by Tim Brady, Business Editor

When freight slows, the time is right to take care of tasks that often get neglected.

tim brady
In some ways, we all wish our business would be pedal to the metal all year long with more freight, more customers, and the resulting higher rates. In the real world of trucking, however, we deal with the ebb and flow of freight availability. There are times when the phones are ringing off the hook with calls from shippers needing their freight covered, but there are also times when the phone is silent and you have to scrape every known barrel to keep your trucks rolling with cash-flowing freight.

You have many options on how to deal with slow periods. Parking your trucks or laying off drivers and office staff is one common solution. But what if you’d prefer not to lose quality people, even for a short time?

Here are some suggestions on how to work through a slow freight period.

1. Perform maintenance and repairs

A good time to bring in your road equipment, have it thoroughly inspected, and take care of every item requiring attention or repair is when freight is slow. When you’re rolling hard, a lot of the little annoyances are set aside for a “more convenient time.” Now is that time. The same can be said for your facilities, i.e., office, shop, parking area.

This is the time to schedule maintenance and repairs. For example, those jarring potholes in the parking lot, the cracked window, even things like carpeting or painting, which entails emptying offices of furniture to do the job. Nothing invigorates an office staff more than fresh paint and new carpet.

2. Upgrade computer systems and software
Again, the slow periods provide the opportunity to do the upgrades and then bring everyone up to speed on how to operate and use that new equipment and software.

3. Schedule training
The time to bring on the education is when you don’t need to have a full staff running your operation. The trucking industry is changing every day with new technologies and tools. Your employees should be aware of the constant flow of new rules and regulations. Not to mention, it’s also best to be proactive when it comes to safety training.

4. Brainstorm
This is a great time to find out what ideas others have to improve the efficiency and profitability of your operation. Organize several different brainstorming and problem-solving sessions. Sessions should include both group meetings and one-on-one discussions with individual employees and contractors. Include mechanics, dispatchers and salespeople in the mix. It’s best to have the group brainstorming sessions in an off-site location, in a more creative environment that’ll literally force your people to think outside the box.

5. Meet with your best customers
Find out what their plans are for the future and how you can help them achieve the goals they’ve set for their company. Look for new ways to work together for the benefit of both operations. Don’t forget to include any freight brokers from which you regularly obtain freight and distribution center managers.

6. Review your financials
Even though you regularly look at your daily revenue and expense numbers, it’s a good idea to periodically do a line item cost analysis to make sure you’re not missing anything. Review your hauling rate range and be sure it’s in line with your capitalization goals. Take the time to reflect on the past year and see how changes can position your carrier for success moving forward.

7. Review your business plan
Any business, especially a trucking company, is never a static operation. What the initial plan was when you opened your doors reflects what the business should look like today. Certainly, adjustments had to be made along the way as conditions changed. It’s very important to go over your business plan, make changes to it that show how you’ve responded to challenges along the way, and then analyze your plan to see what else needs to change to reach your current and future goals.

8. Evaluate your marketing strategy
How are you going to maintain your current customer and freight base and how are you going to grow it? What are the best methods to find customers who fit into the niche you’ve developed? Where will you get the biggest bang for your marketing dollar?

9. Review the freight lanes for each truck
Don’t presume everything will remain as it is within each freight lane. It’s very important to have alternative freight sources set for when a load cancels or is delayed, or when a shipper suddenly stops using your company to haul their freight. Be a scout; be prepared.

All nine of these options have different levels of importance for each carrier. As the owner/manager of the operation, you need to prioritize which ones require immediate attention during a slow freight period. Keep in mind this is all about keeping you and your company ahead of your competition. Low freight periods used to your benefit by following through with these activities are what will prepare you for the challenges you and your team will face when freight picks up.

Idle time can cause you and your staff to worry about that lack of freight. Instead, use that time to hone skills and ready your operation for the next rush of business.

Each month, from February through October of this year, we will explore these nine steps in greater detail to help guide you through every activity and obtain the best results for your trucking operation. Plan on having a profitable new year.