Tips from Mark Szyperski of On Your Mark Transportation

If you’re facing an increase in driver turnover at your charter bus company, you’re not alone. Many operators are currently dealing with driver shortages— in fact, according to our friend Mark Szyperski, passenger transportation expert and a headshot of Mark Szyperski, president and ceo of on your mark transportationPresident and CEO of On Your Mark Transportation, it’s one of the biggest issues that motorcoach companies are facing right now.

During our recent visit to BusCon, Szyperski shared some tips on how to reduce this turnover problem. With these tips in mind, we reached out to Mark for clarification on some strategies you can implement right now to start reducing your driver turnover rates at your company.

So, what’s the secret?

In short, the answer to reducing driver turnover isn’t to recruit more drivers.

It’s to retain the great drivers you already have.

Think about it: focusing all of your efforts on bringing in new faces hardly leaves time to create a positive environment in which your current drivers can thrive. Plus, if your drivers are already disgruntled, watching you hire their replacements will only force them out the door more quickly.

In order to ensure that your drivers want to stay, you’ll need to take some time to look within your company’s operations. What are you doing well, according to your drivers? What could be improved? Is this an environment in which you’d want to work?

a charter bus driver prepares for a trip and smiles at passengers

But first, let’s ask: why are drivers leaving in the first place? Is it about the money? Their sense of purpose? How many trips they’re getting?

Before we dive into retention strategies, here are the top reasons why drivers leave their companies, according to Szyperski. Surprisingly, it isn’t always about the money.

  1. Drivers want their voices to be heard

When you’re caught up in budget spreadsheets, profit margins, and a sea of complaints from every other department within your bus company, it can be easy to forget that all of the trips you’ve been processing can take a toll on your drivers as well. Are they also dealing with backlash from disgruntled passengers? Has company-wide stress made its way over to the driver room? If the answer to either of these questions is “Yes,” ask yourself a third question: “Do my drivers feel that their concerns are being addressed?”

Difficult customers and general stress are all typical when it comes to being part of a company, but more often than not, those things aren’t the main reason why your drivers leave.

Drivers need to feel that they have a place to voice their concerns, share new ideas, and have a say in how they’re treated—that’s what makes them want to stick around.

  1. They seek a sense of fairness

Most drivers would look down upon other drivers of a similar skill level who always seem to be getting more trips. With that in mind, though, the favor that drivers perceive can often be disproportionate to the favor that’s actually being shown, whether it’s intentional or not. Szyperski warns us that “perception can become reality, if companies are not careful.” We’ll have more on this later in this post.

  1. They want to be compensated fairly

Yes, money plays into a driver’s decision to stay with a company, but there’s a reason why it’s third on Szyperski’s list. If points one and two are being met, you won’t need to wonder if your drivers are leaving you in the dust just to earn $.50 more per hour at another company. As we all know, money is important— but it isn’t everything.

Retaining Your Drivers

So how do you go about improving your drivers’ experiences, making them feel like they belong, and creating a fair environment?

With the below tips in mind, take a look at your company, listen to what’s going on, and start to identify what could be demotivating your drivers. Essentially, you want to become a consultant to get to the root cause of these issues.

Take a Look at Your Driver Room

Don’t have a driver room? It’s time to consider dedicating a space to your drivers where they can congregate, take breaks, grab a drink or a snack, and most importantly, chat with you about what’s going on in their work lives.

If you do have a driver room, step into it and consider the type of environment you’re creating for your drivers. Do you provide snacks? Do you dedicate a board on the wall to commend drivers who perform well?

Or is your driver room fostering more negativity amongst your drivers?

Many driver rooms contain a memo wall. Take a look at yours— what types of memos have been posted? More often than not, you’ll see messages stating what rules not to break, where to go, who to talk to, and the like. Memos are, obviously, important, but displaying too many rules about where to go and what to do can create a negative atmosphere in your driver room.

a driver uses a snack vending machine

See if there are any outdated memos that can be removed. Are people doing what you’re asking of them? If so, a memo did its job. Take it off the wall and commend your drivers for a job well done.

To counteract your memo wall, add a separate board to act as your “wall of fame.” Here, you can post drivers of the month, thank-you notes they’ve received from passengers, positive feedback on driver performance, and anything else that can express gratitude to your drivers.

Other driver room essentials include a snack vending machine, beverage vending machine, coffee machine, and comfortable places to sit. These are added expenses, yes, but they show your drivers that you take their comfort into consideration.

Peruse Social Media

A quick Facebook search for “bus drivers” will bring up a number of groups in which you can find discussions about driver concerns. You may not find your company’s drivers on the web, but these groups can still be a gold mine of information when it comes to what’s going through the minds of your drivers.

You can use this information to see what might be bothering your drivers and address small problems before they snowball into bigger concerns. If you’re about to host a sit-down with your drivers, this can also brief you on the types of things they might bring up, so that you’ll be prepared for potential conversation topics.

Browsing Facebook driver groups might also offer some insight into what other companies are paying and what perks they’re offering. If you’re noticing trends at other companies that aren’t present at yours, it might be time to think about adding some new perks to your driver positions.

While you’re in the social media sphere, you can also take some time to look up your company’s name on Glassdoor. See if any recent employees have left negative reviews, and determine what you can do to make your company better for your current employees based on those reviews.

Review Your Dispatch Records

Look at the trips you’ve booked recently and note 1) which drivers got the most trips and 2) how much your drivers got paid. Are there any significant gaps? Sometimes, gaps are necessary—veteran drivers will be making more than your rookies. But  don’t let seniority dictate all of your trip assignments.

a driver takes the wheel and prepares for a trip

It’s easy to pick your handful of star drivers and assign them to all of your biggest trips, but you can’t forget to include new drivers on big trips from time to time. Letting the new people shine provides them with opportunities to show what they’re capable of, while reducing instances of blatant favoritism.

Szyperski advises that you regularly have open conversations with your drivers to address fairness issues. He also believes that, of all of the elements that play into driver motivation, perceived favoritism from dispatch is the most detrimental.

Host a Driver Council

Drivers spend a lot of time talking amongst themselves about their jobs, their relationships with other departments, and what they think is fair, but this valuable information doesn’t always make its way to you.

To bridge that gap, consider hosting a council with your drivers, during which they can clearly and calmly express their ideas in an environment where they know they’ll be heard.

Remember that the purpose of the council isn’t to let your drivers vent complaints; it’s to calmly address issues that are brought to your attention and find ways to ensure that these issues don’t come up again. In fact, you might find that complaints are only a small fraction of what your drivers have to share; often, their frustration stems from simple miscommunications between departments. Bringing in one representative from your maintenance department, for example, is never a bad idea.

Szyperski shares one instance in which a maintenance supervisor was present at a driver council. One driver’s “complaint” was that they had submitted a bus with an alignment issue that was experiencing vibration within a certain speed threshold. The maintenance supervisor asked a few quick questions about the bus’s issues and determined that it was merely a driveline issue rather than an alignment issue, and the problem was fixed soon after. From this interaction, everyone learned that including more details in maintenance reports would help speed along repairs, and both departments walked away feeling like they were better understood by the other.

Install Onboard Cameras

Making it obvious that you’re keeping a close eye on your drivers might intimidate them at first, but installing onboard cameras can have positive benefits for everyone. Yes, they help catch dangerous driving behaviors or bad driver conduct, but they also catch all of the great things your drivers do, like completing a thorough pre-trip check, avoiding dangerous road situations, and taking the time to greet passengers before they board the bus.

a driver takes a passenger's ticket and prepares for a trip

Szyperski recommends keeping an eye on your onboard camera footage, noting when you see a driver go above and beyond, and commemorating them accordingly. This removes the intimidation from onboard cameras and helps motivate your drivers to perform well during every trip.

Re-Evaluate Your Driver Training Program

If your new drivers’ careers aren’t getting off to a positive start, it’s unlikely that they’ll want to stick around for very long. So if you don’t have an established driver training program, start organizing one now.

Onboarding your new drivers goes beyond throwing a list of rules at them (even though rules are important). Szyperski advises that managers sit down with their new drivers, talk to them about their background, and go through the handbook with them in-person to answer questions they may have. Let them know that you’re open to hearing what they have to say, and make sure they’re clear on the type of environment you want to foster for them.

While you’ve got your training program on the brain, talk to your top drivers and consider their onboarding experience. What set them up for success? How did the process make them feel? Taking their notes into consideration may help you set up your newest drivers for a similar level of success.

Streamline Management Training

If you’re planning to promote a current driver or a new hire into a position of authority, they’ll need to go through some formal management training first. Recognizing their leadership skills and throwing them into dispatch isn’t enough to set them up for success. Register them for a course, whether it’s with you or at a local community college, so that they can learn valuable skills such as how to discipline, how to delegate, and how to recognize good and bad practices.

Szyperski emphasizes that this is doubly important if your new manager is coming from another industry, such as retail. They’ll need to learn the ins and outs of the motorcoach industry from your perspective before they can properly manage your employees.

a company manager talks to two young employees about management strategies

It’s also important that new and existing managers know how to find the root cause of issues. As Szyperski points out, if a manager hears that a driver left for $1 more per hour and they aren’t trained in the techniques outlined above, they may roll their eyes and brush off that former employee as someone who just wanted more money. As we’ve discussed, that’s often not the case, and managers need to be equipped to address driver issues before drivers start thinking about leaving.

Small, but (Sometimes) Necessary, Adjustments

  • Birthday recognitions. Bring in a few treats and a signed card when a driver celebrates a birthday. This is a relatively low-cost way to show drivers that you’re thinking of them, and everyone gets to take part in the celebration.
  • Treat days. A simple weekly or biweekly celebration like a “donut day” is another low-cost way to send a little “thank you” to your drivers. For a healthier alternative, consider providing lunch every now and then.
  • Website features. Write up a new page for your website where you feature your top drivers and highlight their accomplishments. This provides a nice confidence boost for your drivers and leaves a positive impression on website visitors.

Final Thoughts

There’s no overnight fix that will magically cure all of your drivers’ woes; however, taking steps to implement positive changes is crucial for improving working conditions. All of Mark Szyperski’s tips for reducing driver turnover can be summed up in one simple phrase:

“Look, listen, and listen some more.”

Look around your company, listen to your drivers, and then listen some more. In the end, everyone will be happier, and you’ll be able to enjoy a happy team of productive, well-rewarded drivers.