Many manufacturers make a number of aftersales promises through fleet charters. But what do they cover? Christopher Smith reports
For the fleet manager and driver alike, making sure things run smoothly when service or maintenance is required is crucial. As independent servicing networks continue to up their game and focus ever more on the fleet sector, a number of manufacturers have developed initiatives to keep cars in their dealer networks by improving customer service and reducing complexity.
Enter the ‘fleet charter’ – a concept introduced by several manufacturers as a document that gives both fleet managers and drivers an idea of what they should expect during service, maintenance and repair (SMR) interactions.
The cross section of brands offering some form of document is broad and includes BMW, Mini, Hyundai and Mazda.
Here we answer some of the questions a fleet manager should ask about fleet charters.
Should I care about a fleet charter?
A fleet charter tends to be of most use if vehicles are owned and managed in-house. They may also be useful to local, smaller fleets who operate a sole supply or restricted choice and who use franchised dealers.
Also they show that a manufacturer takes fleet seriously which could influence their choice of brands.
“A fleet charter should give confidence to smaller fleets that dealerships are going the extra mile to support them,” says Geoffrey Bray, chairman of the Fleet Industry Advisory Group (FIAG).
“Fleet charters only appear to promise what fleet customers would be expecting from their partners – a focus on service and quality.”
John Pryor, chairman of fleet operators association ACFO, believes that, charter or not, with a conversation, fleets can achieve most of their benefits.
They should be used as a starting point when arranging a service level agreement, and their success depends heavily on the buy-in of the manufacturer’s fleet team and their dealer network.
He adds: “The majority of fleets should able to obtain, at a minimum, what the fleet charters set out to offer, simply by asking. Leasing and fleet management companies will have their own agreements in place, which may well be over and above those offered within the fleet charters.”
However, the charters may also be used by a manufacturer to increase its credibility to fleet customers.
“We set up our charter to provide a level of assurance to the leasing industry and company car drivers that we have a network that values them,” says Steve Tomlinson, head of fleet at Mazda.
“We recognised that drivers needed to feel they would receive great local service, even if the car wasn’t bought through a particular dealer and their fleet didn’t have a relationship in place on that local level.”
Customer confidence in the brand and its product was also a key driver for the introduction of Hyundai’s programme, says fleet director Guy Pigounakis.
“When you combine the fleet charter and our five-year warranty, we think the impact that has on customer confidence is immense,” he adds. “We hope it lays to rest any concerns or questions a customer may have about the quality of our products and service.”
What should a fleet manager look for when applying the charter?
Franchised dealers need to be able to demonstrate that the promises made in the fleet charter are deliverable to a consistently high standard.
Fleets can benchmark customer service levels by finding out how franchised dealer brands rank in driver surveys from leasing companies and the research companies such as Experte11ye.
Peter Eldridge, director of fleet training body ICFM, believes the network on the ground is the best indicator of a charter’s success. “There must be consistency on the part of the dealer network with such elements as service booking lead time, parts availability and a genuine desire to promote reduced vehicle downtime,” he says.
Are the policies followed?
“Fleet charters are ‘created’ by marketing people and there must be belief and commitment to what is in the document from the managing director downwards,” says Bray.
He believes that buy-in is crucial for a charter to work well, and the manufacturer needs to ensure the policies and procedures set out are regularly followed.
“It is critical that fleet charters are bench-tested and regular checks are carried out to ensure they deliver what’s promised,” adds Bray.
“If that does not happen, and customers identify they are not benefiting from what was promised, then reputational harm could be caused to both the manufacturer and the dealer network.”
Graham Burton, fleet aftersales manager at Hyundai, who is part of the team which introduced charter in 2014, says: “If something has not gone quite right, our fleet support team is the first port of call when any issues arise. It will raise the issue with the dealership and get it resolved without the fleet having to chase. We don’t get a great deal of negative feedback, which is a positive. So when we do get issues, it’s important we sort them as soon as possible.”
It is also worth checking the participating dealers for any charter. Tomlinson says a small number of Mazda dealers have not signed up to the scheme, but that it is often for a minor reason.
“Some sites are unable to offer reliable customer Wi-Fi, so are not listed as partners, but they will often be able to meet many of the other criteria in the charter,” he adds.
What does a fleet charter usually cover?
The specifics of a fleet charter will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer but, while the details may change, there are usually a few constant themes.
Guaranteed appointment timescales are a mainstay of the fleet charter, generally with two options – one allowing for the supply of a courtesy car, and a shorter timescale if a replacement loan vehicle is not required.
The ability to fast-track safety-critical or urgent repairs for fleet customers is a high priority, and a charter formalises this.
Burton explains that as Hyundai’s fleet vehicle parc began to grow several years ago, the network had to adapt to the faster turnarounds required by the sector.
“We now specify a ‘fleet core stock’ of parts in every dealer, that are frequently used by fleet vehicles, so the customer does not have to wait for the spare to arrive,” he says.
“It means vehicles can get the extra little jobs found during servicing done the same day, reducing downtime and getting the driver mobile again more quickly.
“While we provide courtesy cars, we know it’s no substitute to getting the driver back in their own vehicle, suited to their job, as soon as possible.”
Whether it is a courtesy car, the provision of a vehicle collection and delivery service, or a service to provide a lift for a driver into the office, the majority of charters include an obligation for helping reach a destination or get home when a vehicle is in for scheduled work.
Adequate facilities for a customer to work during a visit to a dealership are often high on the agenda, with free Wi-Fi, complimentary tea and coffee, and comfortable seating all regular features.
A wash and vacuum is a standard offering for many manufacturers today, regardless of a fleet charter – but its inclusion as a promise ensures drivers feel like their vehicle has been cared for upon its return.
Burton says it is often one of the most appreciated elements of Hyundai’s fleet charter.
“The wash and vacuum is a big thing for many of the drivers – we get a lot of positive comments about this,” he adds.
Fixed-price fleet servicing
With vehicles based across the country, it can be difficult for fleet managers and leasing companies to budget accurately for SMR-related costs. Many manufacturers, even those without customer-facing fleet charters, operate some form of fleet pricing structure (see panel opposite).
Pryor says that any national pricing structure has probably already been accounted for earlier in the purchase process.
“Repair costs are important, but they should already have been factored into vehicle wholelife cost calculations when choice lists were being compiled,” he adds.
Burton says that Hyundai operates a capped rate system – its national fleet pricing is a maximum rate. “If they have a particularly important fleet customer in the area, they have the ability to improve the rates if they choose to,” he adds.
Free fitting of consumables
The fitment of items such as wiper blades and bulbs for no additional labour cost is a regular charter feature, alongside free top-ups of liquid consumables like washer fluid.
Issuing a word of caution, Pryor adds: “Fleets should be aware when working in partnership with a franchised dealer how it handles SMR work in respect of items such as MOTs and tyre and exhaust replacement. Many outsource that work to a third party, but build in a profit margin.”
Vehicle health checks
With the advent of longer servicing intervals, it could be up to two years in some cases between regular full services.
The fleet charter will guarantee the option to take a free vehicle health check in the interim to ensure critical safety issues are not missed. “This provides a traffic light report on the essential wear and tear elements of a vehicle, ensuring it is safe even between services,” adds Burton.
Extended warranty coverage and goodwill
Some charters will extend their warranties and offer goodwill for certain repairs more easily for fleet vehicles.
BMW, for example, extends its three-year/60,000-mile warranty to unlimited miles for corporate customers, while Škoda promises to look more favourably on goodwill requests for fleet vehicles, as long as the car has been maintained within its own network.
Software updates will be completed without labour charge while a vehicle is in for other SMR work under many charters. As vehicles become ever more reliant on software for safety, connectivity and essential functions, keeping vehicles updated is crucial.
Several charters mention integration with the 1link national SMR booking network, so the process for booking in and invoicing is no different to that of a tyre change.
“We do an annual health check on our dealer’s integrations with the 1link platform to make sure that runs as smoothly as possible,” says Burton.
“Our menu pricing goes live on the system shortly, too, to avoid dealership keying-in errors. We try to ensure our dealers are up to speed with the charters and have all the systems working and available, to deal with fleets in one place.”
If things go wrong, or additional support is needed, a fleet charter guarantees the support and assistance of a central aftersales team at the manufacturer, dedicated to corporate and fleet customers.
Henry Williams, head of fleet at Škoda, says its aftersales team plays a vital role in ensuring the job is completed correctly. “We follow-up directly with the fleet manager or driver within three working days of the work being completed to ensure complete satisfaction,” he says.
Fixed pricing at a national level
A number of brands who do not have aftersales charters or fleet specific SLAs will operate a fleet pricing structure for maintenance.
Key to providing solid SMR figures for leasing companies’ wholelife costs, these national cost tables are also available direct to fleets in most cases.
Ford operates the Fleet National Pricing programme, designed for fleets of 25 vehicles or more, which provides maximum costs for a number of specific repair jobs, in addition to major and minor servicing pricing.
Volkswagen offers a fleet package pricing structure, which provides price bands for tasks like servicing and MOT tests on a regional basis, accounting for variations to labour rates.
Vauxhall’s menu pricing system offers online booking, four labour pricing bands, again dependent on dealership location, and national parts pricing. Fleets of any size are able to take advantage of the programme, which is supported by centralised billing.
BMW and Mini approach fixed price maintenance by encouraging fleet and retail customers alike to take out a discounted package across the life of the vehicle, to cover routine servicing.