Managing the Financial Side of Commercial Fleets

10 Ways to Elevate Your Fleet Management Skills

Fleet management requires a skill set that is a unique combination of technical, communications, and personal qualities and experience. Here are 10 ways to elevate those skills to the next level.

July 2009, by Staff

Few management positions in any company require the number of different skills and experiences than fleet management. Technical, communications, and personal skills all play a part in successful fleet management.

Sometimes, though, complacency, frustration, and yes, laziness can prevent a fleet manager from taking these skills to the next level. Find that motivation and use the following checklist for a more fulfilling and successful fleet management career.

Hone Technical Abilities

Three major technical skills fleet managers must be proficient in are financial (accounting, treasury, finance), vehicle (mechanical), and information technology (systems, Internet, applications).

1. Financial Understanding

Most fleet managers have at least a basic understanding of the financial aspects of fleet management: accounting for leases, treasury and banking, and finance. Taking these skills to the next level will enable a fleet manager to not only do the job better, but to stand out when opportunities for advancement arise.

Many companies offer training in-house for these disciplines; take full advantage. If the company offers tuition reimbursement, those funds help underwrite local college adult education courses that can broaden knowledge and understanding. Finally, "learn by doing;" that is, make sure that when, for example, a lease versus buy analysis is done, you are involved. Practical application of these skills is critical to keep them sharp and to understand fully how they impact fleet management.

2. Vehicle Knowledge

At one time, most fleet managers had some background in the auto business: working for a dealer or a repair shop, or selling used vehicles. No longer; fleet managers now come from any number of backgrounds, including purchasing, sourcing, accounting, and even sales. A lack of knowledge and skill in vehicle technology (not to mention the auto business in general, including purchasing, production, and used vehicles) is a significant drawback to fleet management excellence.

It's unlikely training in these areas is offered in-house, but again, local colleges and also technical schools offer courses that can provide a good overview of basic vehicle technology. As far as the automotive business goes, while similar formal training isn't available, a number of sources are available to become knowledgeable in the industry's practices, people, and history. Peers, fleet-minded dealers, fleet lessors, and service companies are usually more than willing to help.

3. Information Technology Familiarity

In the past two decades, information technology (IT), which includes computer systems, the Internet, and software applications has become essential in fleet management. Understanding electronic data flow, applications such as Microsoft's Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, and the Internet's vast resources will not only enhance fleet management performance, but make the fleet manager better prepared for upward movement in the organization.

The majority of technology used in day-to-day fleet management is conducted on the Internet; fleet suppliers provide systems that enable customers to order vehicles, track expense, and make changes, all online. But fleet managers must often use spreadsheets (such as Excel) and word processing (e.g. Word) in the normal course of the day, as well as PowerPoint in making presentations to management and others. Any and all training in these IT items can be found quickly and easily, either in-house or outside the company.

Sharpen Communication Skills

The lifeblood of business and the single most important skill any manager has is the ability to communicate, and fleet management is no exception. Fleet managers use all three types of communication - oral, written, and electronic - and the skills needed to use them effectively are keys to success.

4. Writing Prowess

Ask any executive, and they'll tell you finding employees with well-developed written communication skills is one of the most difficult tasks they encounter. Knowing how to get a point across succinctly and clearly, using proper grammar, spelling, and syntax unfortunately has become a rarity. Fleet managers are wise to take this skill to the next level.

The first step in honing written communication skills is to solicit an objective review of a written document: a report, memo, e-mail, etc. Sometimes, it's difficult to admit such a shortcoming, but a trusted friend or colleague can be invaluable in improving skills. In addition, most local community colleges offer basic grammar courses, some even online. Your company may provide them as well.

In composing written communications, learn to get to the point quickly. Use the journalists' five Ws (who, what, when, where, and why) in developing text. Read, and re-read, everything written and try to reduce the word count. Ask someone else to review the text for an objective opinion as to whether or not your goal of simplicity and clarity has been achieved.

The more advanced written communications skills become, the more attractive a manager will be as a candidate for advancement. And remember this important bit of business wisdom: never write something to someone you wouldn't say to them face to face.

5. Oral Communication Ability

Oral communication isn't necessarily public speaking, although that skill is important. Even though electronic (written) communication has become a staple in day-to-day fleet management, the telephone still reigns. The daily "fires" of fleet management tend to arise on the telephone, and putting them out requires oral communication skills that get to the problem and solution quickly.

Acquiring training in this area is difficult; some companies have in-house programs, but such training isn't readily available outside. The following tips will help take this skill to the next level:

  • Take notes. Write down the date, time, name(s), and all the details of a phone call. If a call back is required, note that as well.
  • Be brief and polite. Your tone of voice is important; be businesslike, but friendly. If you know the people on the phone, keep small talk to a minimum.
  • Watch language and tone. Never, ever raise your voice; never express anger; never use language you wouldn't use in front of your family.
  • Use the hold button sparingly. If you need to put someone on hold, ask permission first. If on hold for more than a minute or so, get back on and assure the caller you'll be right back.
  • Avoid speakerphone. Most people dislike being put on a speaker. If absolutely necessary, explain why before doing so.
  • Call back. If you promised a call back, make the call, even if you don't have a resolution to the problem or the promised information.
  • Learn how to make a speech. Raise your comfort level in speaking before a group. Making presentations and public speaking in general become increasingly important the higher up the corporate ladder you climb. Plenty of public speaking courses are available; tying public speaking abilities with PowerPoint or other such skills will build confidence.

6. Electronic Know-How

Electronic communication is primarily via e-mail, a blessing or a curse, depending upon how it is used. E-mail is most useful in distributing information to others, using the writing skills described previously, and simple e-mail etiquette. It is least useful as a means to carry on a discussion or conversation.

E-mail should be used to disseminate information, respond to inquiries, or provide notification. It should not be used to "discuss" issues, debate problems, or make or respond to complaints. Never use company e-mail for personal business; remember, every e-mail creates a permanent record of its written message, and that can come back to haunt an employee.

Don't use capital letters, the electronic version of "shouting."

Print copies of important e-mails, and keep folders in your e-mail application for various subjects. And, just as with any other written communications, never put something in an e-mail that you wouldn't say in person.

Finally, take a typing course if you don't have classic "QWERTY" typing skills. You probably receive more e-mails than you care to count each day, and the more quickly you can type a response, the more productive you can be.

Fine-Tune Personal Qualities

The personal skills good fleet managers have are difficult to define, and determining how they can be taken to the next level is equally difficult. These skills might better be described as personal qualities. Either way, they must be finely tuned to maximize their effectiveness is contributing to fleet management success:

7. Negotiation Skills

This is an easy one. Fleet managers must be able to negotiate with suppliers, drivers, management, and repair shops. Skilled negotiation can save the company money and downtime, solve difficult problems, and help the fleet manager advance his or her agenda.

Negotiating isn't a matter of simply "lowballing" a supplier's offer and engaging in a back-and-forth discussion of price. Negotiating with suppliers involves price, service, and value. Keep in mind a long-term relationship is more valuable and ultimately less costly than choosing on the basis of the lowest price.

Hone negotiation skills with peers; conduct mock sessions with staff. Focus on developing an instinctive feel for what is possible and how far you can go. The goal of effective negotiation isn't necessarily getting what you want; it is getting the best value for what you're willing to pay.

Negotiating with repair shops won't be about price; it will use the technical understanding and knowledge to make certain that only repairs necessary to keep the vehicle safe and dependable are done.

8. Patience

Patience is indeed a virtue as it pertains not only to effective fleet management, but also to management in general. But how does one take patience to the next level? Not many resources are available to train someone to be patient, but one can remember certain concepts to help hone the quality.

The first commandment of patience: don't respond immediately. Getting a voicemail from a driver or an e-mail from the boss with bad news can spoil the day. Responding on the spot, however, can turn a tough situation into a disaster, not only in developing a solution, but also in maintaining the relationships a good manager needs.

If you don't have an immediate solution or answer to a communication, defer, don't react. Take a number and promise a call back, or respond to the e-mail with such a promise. Research the issue/question and respond with a solution. Remember, you need not only to provide an answer, but the right answer.

If another person becomes heated, don't respond in kind. Remain calm and businesslike. If the party becomes abusive, simply suggest the communication be continued when you both are calm.

9. Confidence

Anyone in a position of authority and/or responsibility must be fully confident in themselves, what they know, and how they manage. Confidence, however, must be developed from experience, training, and knowledge. A fleet manager must be confident he or she is the expert in the company, and unafraid to make certain  their expertise and skills is understood and appreciated by others.

It is not unusual for new bosses to try to "bully" fleet managers with ideas they believe are innovative, effective, and original. Be patient (Skill #8) and calmly explain why the idea isn't quite as brilliant as the manager thought and that it's been considered before (if that is the case) - or why it hasn't. Confidence isn't cockiness; however, confidence comes through mature, businesslike, and informed communication.

10. Empathy

No, not sympathy - empathy. The ability to "put yourself in the shoes of others" is rare, but doing so can help maintain good relationships, particularly with drivers. Developing a vehicle selector in a vacuum isn't a good way to understand fully what a fleet driver needs to do the job. A valuable practice is to take a few days during the year to get out in the field, spend these days with drivers, observe what they do and the capabilities the vehicle they drive must have.

Through this experience, when drivers call or e-mail that their vehicles don't have the cargo area or passenger room they need, the fleet manager is better able to understand and judge the complaints properly.

Empathy puts a fleet manager in the chair of the executive frustrated with chronically late quarterly reports. Seeing both sides of the coin ensures sound decisions that consider the needs of all stakeholders.


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