When the new pickups came in, Tom Collom found they were being drop-shipped to dealers that were 60 to 80 miles away from the office and his drivers. The agreement with a new dealer group saved the company $100 on PDI (pre-delivery inspection) fees for each truck, he was told by senior management.
Collom, a shop supervisor in West Texas for a major oil and gas producer, pointed out that the company was losing double that by having to pay drivers for an extra half day of travel just to get the trucks. The senior manager’s response? “His exact words to me were, ‘I’m showing on paper that I’m saving money,’” Collom says.
In recent years, Collom has seen a shift in the positions at his company that oversee fleet. And the way he sees it, this new blood hasn’t driven a net savings of time or money for the vehicles he manages.
“We've got a bunch people now that are trying to run (fleet) like bank managers and accountants,” he says. “What takes years to get the efficiency and productivity incorporated into your shop and your fleet can be totally destroyed by people who haven’t actually worked on vehicles.”
Collom used to have a good working relationship with management when it came to fleet, he says. They may not have been mechanics, but they knew enough about what was happening on the ground and under the hood to talk the same language. That’s not so true anymore.
Marc Canton, a consultant for Mercury Associates, agrees. He’s seen instances in which fleet managers with no automotive background were taken to the cleaners by repair service providers and even their own techs.
Canton recalls and instance in which a single repair was paid for three times with different invoice numbers and slightly different terminology. Other times a fleet manager didn’t have the wherewithal to sniff out an unneeded upsell or challenge a repair cost or delay. (One was told that the parts for an airbrake on an F-150 take a long time to come in.)
As vehicles evolve into “transportation appliances” on the path to autonomy, the way they’re repaired and maintained will change permanently. But this change is incremental. Are we facing a growing knowledge gap in the meantime?
“We see the future, and yet there’s a present that is not being dealt with in terms of technicians who have had a certain amount of grease on their pants in the past,” says Brian Reynolds, fleet administrator for Smith County, Texas.
Yet in today’s fleet world, business knowledge is an imperative. Fleet managers can and do rise through the mechanic’s ranks, but not enough grow into effective data managers, Canton and Reynolds say.
“Vehicles are one of the largest expenses for most organizations,” Reynolds says. “When you're talking millions of dollars, if you're not managing it like a business with business acumen deeply involved in it, you’ll fail. You have to be able to measure performance with numbers and data to tell your story to be able to argue for more resources.”
Robert Cornwell, a director for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) the professional certification group for automotive repair, says the slope is even more slippery today, as vehicle repairs become more computer based.
“How do we keep our technicians up to speed (with the new technologies)? How do we bridge the gap between the guys in the shop and the management of the company?” he says. “This has been a massive ongoing conversation for the last three to four years.”
Fleet managers who wish to be proactive with vehicle-specific education have resources: NAFA offers a maintenance management module as part of its CAFM (Certified Automotive Fleet Manager) program. And managers in other departments now overseeing fleet who wish to talk the same language can take NAFA’s Fleet 101 program.
Yet the bigger issue may not be a lack of education on the mechanics of vehicles, but one of communication.
Reynolds, who doesn’t have a technician’s background, makes sure to get involved. “I'll walk out in the shop and look over a guy's shoulder and ask him questions,” he says. “I’ll ask him to explain it to me because this is the fourth one of these failures we’ve seen.”
In Collom’s purview, this is no longer the case.
With so many departments now involved in fleet, perhaps too many layers of bureaucracy have brought decision making too far away from the issues on the ground, which leads to communication breakdowns and clouds personal accountability.
Perhaps in a strict adherence to corporate policies we’ve taken too much autonomy from the folks touching the vehicles.
The need to crunch data will only grow in importance, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of the guy on the ground — be it a fleet manager or a technician — who can oftentimes make better decisions to get things done quicker and cheaper.