TECHIES AWARD WINNER: 'Appy to learn
27 May 2014
Hitachi Capital has been on a voyage of discovery in developing its BusinessCar Techie-winning Mobile Solutions app, as Paul Barker discovers
It's been an interesting education in developing Hitachi Capital Vehicle Solutions' fleet-orientated app, according to the top 10 leasing company's head of sales Mike Belcher.
The Mobile Solutions app won the Best App category in BusinessCar's 2013 Fleet Technology Awards - the Techies - and has been a complicated development due in part to Hitachi's decision to include Blackberry compatibility, rather than just the usual Apple and Android applications.
"For 80% of our customers, their business phone is a Blackberry," explains Belcher. "If you build on Apple it will look great and work well - if you want a shiny app to do that then the platform and interface is built for apps.
Blackberry is harder to do, but we didn't want to build an app that 80% of our customers can't use."
He says nine of the 11 major customers that Hitachi consulted - around 20,000 drivers in total - had a predominance of Blackberry phones, although there is no data Belcher could find on the market share of business phones for the various brands.
"All the press have said Blackberry's share is in decline and being cannibalised by others, but it's about the cost of a handset," he says. "Lose a Blackberry and you can get another one thrown at you; lose an iPhone and you're looking at £300-£400."
The Blackberry version does have one fewer function than its iPhone and Android siblings, with the 'find a tyre centre' feature not available.
"Blackberry maps are awful and the software guys tried overlaying Google maps, but in the end we decided to take it off completely," explains Belcher.
The seven functions are service booking, accident reporting, updating vehicle mileage, vehicle information, tyre centre locator, useful information and a damage reporting tool that was one element that really made the app stand out to the Techies judging panel.
Prompting the driver six weeks before the end of a vehicle contract to bring a decision on vehicle repair forward, the original idea was to decide whether there would be a charge, but this has now morphed into helping advise fleets and drivers whether the damage should be addressed before defleet, or whether it could be classed as fair wear and tear.
"If a picture is a bit dark or the scale isn't quite right then it's difficult to gauge whether we would charge," says Belcher. "We're trying to reduce the number of queries not increase them. Now we're focused on rectification work we believe should be done before return.
"You can't do a charge cost with any degree of certainty - you'd be creating more problems for customers - so now the wording says we'll let you know if a repair needs to be undertaken before return," he continues. "It still saves the customer time and a great deal of money, but in a different way."
The process of deciding what features would be included in the app was a company-wide competition among staff, with an iPad on offer for the best idea. A total of 65 different features were suggested, with the winning idea being the thought to use the phone as a telematics box, although that was eventually ruled out as too complicated because it would have taken out most of the project's budget.
Hitachi took the deliberate decision not to add ordering and quoting functionality. "What will you use when you have an app and where will you use it? Chances are, it'll be when you're in or near the car," declares Belcher. "Ordering you will do on a desktop or tablet." The decision was made from a duty of care perspective to not include map functionality.
The leasing company also looked at whether to go with just a mobile website rather than a specific app, but in the end plumped for both. "Both will have a place. People like Right Move, eBay and Amazon all have mobile sites and apps and both will have a place," says Belcher.
"A native app will always work better than a mobile site but it takes longer and is more expensive." He says that if the more complicated features such as damage manager weren't included, then a mobile website could have sufficed.
Another key reason for Hitachi's Techie success is the innovative grey fleet module that will enable CO2 reporting of the notoriously difficult-to-assess own-car sector of the fleet industry.
Using the vehicle registration number, the tool will report on CO2, while data capture from the driver will record and remind on insurance and MoT renewal, and monthly mileage capture.
The system transmits a daily record of which drivers and vehicles have insurance, MoT or a vehicle service due to the fleet manager. Belcher says Hitachi thought about including a grey fleet mileage record function, but says it will be too difficult to ensure drivers actually keep an accurate record.
"With grey fleet, age and safety is the opportunity," he says, also revealing that it was the software developer that came up with the grey fleet idea, while Hitachi's damage manager suggested the damage assessment tool as he walked past Belcher's office.
The app has also meant changes behind the scenes, much as was the case when the internet and email first became serious forms of communication.
"It takes effort to make sure the service booking comes through and is made and that the damage manager information comes through and is actioned," declares Belcher.
"We're focused on the processes that sit behind it - the app is just another interface for customers to access services and they need to be the same as if it comes in via the phone or web."
So what's next? The beauty of apps is that they can be updated as you go along, and Belcher said Windows phone compatibility is high up on the agenda for phase two or three, predicting a "potentially big impact" as Windows and Nokia build together.
But for now, Hitachi Capital Vehicle Solutions' big job is to get the award-winning app out into the market.
"It's a statement that we are now looking at innovation as key to transforming the business," concludes Belcher. "We've had huge growth over the last 18 months - we've almost doubled in size - and the app makes a statement that we're investing in the future. We've always had a reputation as being good to deal with, and this makes the statement that we're also looking to drive technical innovation forward, which is something we have not done before."
Flying high with cloud-based rental system
It was not one but two successes in the 2013 BusinessCar Fleet Technology Awards for Hitachi Capital, with the firm's new rental function that launched last summer also winning its category.
The new system, 12 months in development, offers the ability to book cars online from anywhere, rather than a need to be in the office, and offers both better cost monitoring and increased speed of booking by allowing the rental requirements of a customer, across cars, commercial vehicles and plant to be pre-populated.
Hitachi's rental system acts as a conduit to more than 200 daily rental operators, and allows operators to download reports on which staff have hired vehicles, what they were, when, what they cost and why.
"At a glance it can show what customers are doing, and manage their costs and rental days," says Hitachi Capital's head of rental services Kathleen Whittam (pictured, right), the lady in charge of implementing the new system. "It gives meaningful reports that helps them manage their business and rental spend very easily, and gives information so they can get on with their core activity and not waste time on things that are not their business."
A key benefit, according to Whittam, is that it cuts out the form-filling and paperwork. "The email trail is all there in one place," she says. "We'll still have processes in place, and some of the authorisation levels remain, but customers can change rental days etc., and can do it from anywhere if they have been focused on other things while at work." Extending vehicle hires and changing reservations previously had to be done over the phone, but are now possible online.
Duty of care is another important consideration, declares Whittam, who said dates can be stored for compliance checks of certain specialist machinery, while mileage limits can also be set for either duty of care or environmental reasons.
"Customers are becoming more efficient with rental spend - that's what we're here for," says Whittam. "We're not here as Hitachi Rental to encourage rental use, and the systems help give us true readings of average length of rental and how to manage it better."
Other parts of the process to help reduce fleets' costs include text message reminders to drivers to fill the car up prior to returning it to avoid high recharge costs, and encouraging companies to cut costs around rental by considering where they take delivery.
"It's about managing costs down for them - can we encourage them to do walk-ins or to a business address rather than home and manage costs that way," explains Whittam. "It's all about managing rental days down, that's what customers want and we can manage it for them so they can get on with their core activities."
Hitachi claims it has reduced its invoice error rate from 14% to 0.5% in the past two years via a new auditing system, and the average rental length from 6.8 to 2.4 days.
Even though the rental system is only six months old, Whittam, formerly business development manager at Europcar, says there is a constant improvement plan. "We're redesigning all the time. I have a weekly meeting with my team to see what they would like and we're looking to add more value, more compliance and see how we can work better at being a total fleet manager for larger companies."
How to charge
Hitachi is toying with two different charging models for its new grey fleet app: charging per download, or charging a company a cost regardless of how many drivers sign-up to the grey fleet device.
"One idea we're talking about is billing for the number of grey fleet drivers rather than number of downloads - that gets company buy-in," explains Hitachi Capital's sales boss Mike Belcher. "It's proving a harder sell - they want to pay per download, we want to bill for the fleet because if they pay per download there's no incentive to force it, but if they pay per driver then they'll support it and it's a win-win for both sides.
"We absolutely don't know what the driver download rate will be, whether it will be 10,000 people or two people," he continues. "If a customer uses a car for business mileage, it needs companies to take a stand with employees - if drivers don't use it then it's worse than not having the app in the first place. Companies need to support the use."
The European Energy Efficiency Directive will give Hitachi a "handy way to sell" the grey fleet app when all business travel for large companies is added to the list of elements that they need to report on next year.
"Grey fleet will be in the scope of it, and we have the ability to measure it," says Belcher. "We didn't know that was coming when we first commissioned it, we've been quite fortunate."
The issue of security is one often overlooked as more apps come onto the market, but Hitachi has employed an IT security firm to penetration test its app to ensure there were no data weaknesses.
"It's proven a useful exercise, a lot of large organisations want to make sure anything that transmits data is secure," explains Hitachi Capital's head of sales Mike Belcher. "We're able to show the penetration certificate results."