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FLEET SOFTWARE: 10 key questions to help you upgrade your system

Date: 10 November 2009

Reaching a decision on the right fleet management software for your business is a difficult process, so Paul Barker asked some of the leading industry experts to answer 10 key questions that will help you with that buying decision

1. How do products differ from firm to firm?

It's difficult to know where to start when first beginning to look into fleet software. There are a whole range of companies with a whole range of claimed unique features, but are they all really that different?

"They differ in scale-ability," says Mycompanyfleet business manager Andrew Leech. "Most target a specific area, small fleets that outsource, for example, and it's important to get a demonstration that works the way your system would work, not a generic one.

Chevin sales manager Stuart Jardine agrees. "Probably in the initial first swipe through you'd say they are all pretty much the same, but drill into the detail and the differences will be exposed," he says. "With Chevin, it's very much web-based, and we are a lot more flexible." Jardine says the company has one customer that uses the firm's system to manage shipping of products as well as the fleet.

2. Why not just stick with Excel?

Traditionally, a spreadsheet has sufficed, and indeed still does for many firms. But, predictably, the software sector is critical of this simple alternative in a climate where fleets are required to manage so closely in terms of duty of care and the financial impact of vehicles, and that's before considering driver, fuel and tax pressures.

"Excel is a very two-dimensional tool," says Jaama MD Jason Francis. "It allows you to store information but it won't do anything with that information, so it puts the onus back on the fleet manager to know what data to store and what and when to do with it." Francis says very small fleets can "get away with" using Excel, but there comes a point where the quantity of data becomes too much. "If you have 15 or 20 vehicles and drivers move in or out of them every year or every two years, with a few fines, windscreen changes or accidents included, and the statutory reports like P11D, taxable benefits, fuel and expenses.. A lot will come out, even on a small fleet and Excel is just a big table that doesn't give you the ability to track information."

Fleet management software also gives companies the opportunity to illustrate how their fleet is operating to senior management. "I'm speaking to fleet managers that need to justify the spend and have HR talking about duty of care, and finance wanting to know about costings and utilisation," says Chevin's Jardine. "Even at small fleet level people want to know what's happening and with fleet management software the directors can sign in and produce a report themselves."

3. Does fleet size make a difference?

The advice from the industry seems to be that size isn't everything. "It shouldn't be by fleet size, it should be by fleet operation," is the verdict of Stuart Jardine. "If a fleet size is 100 and operates out of one depot you can use a PC-based solution. If a fleet size is 100 and operates out of five depots it is very difficult to manage."

Graham Hurdle, MD of E-Training World, agrees. "To us the fleet manager needs the same information no matter what size," he says. "It is more about tailoring how they operate."

4. How does a fleet calculate a system's cost?

This is a nice simple one for the majority of fleets. "Break it down to cost per vehicle," says Mycompanyfleet's Leech. "It's a cost fleets are used to dealing with and a fleet management contract is usually on a cost-per-vehicle basis, so fleets can equate to that and see what return on investment they can hope to achieve.

There is one exception to the rule, from the point of view of E-Training World's Hurdle. "The only change is for very large fleets where we have a licence agreement to use the system," he says.

5. What features should be included and how easy is it to personalise a system?

The raft of different operating systems, options and settings on offer can be intimidating, especially if you're moving from Excel to a dedicated fleet management for the first time. But fleet management systems are flexible enough to meet the needs of most individual firms.

Jaama boss Francis points out that all systems should do the basics and move on from Excel to store data in a "structured fleet management package" to produce reports. The key now is providing a structure to manage the exceptions. "With things like servicing, the system should tell you when it doesn't happen, and alert you to things like the top five worst cars for fuel economy, drivers for accident, speeding or parking fines," he says.

According to Leech, the most important thing is being able to spot problems easily. "Of the thousands of transactions and pieces of data a fleet manager has to trawl through they need to identify exceptions. You need to come in on a Monday morning and as a user, check which vehicles have missed a service, are over their contracted mileage or has an accident with no claim form."

Stuart Jardine from Chevin also offered guidance to the process of selecting management software. "Don't worry about the supplier - get the processes in place for what you want internally," he advises. "So many times I sit in front of people who just want me to show them what a system can do."

Jardine says his firm is also seeing more joint meetings, as other departments within a business take an interest in the managing of a fleet. "The fleet manager is bringing in the HR or IT department. A lot are asking for support and input internally," he comments. "Don't tailor your desires to the sales company's solution. You are the customer, make it what you want."