By Simon Harris
Turn back the clock a few years and the message being promoted among fleet operators was that they could save vast amounts of money by using independent dealers for service, maintenance and repair (SMR) work.
This lucrative aftermarket business, hugely significant because of the size of the fleet sector in the UK, has been in danger of slipping through the fingers of the main dealer network and being lost to increasingly professional independents and fast-fits (Read ‘Know your enemy’).
Fast-fit providers have been seeking fleet business by adding hi-tech diagnostic and other equipment to their workshops, in an attempt to match the main dealer network for quality and attention to detail.
John Pryor, chairman of the Association of Car Fleet Operators (ACFO), said: “Independent garages and fast-fit organisations have gained a foothold in the fleet SMR sector by not only being cheaper than franchised dealers, but by offering a range of added-value services, including free vehicle collection and delivery and twilight and night-time servicing in some cases.
“Franchised dealers have, recently, been responding to that threat by replicating such arrangements. Collection and delivery is convenient for company car drivers, who may not have the time to take their vehicle to a garage, and twilight and night-time servicing is particularly attractive to light commercial vehicle fleets.”
Fleets increasingly recognise the cost of the SMR work is only one factor, and the price to the business of downtime can often make a dealer who is switched on to the needs of fleet operators more appealing.
Mark Connor, operations director at Zenith Leasedrive, which leases 80,000 vehicles to mainly blue-chip companies, said franchised dealers willing to service vehicles from outside their own brand were in a stronger position to attract fleets.
Zenith Leasedrive’s starting point is to recommend to its clients that they use franchised dealers. However, one third do not, amounting to about £7 million worth of work going to independent workshops.
The leasing company expects its partner workshops to have high levels of service, reliability and consistency. Price is not the most important factor, but value for money is vital.
“Most of our fleet managers are very keen to make sure that we transact maintenance efficiently and effectively,” said Connor.
Zenith Leasedrive’s data shows two out of three company car users require either collection and delivery or a courtesy car. They want to be able to book the vehicle in within two or three days, and they want their own vehicle back at the time they are expecting it.
Connor said courtesy and professionalism are important, but delivering ‘the brand experience’ is not valued by leasing companies, because half of company car SMR is done on a collection-and-delivery basis, so the driver doesn’t ever get to see the brand.
“He’s more interested in whether the work has been done on his vehicle, and whether he has got it back on time,” he said.
Nor will fleets be interested in upsells – they simply want the right job done at the right price. However, company car users do rate ‘random acts of kindness’, such as putting a bottle of water in the car. Such acts may lead them to score the workshop highly in the customer satisfaction surveys they return to the leasing company. Those surveys help to determine where future SMR work is directed.
For some dealer networks, the specific problems and challenges have been brought into greater focus with training events. Fleet consultancy business Fleet Assist recently hosted a fleet aftersales working party for BMW dealers.
Attendees were given a demonstration of Fleet Assist’s SMR booking system, discussed the flow of information between leasing companies and BMW centres and sat in with the control centre bookings team as they co-ordinated and arranged work to take place.
“We want to ensure BMW centres offer the best possible service to our corporate customers and effective SMR bookings processes are fundamental to that aim,” says Simon Anderson, service programmes manager at BMW Group.
“There are very clear benefits for the BMW centres to fully understand the service provided by Fleet Assist and how the SMR booking system functions.
“We want to ensure the service is utilised to the maximum in terms of securing bookings and offering a fast and efficient service to leasing companies, their end-user fleet customers and company car drivers.”
Many manufacturers have fleet and business specialists within the retailer network, with staff who have been trained to understand the priorities of fleet operators and workshops that prioritise company vehicles.
National pricing schemes operated by many manufacturers have helped main dealers to remain competitive for many fleet operators, while fixed-price servicing packages available when ordering vehicles have also ensured dealers retain fleet business.
Pryor said: “Manufacturers have been able to stem the fleet move away from franchised dealers by increasingly offering added value service packages with new vehicles.
“In the main, the service packages represent good value for fleets. Therefore, with an increasing number of motor manufacturers offering them, and fleets opting for them when ordering new models, it means that service work is being ‘tied’ into the franchised network for at least the duration of the package.
“Typically, drivers of company cars from volume manufacturers do not mind where their car is serviced, which is why ‘local’ independent garages and fast-fits have secured work. However, the same is not necessarily true in respect of prestige marques – the attraction of a stamp in the log book and a visit to a smart showroom do have their appeal for some.”
Nick Hardy, sales and marketing director, Ogilvie Fleet, said: “Ogilvie Fleet’s policy is to use the franchise dealer network for SMR work unless a client specifically requests otherwise.
“We actively promote the use of franchised dealers so the use of a secondary network is extremely rare.
“Franchised dealers, we believe, provide the best service for our customers, deliver a consistent service and use their respective manufacturer programmes. What’s more, through the franchised network we are able to maximise warranty contributions from the manufacturers when required.
“Using a franchised dealer may cost more than an independent, but any small saving would be potentially eroded if we started upsetting customers by using a secondary repair network, and that is something we will not countenance. Our customers want the best. For them, that means using franchised dealers for SMR work.”
While the mantra for fleet operators during the recession was reducing costs, as the recovery has gradually taken hold – and particularly with strong growth in car sales – spending may not have reached pre-financial crisis levels, but most are keen to increase value.
If franchised dealers can succeed in providing that extra value with SMR, then fleets will seek it out.