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Customer service: managing a successful supplier relationship

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Clarity of communication needs to be at the forefront if you want a solid long-term relationship with suppliers, finds John Maslen

Knowledge is power when managing suppliers. And the more you can educate them, the better they can perform.

Clarity is critical at the outset when it comes to making sure both sides of the supplier relationship know what can be expected, fleets argue.

Phil Redman, IBM UK fleet manager and ACFO board member, believes this use of clear, unambiguous standards should be based on helping both sides succeed, rather than being focused on creating legal barriers in the event of failure.

“A clear contract complete with SLAs, KPIs, rectification methodology and rectification escalation is important,” he says. “The contract should primarily be built for success, not a long list of ‘what ifs’ for failure. You also need a jointly developed procedures manual setting out who does what and how it is measured.”

Importantly, Redman informs suppliers that no change in working practice can take place without approval. This is supported by regular meetings that are fully minuted, with assigned actions.

He adds: “Work as a partnership, with common aims to receive an excellent competitive service, and to look for opportunities for ongoing improvement and development. There are no winners in an adversarial relationship and stagnation often results, so it is best avoided.”

An important factor in this positive relationship is the use of KPIs that make a difference – fleets shouldn’t just measure everything for the sake of it. If a report from a supplier arrives and is put to one side, it’s simply a waste of time and resources. Instead, managers need to concentrate on what makes a difference and educate the supplier.

Honesty is key

One fleet operator comments: “We ensure the supplier is aware that if they begin to impact on our business then they are at risk of losing custom, thus impacting their own business and reputation. 

“You have to be honest with suppliers – and demand honesty in return. If they cannot supply in time, or at the right price, they will understand why you may need to use an alternative provider and will work with us to address issues to improve their competitiveness and service level.”

Other fleet operators agree that taking customer service from good to great involves going beyond SLAs and KPIs. What takes customer service to the next level is good people, strong relationships and great communication.

Val South, fleet manager at Xerox, argues that communication and clarity are important factors in ensuring a supplier has the tools to deliver at its best, particularly when it comes to ownership of problems.

She says: “Communication is key, along with clear goals and regular meetings. For example, the customer service team at Zenith are always available on the phone. They are always knowledgeable and they take ownership of any issue to resolution.”

This partnership approach also involves recognising that problems are an opportunity to improve, rather than something that turns a business partnership sour. Furthermore, praising the people behind the scenes who do a good job is one of the biggest motivators for any supplier.

Malcolm Ward, fleet and facilities manager for Chesterfield Borough Council, says: “Be a giver as well as a taker. Have trust and open discussions, and make sure they know when they’ve done a good job, as well as when they haven’t.”

This positive approach can work wonders, particularly as it will encourage back-office staff to go above and beyond in the knowledge that their work will be appreciated.

Each year, at the FN50 Customer Service Awards, the passion to serve created by these strong relationships is revealed. Examples include team members working evenings and weekends or taking personal responsibility for getting vehicles to drivers to get them back on the road.

In one case, members of a maintenance control team left the office to deliver minibuses to a breakdown to ensure children weren’t left stranded at the roadside.

Following a fridge vehicle breakdown one weekend, a  leasing team member had the fridge vehicle plugged in at their house until all the food could be transported safely to a replacement van.

In another case, a leasing company team member stepped in to take over the fleet manager’s role while they were on sick leave. They are all examples of suppliers going that little bit further.

For Sean Gallivan, head of indirect procurement at JTI, it is all about mutual understanding: “Ensure you clearly understand the supplier’s position in your supply chain and yours in theirs. Understanding your suppliers is a key first step before you venture into meetings, SLAs and KPIs.

“If you don’t understand your supplier and their relationship to you and the business needs and goals, the rest is too late.”

Chris Haynes, fleet manager of Ricoh, agrees, saying: “I essentially ensure that they want to look after me as a customer. I ensure that any SLA and KPIs are in my company’s favour, but I do feel that it is a ‘partnership’ – they need my business and I need their support.”

In other words, flexibility is also part of the relationship.

“You cannot just expect a supplier to be the one to adapt,” says Glenn Ewen, fleet manager at Clear Channel.

“Set parameters, but be flexible. If you are prepared to bend a little, they’ll often go that bit further to help you.”

Putting customers first

Who supplies the suppliers? It is an important question to answer if a fleet is to guarantee the customer service it expects at all levels of the business.

Suppliers agree that listening and engaging with customers is the first step on the path to profit, but their own providers also need to offer quality support.

At Thrifty, there is a four-point plan that summarises the critical role customer service plays. It is based on simple but effective commitments, covering ‘listen to customers’, ‘put the customer first’, ‘provide solutions through a consultative approach’ and ‘go the extra mile’. In turn, it closely monitors its own supplier arrangements, particularly where it could have an impact on the service it provides to fleets.

National Windscreens recently won a new supply deal to service all of Thrifty’s vans following a competitive tender.

Alison Chadwick, director of fleet operations at Thrifty Car and Van Rental, says: “Thrifty has a reputation for delivering excellent customer service. We work closely with all of our service providers to ensure our customers get the best value for money, without compromising on quality.”

A key benchmark is ‘time to serve the customer’ which, for National’s Thrifty account, is 28.5 hours, with 80% of all jobs completed either on the same day they were booked, or the following day.

Chris Thornton, managing director, at Auto Windscreens, says: “Appointing a service provider shouldn’t be about price alone.

“Many of our customers are as concerned with the level of service and ensuring that they receive the best possible one available.”

Ian Hughes, commercial director at Zenith Vehicle Contracts, adds: “Good customer service means putting your customers first at all times.

“It involves managing, meeting and exceeding customer expectations and building strong personal relationships.

“As well as being delivered by the people, great service also involves the innovative use of software which is aimed at addressing core business needs and issues.”

Just as the fleet-to-supplier relationship is key, so is the quality of supplier-to-supplier partnerships.

“We want our suppliers to be successful; we want long-lasting relationships with our suppliers; we want them to understand that, from time to time, there will be losses but, equally, also gains,” says Ross Jackson, chief executive of fleet vehicle management consultancy Fleet Operations.

“We want our suppliers to be like we strive to be – best in class, delivering an outstanding experience to us and all of our clients.

“Anything we can do that supports and promotes this, we should do and, indeed, we try to do.”

Jackson believes historic poor or mediocre service is often cited when they change suppliers at any level. If they are saying ‘it’s ok’ about service levels, when they should be delighted, that is a warning sign.

He adds: “So for us, great service and positive customer experiences are core differentiators. There is no place for mediocre service levels in our business.”

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  • kevin kissack - 23/04/2015 09:14

    This is a very useful and interesting site, plus it has very well designed tools. Great work! This is my first time here researching fleet management from the VWG side of the equation for a training course.

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