Maintenance matters

Selecting a service provider for your fleet

June 15, 2011
by Kara Kuryllowicz

Maintenance matters precisely because vehicle performance affects everything from a company’s bottom line to employee and customer satisfaction.

“Fleet maintenance all comes down to cost per kilometre, which goes beyond the parts and labour to the measurable—wages and productivity—and intangible costs of downtime—lost sales, driver and customer satisfaction—as well as the impact on the resale price,” says John Bettio, service manager at Whiteoak Ford Lincoln in Mississauga, Ontario, which splits its annual fleet service of 2,500 to 3,000 vehicles between cars, trucks and vans (65 percent) and specialty vehicles such as fire trucks, snowplows and ambulances (35 percent).

“A courtesy car or van is an easy option, but renting or borrowing a specialty vehicle is more of a challenge.”

Fleets, their management companies and service providers typically respect the manufacturers’ recommended service intervals for their particular vehicles (model and year) and expect drivers to do the same with their suppliers of choice.

“General Motors dealers adhere to the maintenance schedules recommended in the owners’ manuals for our various nameplates—there shouldn’t be any deviations or variations,” says George Saratlic, product communications manager with GM Canada in Oshawa, Ontario.

“Our recommended service intervals are designed to ensure the best possible performance of our products based on either the distance travelled or the passage of time. Those schedules apply regardless of weather or road conditions.”

Recommended schedule
Dealers typically follow the manufacturers’ recommended maintenance schedule and rely on their in-house fleet experts to assess true usage and tweak the frequency and services accordingly.

Here’s why: As Bettio points out, a utility vehicle, for example a Ford F550, might drive just 40km a day, but the engine runs an additional eight to 10 hours to power the accessory lift, which puts a significant number of extra, but invisible, miles on the engine. Such severe duty might require a brake and power-steering fluid flush-out and a fuel system cleaning that the manufacturers rarely recommend.
“Together, the dealer and the manufacturer will cover all of the bases, including temperature extremes, which can be very severe in parts of Canada, where it can swing from -30C to +30C,” says Bettio. “This is why we recommend the severe maintenance schedule.”

Increased frequency
When service providers recommend increased frequency or specific services not on the manufacturer’s schedule, fleet managers and drivers may assume it’s an unwarranted upsell. However, if the fleet manager or driver discusses it with the service expert, they may learn it’s entirely legitimate based on the technician’s observations, prior knowledge or test results.

Spending a few dollars now may save a lot more money down the road, when you consider service versus replacement costs. For example, it costs about $190 to service a Ford 150 transmission, which has a replacement value of about $6,000.

Ask the hard questions
“Always ask why rather than simply assuming it’s a cash grab,” says Bettio. “You need to understand the fleet business and the real-life demands that are put on each of those vehicles to care for them properly. We recommend what will best serve the customer in the long run because we want to have that customer for life for both service and sales.”

Most fleet management companies have a series of checks and balances in place, so that service providers have to obtain approval for work that will exceed predetermined limits or for certain types of service or repair. This also gives fleet managers the perfect opportunity to ask for an explanation or justification.

While some fleets deal with preferred service providers to ensure consistent service quality, facilitate centralized records and earn volume discounts, many fleets let drivers select their own suppliers based on personal preferences.

“The easier and more convenient the access to that service provider, the greater the likelihood that vehicle will get the recommended maintenance with less employee downtime,” says Dave Rutherford, director, fleet services at Jim Pattison Lease in Calgary, which handles 21,500 leased and managed vehicles across Canada.

“A company vehicle is a work tool and a privilege—the expectation that drivers will take care of that company asset must be part of a strong fleet policy that is communicated and supported from the top down.”

Today, the service industry is highly professional and populated with trained technicians relying on expensive analytic tools to expedite the identification of problems and solutions. It’s also an industry in which a recent study showed labour rates vary by no more than three to four dollars an hour from supplier to supplier. In addition, parts are generally sold at the manufacturers’ suggested list price, although 10 to 15 percent discounts may be available to high-volume clients.

As a result, fleet knowledge may be one of the key differentiators worth focusing on when selecting a service provider. Ask relevant questions such as: Do your service advisors have a fleet background? Do the advisors consider what the vehicles do every day in conjunction with the manufacturer’s recommended service schedules? Will fleet customers be given priority to minimize downtime? Can the service provider help green the fleet? Does the provider have trained specialists with specific expertise, e.g. diesel?

When drivers regularly deal with the same service provider, it ensures consistent, accurate service records are maintained and they develop a relationship and comfort level appreciated by both parties.

Fleets that select service providers with fleet-specific experience and expertise will save time and money while realizing higher customer and employee satisfaction.