The BusinessCar Interview: Matt Bristow, BMW
26 May 2015
Convincing a dealer network to engage in corporate business, both at a large fleet level as well as
small operations, has always been a challenge for any manufacturer, and BMW is one that has been spending time and money enhancing the fleet experience at dealer level.
"How do we make the dealer link stronger with customers?" asks Matt Bristow - general manager of corporate sales for the multiple BusinessCar Award-winning firm - who has been working on a number of developments over the past 18 months.
At the beginning of this year, the German premium brand - in an investment Bristow puts at "in the millions" - introduced what it calls its BMW Group Business programme, something Bristow describes as the biggest change in how the manufacturer deals with smaller fleets since it launched direct sales eight years ago.
"It's called Business because it does what it says on the tin. [The intention is to] look at things differently," he tells BusinessCar. "Do the smaller fleets see our guys often enough and are we giving the best service we can?" The move sees BMW add 500 new demonstrator cars to its fleet across the BMW and Mini brands "to support BMW and Mini Business as a channel". It is designated as particular test drive support to fleets of 200 cars or fewer.
The company has effectively split its regional field sales operation, retaining a network of regional managers to deal with the 500 key accounts, and introduced a new team whose responsibility is to help the dealers find and retain new, smaller, fleet business.
The key accounts team has, as a result, undergone some "very small tweaks" in terms of regional responsibilities and structure, and Bristow says the overall number of people working on BMW's fleet team has increased. "There is still a little residual recruitment, but other than that the structure
is in place for the network and they're living with it," he says.
"The dealers have incentives, and it has given them a suite of options. They can put a customer into our Business Partnership Programme, or if suits a structured company car programme. They can apply end-user terms or further options as well," says BMW's fleet boss, who adds that dealers will be able to move a fleet that they uncover or recruit over to the key account team if it is a significant size.
The Business Partnership Programme is aimed at sub-50 fleets, and uses BMW-owned leasing firm Alphabet to provide terms. But other than that, Bristow declares that BMW Group Business is "leasing company agnostic", and the firm will work with any leasing operator a fleet is already engaged with.
He says the new system isn't BMW "abdicating responsibility" for smaller fleets, as there is a field team of four supporting them, a number which will expand.
"This drives increased engagement from those dealers not already engaged and is an opportunity for those that were to increase; we've seen increases in volume from the network," he says.
Although Bristow is realistic about any new corporate programme being a slow-burn, he says the first quarter already brought incremental gains in volume.
"It's not a quick win," he explains. "It's about if someone walks into a retailer anywhere in the country that they have a guaranteed extra focus, and it's not like we did a bad job before. There were already many dealers very good at business sales - they did a good job - but it's about ensuring 100% coverage and having an all-encompassing offer."
A little over a year ago, BMW kicked off a pilot scheme to try and change what Bristow describes as the "historically intimidating environment" of car showrooms by employing Geniuses to talk to customers about their needs, technology and anything else that customers want to chat about.
Shamelessly based on the Apple model, these staff don't have sales targets, and, according to Bristow, their "sole reason for being is product and general advice".
"They don't care what you buy - they're there to help anything from how to pair your phone on a car
you already own to talking about the latest car in our range," he says. "They tend to be younger,
tech-savvy guys that are there to talk about the product, and the key thing that's important from my perspective is that it helps move away from the days where a company car driver or owner wasn't interesting as they wouldn't be buying from that dealership."
BMW is aiming for a total of around 500 Geniuses across its 146 BMW and 146 Mini sites, and is currently at more than one per site but not up to the target figure.
"It's now grown to the stage where we have national coverage; do the right thing now and you'll get the benefit in the long term," Bristow comments.
At the same time as the Genius pilot launched, BMW was also busy introducing a Trip Advisor-
style rating system for its entire dealer network. Posted on the dealer's own website, it gives a
grade out of five stars for each site's sales and service satisfaction, so across BMW and Mini that's a total of 20 stars in most cases.
"Anyone that has had any sales or service experience with any retailer gets the opportunity to feed back," explains Bristow, who claimed several dealers are now running at 20/20, and the national average is increasing every quarter, rising to the current 4.8 out of 5.
"This is all customer feedback and can't be tricked, which is helpful for customers because with 146 dealers most people have a choice of more than one," he says. "All this applies to business drivers as much as anyone else."
Mini getting big
Mini is an ever-growing element of BMW Group's fleet operation, and Bristow describes the corporate ambition for the Mini element of the portfolio as "significant".
He says Mini has two opportunities in the business car market, both in its own right and as a part of BMW's offering, as the company's view is that a corporate manager in the retail network should be able to sell to a fleet across both brands.
"From our perspective, we want to keep it as a group offering. There is a greater separation from a sales and management perspective, but it will never be an absolute separate entity in the UK, certainly not in the short term.
New product push continues
In terms of product, there's plenty going on for BMW in 2015. You can see the major mid-life refresh for the crucial 3-series on page 3, but that follows on from the facelifted 1-series, 6-series model year change and new 2-series Gran Tourer, the firm's first seven-seat MPV and an extension of the five-seat 2-series Active Tourer model, the first front-wheel drive BMW when it launched last year.
"This is our first foray in seven-seat MPV terms (see picture, above), and a conquest opportunity, most likely from mainstream corporates where we haven't had a presence before," says Bristow. "I see it as people now stepping up to premium as before they haven't had anywhere to go."
BMW will also extend its range of plug-in hybrid options above the range-extender i3 and i8 models, with both 3-series and X5 plug-in models coming in the next 12 months, with CO2 figures of 49g/km and 77g/km respectively.
"The plug-in brings X5 into the pockets of more people from a costs perspective," he says. "Like many things, there are some areas where it's ideal and it has got a place. It's about having a blend of products."
BMW's four-wheel drive Xdrive models in the 1-series and 3-series have also been strong, with the firm claiming to outsell the equivalent Audi quattro four-wheel drive models.
"We always as a UK market knew the cars had potential, and we're always so ambitious that we had big targets, but to outsell the quattro so substantially has been pleasing."
The next-generation 5-series should get a four-wheel drive option in the UK as the technology makes its way across the entire BMW range.
Although Bristow is predictably keeping his eye on Jaguar's activity with the new XE, a car the British brand has been aiming squarely at the 3-series, he feels his product can stand its ground, especially with the mid-life refresh arriving in the UK in July.
"We are pretty confident we have a product to absolutely compete with any other," he declares. "And with the breadth of products we have in this segment, we've got the ability to provide something different." In the upper medium segment, BMW offers the 3-series saloon, Touring and GT, as well as the 4-series Coupe, Cabriolet and Gran Coupe
He says it would be "churlish" not to recognise a new player coming into the market, but feels the revised 3-series takes a step forward.