A successful fleet operation is not an island unto itself. Yet, this is how some fleet managers view their operation – an island surrounded by a sea of unreasonable user groups. This is the wrong mindset and one that will thwart any ambition to become a great fleet manager. Fleet operations must be closely aligned with user departments. Fleet operations are not only the chief procurer and maintainer of vehicles and equipment, but, as the fleet manager, you should assume the role of trusted advisor by working with the user operations to identify the best option for their operations. A trusted advisor helps establish boundaries by balancing the realities of what may be practically available as options and tempering unwarranted user department demands.
A fleet manager, who is a trusted advisor, is intimately aware of the services provided by user departments and what’s needed to fulfill them. Programs are implemented that contribute to the achievement of their customers’ goals and anticipate changes in their work environment. These fleet managers are good business managers, finding creative solutions to operate with less, while not degrading taxpayer services. Although difficult, in the final analysis, workable solutions are possible when using a team approach involving both fleet and affected user groups.
Meeting the Objectives of Internal Customers
What is your No. 1 goal as fleet manager? In my mind, the only answer is to better serve internal customers. I’ve said it a number of times in my editorials – but I can’t say it enough: The reason fleet operations exist is to support user departments. To be considered a best-in-class fleet operation, you must have excellent interdepartmental relationships; however, this is easier said than done. The reality is that interdepartmental friction is an unfortunate fact of life, especially those involving territorial issues that result in emotional defiance, which is not open to discussion or compromise. But, if we are honest with ourselves, internal customers, likewise, are too often treated as a captive audience that can be dictated to and shown minimal respect. As a professional fleet manager, your job is to minimize the friction – from both sides.
All great fleet managers realize that internal customers aren’t their nemesis; in fact, they are the very people who justify your position. Since your primary objective is to manage the fleet to support the objectives of the user groups, it requires a management mindset to view all work from the internal (and external) customers’ perspective. The bottom line is that an unhappy customer represents a deficiency in your department’s customer service performance.
Here’s another question to contemplate: What is your No. 2 goal as fleet manager? Although answers will vary, in my mind, your top secondary goal should be to continually listen to all user departments, especially the “squeaky wheels,” and understand their objectives and concerns. Based on my two decades of experience, best-in-class fleet managers establish cooperative, working relationships with all internal user groups that rely on fleet operations, no matter how challenging the personalities of some individuals.
When user department problems are identified, seek to resolve them in a timely manner. This isn’t just for the sake of interdepartmental harmony, it is also a dollar-and-cents decision, because customer service has a dollar value associated with it. Every hour of downtime costs your organization real dollars in lost productivity. Sometimes, this is attributable to deficiencies within fleet operations. Ask yourself: What is your comeback rate? What percent of jobs are completed in one day? Sometimes, chronic service deficiencies are the consequence of an unrealistic service level agreement (SLA). A common mistake made in developing an SLA is over-promising to the customer departments. Invariably, the root cause as to why many SLAs fail is because the fleet manager didn’t involve the day-to-day supervisory management staff who has to meet these performance standards.
On the other hand, there must also be user accountability, such as ensuring the proper operation and care of equipment and the ability to track abuse back to the operator. Creating a beneficial relationship with a contentious user is not a one-way street, with all the “give” coming from fleet. User departments must be active partners in meeting management mandates to modify fleet composition, reduce fuel consumption, and increase utilization levels. It is difficult to change an entrenched end-user culture to be open to alternatives, such as downsizing to smaller vehicles and eliminating underutilized assets.
Unfortunately, these changes invariably require direct involvement by senior management, which requires resolving differences with a “hammer;” not an ideal approach and one that can leave lingering bitterness.
Another way a fleet manager can increase fleet operation accountability and performance is by organizing fleet user committees or advisory board to address operational issues that arise between it and user departments. A fleet advisory board is a powerful tool to gauge the perception of fleet operations by user groups. One fleet manager characterized it, perhaps with tongue in cheek, as “fleet management group therapy.” The purpose of the advisory board is to suggest ways, in an open forum, on how to correct the problems identified by committee members. It is crucial to encourage communication to flow both ways. With this in mind, it is important that you include on the board people who are willing to challenge you. To ensure user group buy-in, consult with your advisory board before making major changes in fleet operations.
Eliminate Adversarial Attitudes
Promising good customer service is not the same as delivering it. To be successful in today’s environment, it is critical to create a shop culture of providing high-quality service that provides an unwavering focus on the customer. Not only does this entail understanding customer needs, wants, and expectations, it involves having an almost obsessive desire to satisfy your internal customers. The kiss of death is maintaining an adversarial attitude with your user departments. “I learned a long time ago that there are more of them (customers) than there are of me, and, if you tick off enough of them, you will generally be on the losing end,” said one fleet manager.
It is also important to understand that service technicians aren’t the first line of defense in raising customer service levels. The first line of defense starts with the fleet manager. To believe otherwise, you may find yourself isolated as a modern-day Robinson Crusoe running the “Fleet Operations Island,” surrounded by angry cannibals looking for their next meal.