Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Don’t let the title of this article throw you; the answer will actually allow you to avoid politics. It will come from an entirely different direction — a skill set that should be second nature to every fleet manager, but is commonly missed.

Back to Basics

Whenever I consider a question like this for fleet, I take a step back and go back-to-the-basics. This not only serves to identify what needs to be done, but also serves to remind us how to avoid getting caught up in some of the unseen pitfalls particularly common to traditional technology-driven services like fleets.

Some of these pitfalls come in the form of misconceptions. Others come from an incomplete or cursory understanding of customer service fundamentals. And, others come from limited perspectives — often the result of having no competition. As a result, fleets can be particularly at risk.

I understand this, because I suffered from all of these at one point. It took me a long time to discover and then learn how to overcome these impediments.

This article is aimed at saving you this experience and lost time. In the process, you’ll also answer the question of “How to Survive Interdepartmental Politics.” You may be surprised at the resultant opportunities to redefine your success — both in value and scope.

A New Baseline

Understanding the premise that fleets provide customer services, it’s useful to re-examine some of the fundamentals. In this case, it involves properly identifying your customers.

The commonly accepted definition of the term customer is someone who pays for the services provided. While simple and somewhat accurate, it severely limits success, as you’ll learn. I describe customers as those receiving services and who define your success with their customer satisfaction.

With this broader definition, the term necessarily applies to far more than those who just pay for services received.

An example outside of the fleet industry illustrates this best, namely, healthcare.

Healthcare Analogy

Say your grandmother sees her doctor for treatment. As the patient, most would agree she’s the primary customer of the healthcare provider. But, for many seniors, she wouldn’t be the principal source of payment; with insurance and/or Medicare paying the dominant portion of the costs.

Thus, using the traditional definition of customer, the insurance provider or Medicare would be the customer — even though they are not the recipient of the healthcare services.

However, both the insurance provider and Medicare are actually customers since they are recipients of services from the healthcare provider. In this case, the services received are informational; confirming both cost and coverage eligibility required for payment.

You may be thinking to yourself: “How does this relate to fleets?” In providing internal support within a larger parent organization, there are similarly other customer groups. The traditional customer definition would be limited to fleet users being charged by an internal accounting process.

However, fleets have a lot of other customers, and one that every fleet manager recognizes is the user groups’ drivers and equipment operators.

Drivers/Operator Customers

Their satisfaction is critical to the fleet’s success in a number of ways. If they like the equipment, they operate it more effectively. They will also take better care of it, minimizing maintenance, breakdown, and downtime expenses. This makes everyone’s job easier, including: the fleet, the drivers’ and operators’ supervision, and the upper-level management of the organization.

This leads directly to another primary fleet customer group — one that holds the fleet’s future in its hands.

Owner/Executive Customers

Most fleet managers also recognize their organization’s owners, executives, or top administrators as customers; even though they might not describe them as such. This group is hard to ignore, since they determine your annual budget and they define your success. These are the people that — if unsatisfied — can replace individuals or the whole department at will. You definitely want to satisfy this group.

If you are with me at this point, let’s continue this direction.

Ancillary Customers

In this context, all of the internal support groups interacting with fleet are customers. The reason they meet the definition is they are recipients of services and they determine your success.

HR, sales, procurement, risk management, legal, environmental, safety, finance, and administrative services all fall into this customer category. They all interact with fleet and provide and receive services, such as information, reports, and other results.

As such, their satisfaction with these ancillary services can determine your success. If the fleet falls short of their expectations, the fleet manager can expect to hear about it. And, if critical functions remain uncorrected, they will be addressed one way or another.

At this point, there are still two additional customer groups that typically remain unidentified as customers.

This may be a stretch, but federal, state, and local law enforcement and similar regulatory bodies are all customers as well. They are the recipients of a fleet’s services — in the sense of compliance — and the fleet’s success depends upon this as well.

This leads to another broader category of customers that you don’t want to overlook: external customers.

These customers include the end users or recipients of the services, the communities in which they reside, and the consumers of the overall services provided.

Back to the Point

With this valuable new insight, the original question of “How to Survive Interdepartmental Politics” can now be addressed effectively. The answer is simply to treat all of the internal support groups as customers.

A fundamental guideline for any effective service provider is to be customer-driven. Realizing that customers define your success; every decision and subsequent action needs to be directed toward the goal of optimizing your success by satisfying customers.

For optimal success, this means achieving win-win results consistently exceeding everyone’s expectations.

This sounds difficult and it is quite challenging, but if you leverage some best practices associated with this goal, it makes this objective much more realistic and achievable.

Defining the Relationship

When you choose a service provider, would you rather work with a friend or someone you don’t know? Do you seek a partner in what you are trying to accomplish, or just a service provider?

The optimum successful relationship is a friendly partnership. Since customer satisfaction is the goal, it’s always better to be judged by a friend. Similarly, in a partnership relationship, you share the results with the customer. You’re both in this together — another requirement for win-win optimal success results.

This doesn’t always work; as a customer may be unwilling to buy-in to this approach. But, it’s the goal. And, as a service provider, you want to take the lead to define the relationship to maximize both your and your customers’ success.

Finance Opportunity

To illustrate the unexpected opportunities, some examples from my utility experience are useful. In addition to identifying these groups as customers, it illustrates typically unrecognized opportunities available with your internal support groups.

At the beginning of my fleet career, the manager that hired me gave me the goal to modernize our fleet. This consisted of three objectives:

  1. To develop effective new equipment specifications.
  2. To create an RFP analysis methodology.
  3. To review cost analysis determining the optimum points of replacing all fleet equipment.

With the first two, I learned from the mistakes from the past and got off to a good start. The third was much more difficult. But similarly, after the first two years’ capital budget cycles, it became obvious that the third objective had essentially no value. The equipment budget (new and replacements) was determined by capital dollar availability and internal priorities. It was never based on economic drivers such as achieving the lowest fleet lifecycle costs.

As a result, it took the rest of my career to achieve this third objective.

Being in an electric utility, our finance group steadfastly refused to consider any alternative to procuring equipment other than through capital purchasing. Thus, we were trapped in roughly 10-year replacement cycles. When the fleet was on its last legs and we had budget dollars, we made extensive equipment procurements to replace the totally worn-out ineffective fleet. To say this was disruptive is an understatement, and it resulted in substantial hidden costs. Adding to this was another financial group policy — “if it can’t be quantified, it doesn’t exist”.

This worst practice basically removed any ability to satisfy our customers, with the extremely high maintenance-related costs and outdated equipment.

The solution came by chance. In a casual conversation years later with a financial executive, I learned he had an interest in procuring ancillary equipment through operating leases. The time was right; they were looking for capital dollars and there was plentiful and competitive credit availability.

Taking advantage of this situation, we partnered with finance. It redefined our success, while at the same time leading the way to relieving the utility’s capital constraints. This was a dramatic win-win for both groups.

Prior to this, finance had always been a major roadblock. It would have been easy to let this define our relationship. But by identifying them as a customer, it created an entirely different relationship and approach. This might not always work, but the other typical default options certainly won’t.

Accounting Opportunity

A few years after joining the fleet, a concern came from one of our two primary operating groups. The gas & water division operated mid-size 4x2 trucks with minimal equipment requirements. The electric operations group operated heavy 4x4 trucks with digger-derricks and more extensive equipment.

Not only was the equipment different, but its operating conditions were different as well. The gas & water (G&W) group operated within urban areas, whereas the electric crews’ conditions were much more extensive and severe.

The issue concerned the G&W equipment charges from accounting. At that time, the charge-back system was based upon seven rate groups. Each rate was an average of the fleet-wide costs for the equipment in each group.

The G&W group was incurring the same rate for their equipment as the electric division. And, this expense discrepancy not only placed a disproportionate cost on their equipment, but it also subsequently resulted in their external customers incurring higher expenses as well.

Originally this was viewed as an insurmountable issue, since the solution required a total rate restructuring —thought to involve a complete revamping of accounting’s software platform.

As with the previous example, we’d established a good relationship with our accounting counterparts handling the fleet. Another casual conversation with accounting, revealed the software supporting the fleet expense system actually was originally configured to expense equipment individually; not using class-driven rates. Voilà.

This not only led to resolving the G&W issue, but led to a new level of fleet success with our primary customers — with an entirely unanticipated opportunity.

Fleet Total Cost Opportunity

With the subsequent accurate costing of all fleet equipment, we then added monthly internal benchmarking reports. These were sent to all operating customers, listing their equipment by group for the entire organization.

Through this, a couple of critical capabilities were added. First, every group now had accurate costs — for the first time — providing them with the ability to effectively manage their operating costs. Second, with these reports, they could compare their costs to others — allowing them to benchmark and identify savings opportunities.

Our executives always expected the fleet to manage the fleet total cost. Since the operating portion (utilization, scheduling, and routing) was in the customers’ domain, fleet had always been frustrated with meeting this executive goal. Previous ineffective attempts to influence and encourage the operating groups to manage these costs were not only ineffective, but produced the expected dissatisfaction — with fleet telling them what to do, and not to do.

The basic problem was the averaged costs with the seven basic rates were useless from a fleet management perspective. When we adopted individual equipment costs, combined with internal benchmarking reports to all operating groups; enormous benefits were realized.

First, groups that habitually abused or exploited equipment became evident. This new level of management information facilitated fleet partnering with all operating customers to lower costs; helping their budgets, and meeting our executive’s expectations.

It was an extraordinary win-win coming from working with our customers.

Operating Opportunity

The two previous achievements resulted in substantially improved satisfaction with our operating customer groups.

The drivers and their supervision have fundamentally similar needs, wants, and expectations — wanting effective, reliable, and efficient vehicles and equipment. But, there are some conflicting differences as well.
With the drivers and operators, they typically aren’t concerned with costs; generally wanting both the best and all-new equipment — regardless of expense. Their supervision wants the same, only within the bounds of minimizing the overall expense.

With the detailed costs and benchmarking reporting, combined with lowest cost equipment life-cycles with leasing; both were achieved.

By partnering with these customers, combined with the improved management tools, the fleet and these customers achieved win-win results with the ability to consistently provide new, modern, and effective equipment. Plus, it facilitated our partnering with them to effectively manage their operating costs. This had never been experienced before in our organization. And, it resulted in substantial company-wide saving — all from redefining our relationships and opportunities.

Safety Opportunity

Another example was an experience I had with a newly appointed corporate safety manager. He came out of one of our operating groups, so I knew him well.

His charter was to redefine the safety expectations for all groups. As a result, there was skepticism and adverse reactions to this new direction in fleet. I looked at it as an opportunity, since we had a history of continuing frequent minor accidents. Some in our group said this is the way it always has been, and it would be unrealistic to expect any improvement. As it turned out, the new safety manager redefined corporate safety culture with significantly reduced accidents — in both frequency and severity.

In this case, my championing the new safety direction was a win-win. The fleet and safety improvements were significant, and it definitely improved our relationship from the previous somewhat contentious one at times.

This made me realize that every department has goals and objectives. It’s much more productive to look at these from that perspective, and try to find win-win opportunities. With safety, what could be more obvious?

It Takes Two to Tango

Just to keep this in perspective though, you may not always be successful in defining the relationship.

In my mid-career, the electric utility industry was being reorganized with efforts to deregulate the industry. One of these involved an anticipated spin-off and separation of a major segment of our business — generation.

One of the results of this was our personnel directly supporting this segment were reassigned to that group. It became a separate stand-alone entity within the overall corporation.
Years later, when a number of unanticipated concerns arose with this direction, the anticipated deregulation never occurred.

This created an awkward situation for both the fleet and the involved segment. Fleet continued at one level to provide support, while this customer continued to act in other ways completely autonomously.

Despite our best efforts, we never did succeed in satisfying this customer. They believed they could provide for their own fleet support and incur lower costs. However, they were quick to turn to fleet when facing something outside of their expertise or if it was otherwise advantageous.

The moral of this is it takes two to tango. Despite your efforts to successfully market your services, gain their support and cooperation, and try to achieve win-win results; they simply may choose not to cooperate and buy-in to it.

However, you can’t afford to stop trying; you just have to continue to deal with it.

In this case, it meant reverting to the lowest level of success possible with this customer struggling to survive.

We tried to establish win-win results. We also did our best to market (through information and communications) ourselves as being their best choice service provider. We did the same with our competitive pricing and service quality as being the best available. But, it wasn’t enough — it was all lost on or denied by their leadership. That was their choice.

It’s All About Customers

As you can see, how the fleet manager interacts with other supporting department groups is based entirely on our perception and knowledge.

First is the understanding that these groups are actually customers due to the fact they determine the fleet’s future with the services provided, interactions, and resulting customer satisfaction.

And second, with the goal to optimize both parties’ success by:

  • Taking the lead to define the relationship.
  • Fostering friendships.
  • Partnering to achieve unexpected win-win results.

Without this direction, it’s too easy to revert back to a focus on conflicting objectives. This inevitably results in either a lose-lose or win-lose situation — neither being an optimal result for a service provider. It just doesn’t make sense to let this happen if you can avoid it.

Realizing other internal groups are customers requires a positive attitude and often creates previously unidentified opportunities. Being an adept politician may help, but it’s more about customer service and success.

Added Lessons Learned

In these relationships, I’d also learned a couple valuable lessons in dealing with other disciplines — particularly accounting.

One is to respect a profession’s paradigms. Exhibiting characteristics of a free-thinking change agent, I initially inadvertently freaked-out our accountant representative by suggesting off-the-wall directions. Not the best approach.

Accountants live in a very well-defined business environment. When you off-handedly suggest changes totally inconsistent with their requirements, it may inadvertently be counter-productive.

Another valuable lesson was to be sure you understand the terms you’re using. I was working with an accounting supervisor and we were discussing fleet retirements. Only months later did we discover we were talking apples and oranges. Retirement to accounting meant closing an asset in the books, whereas our common usage was referencing moving it to a temporary holding yard. This was a shock to both of us, with the potential regulatory concerns.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article is only an introduction to these opportunities. For those wanting to learn more, the author has published a book entitled “FLEET SERVICES – Managing to Redefine Success” that is available through the SAE International at their website