Smith says. Taking an empathetic approach allows managers to put themselves in the driver’s position. Not every manager is a great listener, and it can be easy to get distracted. Forbes suggests becoming a more active listener by waiting for a driver to pause before asking follow-up questions. Also, try listening without judgment. That’s not easy in the moment, but it will become easier the more you practice it. If a driver was texting at the wheel, for example, “don’t say to yourself, ‘Well, that was a stupid move,’” Forbes writes. “As soon as you indulge in judgmental bemusements, you’ve compromised your effectiveness as a listener.”

To help focus a conversation in the present Smith encourages recruiters to keep a notepad and pen next to the phone. “If a recruiter hears something interesting, like ‘My wife is sick’ or ‘My son’s birthday is coming up,’ I tell them to jot it down,” he says.

Keeping up with your drivers shows them that they’re more than just “resources.” One technique that’s especially effective in elevating driver morale is to repeat drivers’ words back to them. Not only does repetition clarify information in the moment, but it also validates workers and strengthens the professional relationship.

Step 4: Ask the right questions

When talking to drivers, Smith suggests approaching the conversation as a problem solver. Drivers, like most of us, tend to reach out for help only when we’ve exhausted all other options. Being a problem solver means asking the right questions at the right time. Smith has a favorite question of his own.

“The four most powerful words in any conversation — Is there anything else?” he says. “These words allow you to uncover the underlying issue. Beyond that, it gives drivers the opportunity to say, ‘Well, now that you mention it, there’s this and this and this.’ And that’s powerful when drivers don’t always feel heard.’”

Step 5: Realize that communication is ‘the golden ticket to better loyalty and retention’

If all of this seems geared toward better communication, that’s because in Smith’s view, communication holds the key to better loyalty and retention. If you can communicate effectively, you’ll create an opening where others feel informed, cared about, and listened to. “The transportation industry tries to incentivize employees with money,” Smith notes. “I’m here to say, ‘It’s not pay, it’s a phone call.’”

Smith learned this lesson during seven years as a car salesman. Whenever consumers came onto the lot, they said price was their top priority. When surveyed about their experience after the purchase, however, how they were treated became most important. “We need to remember how much it matters to treat people right,” Smith says.

Step 6: Survey your drivers

Smith likes the idea of connecting with drivers over the phone, because it allows him to hear their tone of voice, and vice-versa. Given the risks of distracting drivers with calls and texts while they’re on the road, Smith has come to rely on the results of frequent driver sentiment surveys to build relationships. Drivers are surveyed routinely through the first 120 days of their employment, when turnover at Covenant is highest. New team members are asked how they’re doing, giving them the option of a green thumbs up or a red thumbs down. If the answer is a thumbs down, respondents can share their experience in more detail. The surveys have been crucial in establishing a dialogue with new drivers. “The surveys empower me to connect with drivers at pivotal times and salvage the relationship,” Smith says.

Step 7: Use safety technology to have timely conversations with drivers

Safety technology helps fleets become safer. When managers are using the data captured by the tools they use wisely, it’s also a catalyst for timely communication.

AI dashcams can illuminate what’s happening in your fleet and reveal a driver’s level of awareness. Through artificial intelligence and computer vision, dashcams capture unsafe driving habits on video, then alert drivers to them in real time. As a result, drivers can take corrective action right when it’s needed, preventing accidents and becoming more self-aware.

By having access to dashcam video, managers like Smith gain insight into how drivers are faring on the road.