I was reminded recently of an old United Airlines commercial, where a company president assembles his entire team to discuss how their oldest customer had just fired the firm. The reason was plain and simple: the customer felt the company had lost touch with them. The company had forgotten the value of understanding its customer’s needs from the customer’s perspective. They were too busy using technology and systems to replace personal relationships. I remember this commercial vividly; at the time I saw it, it was almost a cautionary tale. I was shocked when I found out that this commercial originally aired in June 1990.

That tale was brought back into sharp focus recently, when a driver for one of our carrier partners refused to drive to a particular destination ever again. Effectively, this driver fired the customer.

This is a good driver, a trusted driver, a driver that has chosen the profession of driving and understands the challenges and lifestyle that comes with full truckload, over-the-road, truck driving. And he took the time to write a letter to his carrier company, explaining why he was unwilling to deliver to that destination again. This driver did not quit. He did not stop driving. He simply exercised his right to determine where he was going to drive to. He even went the extra step of explaining why he was firing this particular receiver; he felt harassed, disrespected, and ignored by the receiver. He was delivering to a live-unload destination and was made to wait over 3 hours, with no other trucks in front of him. During his wait, he was insulted and told that he had to wait because this receiver’s last delivery was late—even though that shipment was delivered by a different carrier and driver!

In an industry where driver turnover can exceed 100% and hiring is difficult even during tough economic times, this driver considers himself a “professional driver.” He has exhibited respect for his employer and his customers, and takes pride in his job. If an experienced professional driver was experiencing this, what would be the impact on newly hired or inexperienced drivers?

I immediately thought of that commercial. I thought of the company that had lost touch with its customer. While freight can make the customer/supplier relationship more complex, it still comes down to being in touch. In this case, the receiver was our customer, a customer of the shipper. But in the evolving transportation industry, it’s not uncommon for the carrier to see the driver as the customer. I see challenges for shippers that either disregard this reality, or worse, challenge it.

Both the receiver and the shipper should recognize the driver as a customer. The term “driver-friendly freight” certainly recognizes the importance of the driver in the freight equation. A single shipper cannot erase the ingrained images of the over-the-road driver and the trucking profession that influence people’s attitudes. But good shippers can, and should, address these issues in their own supply chain.

Have you articulated a “driver-friendly” strategy? Do you know how your carriers and their drivers view your business, your customers? Would you be surprised if a driver fired you? The answers to these questions may provide insight into your transportation and carrier strategies.

In our case, it was these questions, asked more than a few years ago, that caused us to look at the entire delivery cycle. Our most recent strategy was to initiate a driver survey of our facilities, to better understand the driver’s experience from their point of view.

As for the driver that fired our customer, I wasn’t able to get on the plane and visit him, but I did write him a personal letter, thanking him for his feedback, his tremendous track record with our customers, and for being such a professional. He’s still not taking shipments to that receiver, but he’s still hauling our shipments.

Craig Boroughf is Senior Director, Transportation & Indirect Sourcing at United States Gypsum Company. During his twenty-one year tenure with USG, he has worked in finance, transportation, and procurement. During his tenure, USG has been recognized as a SmartWay Excellence Award winner and as NASSTRAC’s Shipper of the Year. He is currently a Director of the Traffic Club of Chicago, and sits on customary advisory boards of both 3PL’s and carriers.