When you think about working in the transportation industry, what careers do you think of? Truck drivers are probably top of mind. Then the fleet maintenance professionals that keep those trucks running. Depending on how much you know about the industry, your list might not get much longer than that.
One of the most vital careers in the industry is often the most overlooked. The fleet manager is an essential role in ensuring drivers are running efficiently and staying happy out on the road. This challenging career isn’t for everyone, but those that have a certain set of skills tend to thrive in this career — and love doing it.
After nearly 70 years in the trucking industry, we’ve seen our fair share of fleet managers at Anderson Trucking Service (ATS) — successful and not so successful. What we’ve learned is those who tend to be more successful have nine key skills that help them do well in this role.
Keep reading to learn what those nine skills are and why they matter. Spoiler alert: one of the skills is NOT a background in transportation — so don’t rule yourself out just yet. Who knows, the fleet manager position might be exactly what you’ve been looking for in a career.
What Skills Does it Take to be a Successful Fleet Manager?
When it comes to being a successful fleet manager, there’s not one right way to do things. But what we’ve learned over the years is the most successful fleet managers tend to do the following things well:
- Listen/are empathetic
- Solve problems
- Stay composed under pressure
- Build relationships
- Customer service
- Use specific computer programs/talk on the phone
Let’s dive into why each of those skills comes in handy as a fleet manager.
Why It’s Important to Listen and be Empathetic as a Fleet Manager
Speaking of overlooked careers, let’s talk about truck drivers. They’re out on the road for weeks on end — without seeing their loved ones — delivering the things we all use every day. How often do people thank them for their hard work? Not enough. Instead, they complain when a truck is slow in the left lane on the interstate.
See what I did there? :)
But, seriously, no matter which career you choose it gets old when people only notice the bad things that happen and overlook all the good you do.
As a fleet manager, you may be the person a truck driver talks to more than anyone else. So you have to be able to listen to them talk about their day — and likely vent about what they’re dealing with. Be empathetic. Thank them. Show them you care.
And be open-minded in how you do things. When you’re managing 35-45 drivers — and 35-45 different personalities — a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work. How you approach a specific problem for one driver could be completely different than how you approach that same problem for a different driver. You need to be able to relate to each driver in your fleet.
Why You Need to be a Problem-Solver as a Fleet Manager
In the transportation industry, things move fast — especially if you’re new to it. Things also change frequently. Not only will you have to learn how the industry works, particularly how your role works within it, but you’ll also need to be able to adapt when it changes and help your drivers adapt to that change too.
Have a plan A and B (probably even a C and D) at all times. For example, you might have a driver assigned to a load when their truck breaks down. How can you get your driver taken care of and make sure the load still delivers on time? Is it a minor fix that can be taken care of quickly? Or will you have to get another driver assigned to the load while you find a maintenance facility for the driver to go to?
Don’t expect things like that to happen every day, but, with a fleet of 35-45 drivers to manage, things will happen. How you solve those problems — and how quickly — means a lot in this role. Be willing to dig deeper to investigate what caused the problem to happen in the first place and put processes in place to prevent it from happening in the future.
Why You Need to be Able to Balance Multiple Tasks and Prioritize Appropriately
You hear people use the term “multi-task” all the time. In most applications, that’s not a good idea. That’s especially true as a fleet manager.
Think about it this way: If you’re trying to type up an email while you’re on the phone with one of your drivers, are you actually giving your attention to the driver? Put the email on hold until you’re done working with your driver, then get that email sent.
This goes back to being empathetic. How can you provide empathy if you’re not even fully listening? We’ve all been in situations where you can tell the person you’re talking to is busy thinking about something else and not fully listening to you. Frustrating, right? Unsurprisingly, drivers don’t like that either.
Why You Must Stay Composed Under Pressure as a Fleet Manager
In the transportation industry, crazy things can happen at any time. From accidents to bad weather to a driver deciding to quit on the spot, you’ll want to be prepared for virtually anything.
How fleet managers handle those situations speaks volumes about whether or not they’re going to succeed in that role. These types of things won’t happen every day, by any means, but we’d be lying if we told you they don’t happen. And getting upset or taking something personally won't solve anything — and will probably make things worse.
Why You Need Coaching Skills as a Fleet Manager
The ability to coach drivers might be one of the most important skills to have as a fleet manager. How you coach drivers will depend on the type of drivers you have in your fleet though.
For example, company drivers are assigned freight by the company and, generally, they have to accept it and haul it. Your job, in that case, is to influence drivers' opinions about why they are the right solution for the load, why it makes sense for them and why they should haul it. You could even consider yourself a salesperson or influencer, in a way.
However, if you’re working with independent contractors — who can refuse freight whenever they want to — your role as a coach changes a bit. You’ll still coach them about why you picked the load you did, but now you need to teach them why it makes sense financially. You’ll also act as a coach when it comes to educating them on how to successfully “run their business.”
That can be easier said than done when you’re working with a driver that’s been doing it for decades, but good coaches can get past that hurdle. Just look at some of the young sports coaches nowadays coaching players older than them. They find a way.
Why You Need to be Good at Building Relationships as a Fleet Manager
This is probably the most important skill to have as a fleet manager. Not only do you have to establish high-quality relationships with your fleet of drivers, but you also need to create great working relationships with other key players throughout the organization.
As we mentioned earlier, you might be the person your drivers talk to more than anyone else — including their significant others. Building that relationship is absolutely vital to being successful. They need to trust that you have their best interests in mind — professionally and personally.
Beyond the drivers in your fleet, you’re going to be much more successful if you create quality relationships with other people throughout the organization. Going back to the problems that may arise day-to-day, you shouldn’t expect to solve them on your own.
If your driver’s truck breaks down and you need to find a replacement, you’ll want to have an operations person you can rely on to find a truck to cover the load. If you have a personnel situation come about, you’ll want a good relationship with someone in human resources you can rely on for advice. The list goes on.
Why It’s Important to Have Customer Service Skills as a Fleet Manager
To put it simply, it’s important to have customer service skills because you’re essentially working with 35-45 “customers” every day. Your drivers are your customers and it’s your job to keep them happy.
Find them freight that meets their wants and needs, be the person they can vent to, if needed, and de-escalate any situations that arise.
You also can’t run away from conflict. It will happen. Truck drivers are out on the road for 10-plus hours a day alone with their thoughts. We all know being alone with your thoughts is a great way to reach a boiling point. You’ll probably be the first person they call — and they may very well take out their frustration on you. Don’t hold grudges. Shrug it off and help them get past their frustrations.
Remember, they’re the customer, so — as harsh as this sounds — it’s not about you. Your job is to keep the drivers happy.
Now, don’t take that to mean you should be miserable in your job. You should absolutely be happy coming to work every day. But, like a customer service role, you should be someone who’s gratified through helping others. If not, being a fleet manager is not the right role for you.
Why You Need to be an Excellent Communicator as a Fleet Manager
Being a great communicator — through both written and verbal communication — will help you in every area we just talked about. Communicate your empathy clearly so the driver knows you care, communicate the problem you’re trying to solve so you can do so efficiently and quickly, and communicate through coaching and building relationships. You get the idea.
If you don’t communicate clearly, more problems will arise. Part of being a great communicator is knowing when an email makes more sense versus a phone call or face-to-face discussion. How can you ensure less miscommunication?
Why Computer and Phone Skills Are Important as a Fleet Manager
Your working hours will mostly be spent in front of a computer screen, so it’s important that you understand the programs you’ll be using for hours on end. Not only do you need to understand how to use those programs (which can be taught to you, by the way — so don’t fret about that part), but you also need to be comfortable navigating multiple platforms — often simultaneously.
One set of programs you’ll want to understand well is the Microsoft Office suite — including Outlook, Excel, Word and OneNote.
You also need to be comfortable on the phone. Remember, you’re working directly with truck drivers that may be hundreds or thousands of miles away. The phone is going to be your primary line of communication for anything remotely urgent. Some drivers might not have access to email anyway, so it could very well be your only line of communication with drivers.
What Skills Should I have as a Fleet Manager?
If you enjoy helping others, being a fleet manager can be a very rewarding career. While that’s a fantastic start — especially because it’s not a teachable skill — it takes more than that to succeed.
The common traits we see in our most successful fleet managers here at ATS are:
- Problem-solving skills
- Composed under pressure
- Good at coaching
- Good at building relationships
- Customer service skills
- Good communication
- Use computer programs/talk on the phone
If you possess these skills — and enjoy challenges — a career as a fleet manager could be a great fit for you. Be a major player in a global industry responsible for getting everyone the goods they use every single day.
Learn more about what it’s like to be a fleet manager with ATS by watching the video below and get an honest look into what a day in the life is like.