When it comes to IT, there are office tools available that can help you manage your fleet more efficiently, as Steve Moody explains
Running the company car fleet is rarely seen as a core business activity, but it can be a hugely costly and complicated area and many firms struggle to manage it efficiently. However, technology is available that could streamline the process of buying, running and selling the fleet.
IT firms now offer systems that will give you every piece of information you could ever wish to know about your vehicles, from their unit cost and chassis number to their current carbon footprint and licence details of the driver.
And all firms offering fleet management systems will claim great savings and business-enhancing opportunities for their products, but is the investment worth it?
There aren't many "rules of thumb" about the purchase of fleet software, mainly because each fleet varies in its make-up and requirements. But, says fleet management consultant Stewart Whyte, director of Fleet Audits, there is a starting point: "One fundamental rule is that specialised fleet management software solutions are economically viable for fleets of around 100-plus."
That doesn't mean companies have to have specialised software: "At one stage in the 1970s I was running 4,000 vehicles with a paper and pencil."
Fleets in the UK fall roughly into two camps: those that lease and those that outright purchase their vehicles. The approach of purchasing specialists to each model necessarily differs.
For the purchasing manager who leases vehicles from one company, fleet management could be cheap and easy to solve. Whyte says: "If you are a customer of a major contract hire company, why spend £25,000 on a system?"
"Most major leasing companies can now provide a suite of reporting tools online with all the data for all its cars, from vehicle identification numbers, registration and model to servicing.
"There's only the need to capture the information once and if you're outsourcing, get the leasing company to do it. There's no reason to buy a system to replicate this."
Making the most of this cheap method of fleet management requires key performance indicators and service level agreements that ensure leasing firms deliver this information when and how you want it. All of the major providers talk about their ability to do so and they are generally good at it.
The key element for a procurement manager is to get the KPIs and SLAs right. Then the leasing companies will do much of the work for you.
If you have some element of outright purchase or cash-for-car takers on your fleet, then it is more than likely that you are going to need fleet software.
Andy Leech, business leader at fleet management software provider cfc solutions, says: "At the start of the fleet procurement process - vehicle acquisition - fleet software will enable you to look at competing acquisition methods, such as outright purchase and different leasing options, to see which is likely to be the best for you.
"It can also help towards specific vehicle make and model choices by factoring in issues such as running costs, future residual values, environmental impact and safety factors such as the Euro NCAP [crash testing] rating.
"Once the vehicle is on the road, there are a whole range of procurement activities to manage. Fleet software will help you to compare your service, maintenance and repair suppliers, looking at cost, service, speed of response and geographical location. Other areas of expenditure, such as fuel, can impact heavily on fleet costs, and software can help you to reduce costs."
Investment in software, suppliers claim, will cut administration time and operational costs on transport. But it is vital that the fleet management software works with the existing systems.
Jason Francis, managing director of fleet software firm Jaama, says: "Our software can work with systems used in different departments, such as HR and payroll, as well as in depots. They can exchange information with each other and through external links, thus providing minimum input and maximum accuracy."
Monitoring your fleet more closely can reap financial benefits. It can highlight vehicles that perform badly at resale time, and notify you when fuel usage is abnormal or drivers seem to need an unusually high volume of repairs to their vehicles. Remedial action to their driving habits could save you thousands of pounds in downtime and repair costs. But again, as with the leasing companies, a good insurance broker or underwriter should be able to provide you with incident statistics as part of their service.
Be careful to avoid being drawn in by ingenious solutions to problems that don't exist. As Whyte says: "Start with output: the reports your business believes it needs to run its fleet. There's no point spending £100,000 on a package that goes into vast detail if you're not going to look at that detail.
"However, that's not to say that fleet management systems are not worth the money, because they can be very useful, especially if you run a mixed fleet of some leased and some bought, or 100 per cent outright purchased."
You may be able to do much of the work yourself, he says, if you need only an inventory list, vehicle descriptions, P11d prices [the taxable value of the car], CO2 levels, supplier and cost centres.
Whyte adds: "With software, buy what you need with little surplus capacity, put money aside for training and make sure the package is supported."
Purchasers need two commitments from their company, he explains: "To keep it fed with new data, and rigorously use the reporting suite to get out what you want to get out of it so you can run a better, more effective fleet."
CASE STUDIES: SOFTWARE SAVINGS
Paying off at a fleet firm and a council
For firms operating large fleets, fleet management software can help in the procurement and management of vehicles, and even does so for companies that specialise in the process.
Staffordshire-based fleet management and leasing firm CBVC uses the 1link Vehicle Network e-commerce platform.
Michael Manners, director of CBVC, says: "We chose 1link Vehicle Network as the front-end procurement module of our new web-based IT system.
"Using the platform has improved delivery schedules and communications on order progress. It has helped us to give our customer base a wider choice of immediately available vehicles right across the market."
Luton Borough Council's investment in fleet software has helped to integrate the buying and management of its wide range of vehicles.
Don Allison, transport manager, says: "Local authorities typically operate a diverse mix of vehicles and plant and continue to service, maintain and repair vehicles through their own workshops. We wanted to link all of this."
He adds: "Our previous system meant it was extremely difficult for 95 per cent of staff to access management reports. We wanted flexibility and simplicity and Jaama's Key2 system has provided that.
"Compliance officers, for example, can now access detailed reports on the fleet and drivers, whereas in the past reports would have to be compiled manually."
Touch-screen technology informs mechanics of vehicle repair and servicing work and enables them to request parts. Fitters use it to notify managers of the progress or completion of a task.
Meanwhile, for the first time, the council can establish standard repair time, parts replacement and service intervals for specialist vehicles, which saves money and cuts vehicle downtime.
Steve Moody is a freelance motoring journalist