Managing the Financial Side of Commercial Fleets

Generational Shift Increases Digital Communication in Fleets

November 2015, by Bob Cavalli

Image courtesy of
Image courtesy of

Millennials and members of Generation X are becoming the majority in the fleet management profession, and it wasn’t all that long ago that a mention of smartphones, Twitter, or even e-mail would have brought a thoroughly puzzled look.

Boomers and their predecessors will remember when fleet managers used landlines and “inter-departmental” envelopes to communicate with their peers, managers, and even drivers. Fleet policy was on paper — a booklet in the glove compartment. Safety newsletters were sent out by snail mail, and drivers found phone booths from which to call for help when they needed it.

Today, fleet managers have e-mail, social media, and smartphones at their communication disposal.

At a Glance

From the days of "snail mail" and finding a phone booth to make a call, fleet communication that has come a long way. Some examples impacting fleet today includes:

  • E-mail.
  • Smartphones.
  • Internet/intranet.
  • Social media.

What’s The Message?

With all of the tools available to use today, what is the message, or messages, that fleet managers most often need to communicate? There are a number of them, at least those that go beyond the relatively common one-on-one communications that occur dozens of times every day.

Today, more often than not, simple inquiries are handled via e-mail, though the telephone (mobile and land based) is still a key communication tool. There is, however, a great deal of information that fleet managers need to get out to the field, and now they have the tools with which to do it. Here are some examples:

Safety: Is there a more important message that fleet managers need to communicate than driver safety? Probably not. Safety is job No. 1 for any fleet manager, and getting the safety message out is easier today than ever before. In the past, safety newsletters, for example, were on paper, and mailed to drivers.

Today, such newsletters are sent electronically, via e-mail, or posted on the company’s intranet site. The biggest advantage fleet managers have today over their predecessors is the ability to repeat that safety message regularly; drivers know they should drive safely, but the message will get lost in the daily activity the job brings unless it is made a regular part of the day.

Policy/procedures: Gone are the days of the fleet policy booklet in the glove compartment, which had to be updated on paper whenever changes were made. Today, fleet policy changes, additions, and deletions are mere keystrokes and seconds away from being communicated to everyone and anyone with a stake in the operation of the fleet.

Recognition: One of the motivating factors in any fleet policy, particularly in safety, is recognition. In the past, recognition consisted of a letter from some senior executive, and perhaps a photo in the hard copy company newsletter. Today, again, that recognition is merely a few clicks away; safe driving awards and citations are posted on the fleet website or page and/or e-mailed to all, including senior management. Recognition works best, obviously, when the recipient knows that others are aware of it. Today’s communication tools enable fleet managers to recognize driver excellence in real time to the full range of fleet stakeholders.

Vehicle selection/ordering: Though vehicle selection doesn’t necessarily change each year, when it does, getting the message out electronically is once again far easier than sending out paper. Ordering can now be done online, usually, via a fleet lessor’s system. And, one can add to that the electronic means by which fleet managers can now spec their selections (“old timers” can remember the three finger thick Kelley Blue Book they used back in the day).

These are just a few of the many messages that fleet managers must communicate to a broad, geographically spread audience. The bottom line in all of this is the difference between depending on paper, mail, and landline phones to communicate with fleet stakeholders, and the real-time tools the Internet and smartphones make available.

Best Tools for Messages

With not only the dramatic advance in technology, but also the wide range of communications tools available, which ones are best for which messages? The list of tools is a long one: e-mail, smartphones, websites/pages, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc., but not all of them are good solutions for any of the messages and information fleet managers need to convey.

Here are some ideas for matching the tool with the message:

E-mail: Becoming what landlines were in the past, e-mail is the “workhorse” day-to-day communication tool. Indeed, it isn’t an exaggeration to say that the large majority of daily communication can, and is, done today via e-mail. Drivers’ questions and requests, dissemination of reports and other information, and communication with fleet suppliers are all regularly done via e-mail.

But, e-mail etiquette requires some level of training, and, as with any written form of communication, it is easy to be misunderstood. Fleet managers or anyone using e-mail, need only to remember one basic rule: read the message, more than once, before hitting the “send” button. For more important messaging, have someone else read it first.

Smartphones: If e-mail is the “paper,” smartphones are the “mail person” of modern day communication. Evolved from simple cell phones, smartphones now can do, and provide access to, just about everything that a laptop or tablet can. Access to e-mail, social media, and the Internet are all smartphone features. The problem — and it’s a big one — smartphones are the No. 1 distraction fleet drivers have.

Despite fleet policy that, at least requires hands-free use, and, in some cases, prohibits the use of all phones while driving, one would have to be naïve to think that it doesn’t happen, particularly with features such as texting (there are few things more infuriating than passing a car and seeing the driver focused on a smartphone rather than the road).

Despite such violations of policy, and the danger of using smartphones while driving, they do provide drivers and fleet managers a remarkable tool for communicating.

E-mail remains the main form of communication in today's business space, with more than 205 billion e-mails sent and received per day, or almost 2.4 million each second and 74 trillion e-mails each year. 

Drivers no longer have to look for phone booth banks or hotel lobbies, nor wait until they get back to the office, to call in for messages or make important phone calls. Fleet managers can send text messages, post information online, or leave voicemails for drivers, and know that they’re available in real time.

Social Media: There are a number of social media platforms, with more being developed all the time. Not all of them lend themselves to business communication, but there are some that can, and do.

There are two social media platforms that can be used by fleet managers to communicate with the field, and they with each other. One is Facebook. Fleet managers can, for example, set up a company fleet Facebook page dedicated to safety, maintenance, or even just to allow drivers to interact. The same can be done with LinkedIn, a platform that is specifically designed for business networking.

A safety LinkedIn or Facebook page can be used to post maintenance and safety tips, where drivers can exchange stories, where even employees’ family members can communicate with each other. Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, for example, are more suited for interaction among family and friends, and for people that like to follow celebrities, athletes, and politicians.

Intranet: Many companies have an in-house intranet, where employees can go for a broad range of information: benefits/human resources, press releases, payroll, and, yes, fleet. It is here that a fleet manager would post the company fleet policy, along with procedures (such as reporting an accident or new vehicle ordering), and often the forms drivers will need. A frequently asked question (FAQ) section can help drivers get answers quickly. Not as much a place for interaction, as with the social media tools, but more for hard information that drivers need.

Different tools work well for different messages, or to harbor different information. Fleet managers do need to be sure that drivers know where to find what; post a safety tip or accident story on the social media site, find the vehicle selector and order instructions on the fleet website.

Productivity vs. Distraction

We’ve come a long way in information and communication technology and the advances show no sign of slowing down. Some are fads (think, MySpace) while others continue to grow and add functionality (smartphones).

Fleet managers know they now can disseminate information and messages to the entire fleet, or the entire company, using a keyboard, a touchscreen, or a mouse.

But, there are drawbacks, such as the aforementioned distractive elements inherent in a smartphone, and hitting “send” on an e-mail that might well be misunderstood. Training can handle the latter, and a firm policy (with penalties consistently applied) the former.

In the end, better communication, properly understood and used, equals better productivity.

Bob Cavalli has over 40 years experience with all aspects of the fleet industry. He is currently a field editor for Automotive Fleet magazine.

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