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The Internet offers a major opportunity for dealers to add value for fleet customers

We're not talking about adding Internet cafes to dealerships or other gimmicks. Current developments in Net technology now provide opportunities for dealers to get far more involved in their fleet customers' operations, argues Ashley Sowerby, managing director of Chevin Computer Systems

At a time when dealers are uncertain about the future, technology is offering a major life-line. A way forward which could greatly enhance dealers' usefulness to hundreds of thousands of small and medium-sized customers.

Dealers who want to survive in the current climate could dramatically increase customer service levels and loyalty - by moving effortlessly into the fleet management business.

Fact: many SMEs haven't a clue when it comes to operating their fleets efficiently.

Fact: most companies in that category would welcome greater support from dealers, especially if it demonstrably saves money.

Fact: the bulk of SMEs don't see the specialist trade press because they're too small to go on circulation lists.

Those SMEs who do have a clue about operating efficiently, probably keep computerised records in-house on a battered machine, running a spreadsheet or other 'cobbled together' system. Lucky ones may have a better system, able to provide reports available at the touch of a button and the ability to spot things like over-spends automatically.

The drawback in either case is that additional advances in the last few years, such as central billing for fuel purchases and other items, as well as hi-tech stuff like satellite tracking, have given fleet managers almost too much information to cope with. In many cases, those who've tried to keep up, have ended up with information overload. (Moral: there's little point having information on your fleet's every move, if you're not geared up to make the most of it!)

The Web has improved the flow of information in the last few years. For instance, we've seen suppliers (especially in the contract hire and leasing sector) allowing fleet customers to access information on-line.

The final piece in the jigsaw is the development of 'active' software packages (like FleetWave), capable of quite literally pulling all this fleet data together and making possible enormous time savings for SMEs.

This is where your opportunity comes in. For YOU could set up a system to manage your customers vehicles for them. An Internet-based system would mean that individual fleets' records no longer had to be kept in-house. In fact the data would be far safer on a secure server miles away.

You'd set each customer up with an access password, and the person responsible for the fleet would be able to start making sense of his/her fleet immediately.

Best of all, your customer would gain enormous time savings, because suppliers, contractors, other departments and even individual drivers could feed their own data in to a central data pool which would always be up-to-date. Information on accidents and repairs, or for P46 and P11D reporting for instance would be actively gathered together in a single data pool, and the system could be automated to contact drivers or suppliers by email or SMS whenever necessary.

Additional time would then be saved by departments, subsidiaries etc. drawing off their own reports, accessing the data thanks to a system of passwords (strictly under the control of the fleet manager).

There'd be no risk of data disappearing if a machine were to be stolen, and no more lengthy periods of 'down time' while the fleet manager's desk-top computer recovered from a crash. In fact as engineers would be constantly monitoring the remote servers, there'd be no delay while your customers waited for technicians to call, as they'd be able to fix any problems at the server end virtually immediately.

Centralising data for the growing number of 'multi-site' fleets has become comparatively easy. Armed with nothing more than ordinary spec computers and industry-standard Microsoft Explorer browser software, your customers could be quickly connected across the UK (and even around the world). No tricky networking necessary or costly extra installations. Freedom to manage round the clock, wherever they are.

Complicated to set up? No. The only difficulty you face right now is grasping the nettle before the opposition does.

* Chevin Computer Systems last year began development of the world's first true web application fleet management system FleetWave, which was officially launched in June 2002. It is now helping to manage fleet vehicles at Cadbury Schweppes, Platinum Fleet Management, Murfitts Transport and the accident management section of a major dealership and leasing group, to name but a few.

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