Under the Microscope: We talk to Marc Samuel, Honda's fleet sales operations manager
21 November 2018
Author: Rachel Boagey
Rachel Boagey speaks to Honda's fleet sales operations manager
about the manufacturer's fresh approach to corporate fleet.
Almost everyone has heard of Honda. In fact, the brand is the 21st most recognisable in the world. But in the fleet industry, Honda wasn't always a name as big as its well-known status globally would suggest.
Since Marc Samuel began working in his current role as fleet sales operations manager at Honda, the company has undergone a restructure of department roles and responsibilities, resulting in a fresh approach to corporate sales for the brand that Samuel describes as "the best-kept secret in fleet".
While Honda was never really regarded as a big player in fleet, and still isn't really when you compare it with other manufacturers, the new Civic was very much the turnaround for the manufacturer in its fleet appeal.
Its share of fleet sales, while still small at 33% and not in line with the market, has increased since the restructure, not to mention the Civic's launch. "We have seen quite a bit of growth in the two years since the restructure and we have done that through new customer engagement with the way we sell cars as well as the cars themselves, and the way we market the brand to those fleet customers," Samuel tells us at Honda's headquarters in Bracknell.
"We had a line-up, and people knew the Jazz and what the Civic was, but the problem was there was no fleet face to the company," he explains.
To combat this, the manufacturer decided to get back in contact with old customers but also tried to engage with new customers and attract them to the brand. "We started working with leasing companies and rental too in the UK but our real focus was on those true fleet users and we will continue to do that," says Samuel.
The restructure has meant that Honda's team is now well trained in dealing with fleet customers, and also manages the manufacturer's relationships with leasing companies all over the UK, which Samuel says has resulted in some good returns.
This initiative is called the Platinum programme, which has been fine-tuned to ensure that Honda dealers are better equipped to deal with corporate customers in a consistent way. It's provided them with more support when talking to fleets, especially around CO2 and whole-life costs, and enabled them to set up demos for 48 hours, something Samuel believes has become very important.
"We have a much more informed basis for fleet customers and our leasing managers know everything there is to know for these customers. We even have a whole-life costs manager working for us so fleets have all of the information they could need on our products," he says.
"We have a total of 107 dealers currently on the scheme engaged and trained to be able to talk the language of fleet. If a fleet manager or driver is looking to lease or purchase, they will be able to talk to them and let them know all about the BIK and CO2 of that car," Samuel continues.
The manufacturer is currently in the second phase of Platinum programme training, says Samuel. "We're planning to bring everyone down to our institute and give them a day of training to make sure they're absolutely at the forefront of knowledge when fleet drivers or managers walk into that showroom."
In terms of other initiatives, Honda still runs the 48-hour test drive programme, which Samuel says has been a great success. "Basically, we want people to drive our product. It's one of the mainstays of Honda's philosophy," he explains. "The more people that see the product and enjoy it, the more they want to keep it going."
Virtual fleet mangers
Although face-to-face relationships are important for the brand, Samuel recognises that, as fleet has evolved, fleet managers have become more time-poor and often have more responsibilities than they had ten years ago. Honda aims to help answer fleets' queries quickly and shape future policies through digital platforms, becoming what the company calls 'virtual fleet managers', an initiative that was launched in 2016, and is really taking off for Samuel and his team.
In its second year since launch, the programme has seen a 28% increase in customers and a 26% rise in the number of interactions with clients year on year. "This demonstrates the success of a virtual programme that offers a full package of fleet management support by telephone and video conferencing, as an alternative to solely face-to-face meetings," Samuel suggests.
"This is now an award-winning project, and what we did was take the traditional area fleet manager role and rather than having someone out in their car driving for two hours for a 30 minute meeting, we actually have four virtual account managers set up in an office in Nantwich who are able to have phone or Skype business meetings with the fleet community."
Samuel explains that, usually, fleet management is not the only role of these 'virtual' fleet managers. "They might be an HR or an MD and have something else to do as well as managing fleets, but we find that they're able to fit in something like eight Skype meetings in a day with customers, compared with a maximum of about two if they're driving all over the place."
With such a successful few years, Samuel says this is something Honda is looking to keep running in the future. "This initiative has increased the number of customer contacts by 350% and we're not having dead time travelling either.
"It's a great way of engaging with our network and also driving our agenda on and helping people in business doing what they're doing as a day job as well as look after their fleets."
The manufacturer is also investing in its fleet website, with a new one due to launch in October. "It's going to have a whole-life costs calculator and will be far better in engaging with people online when they come to visit our website, and will make sure they can find the information and let them make real informed decisions."
As for products, Honda has recently launched the fifth-generation CR-V, which it predicts will be a big fleet car. "We have been doing product familiarisation sessions for potential buyers and that's the first real opportunity we have had like that to present that level of understanding to the market," says Samuel.
This is something Honda is hoping to continue with future product launches too due to the positive feedback the brand received from fleets regarding this new initiative.
"We had four events for the CR-V in the UK for end-user customers over the past few weeks and a massive component of that was an hour drive in the car.
"We flipped this on its head really as usually they would expect to come for a big long presentation but we told them to take the cars out and get more familiar with them. This is something we think was very successful and we will continue to do this with other product launches in future."
"There is absolutely a place in corporate fleet for diesel."
Early next year, the hybrid version of the CR-V will launch, making it the first vehicle on Honda's hybridisation policy before its 2025 target. "The policy consists of four pillars and we aim to have 80% of our line-up with some sort of electrification by 2025," Samuel tells us.
This compares with the goal of Honda globally of 2030. "We are leading the charge for Honda, which is quite exciting, actually."
By this point, Samuel explains that you will be able to take a Honda vehicle and choose the fuel type. "As we roll out new models from now, each one will have some level of electrification or hybridisation. That's basically our plan for the next seven years. This starts with the CR-V."
That doesn't mean that Honda has lost faith in diesel, though, despite the CR-V only being launched in petrol and hybrid. "There is absolutely a place in corporate fleet for diesel. For example, I drive 50,000 miles a year, so I need the economies of scale that a diesel brings," says Samuel.
There is also a misconception about diesel that it is dirty, he says. "The new diesel Civic comes in under the 95g/km mark that we need to meet in 2020 and it's lower than the previous Civic too."
Despite this, Samuel does expect a continuing move away from diesel in the future. "All manufacturers have half an eye on 2020 and for us, 95% of all our engines, whether that be in cars or in marine engines, are petrol."
Samuel likens choosing a car to choosing a suit. "It's about having the right car, the right spec and the right engine. It's like buying a suit, which could be blue, could be black, could be grey, and how smart it is has to fit your usage of it and that's the same thing with a car."
At its heart, Samuel says Honda is an engineering company. "We're always positioned well in everything we do and we deliberately haven't launched a diesel engine in the CR-V. The decline in diesel sales is absolutely planned for us and we launched a diesel in a market where people still need a diesel car, but that is changing. People's average mileage is coming down and the advances in petrol mean that you can get the new economies of scale in petrol cars."
As for future models, the CR-V hybrid is next in line, adding to the freshest line-up Honda has seen in years, says Samuel. "We have refreshed everything on the line-up in the past 18 months, whether that has been a full model change or minor one."
Honda has also moved a lot of its production, including the new CR-V to its Japanese Yorii plant, which is one of the most technologically advanced manufacturing plants in the world. "The boat used to stop on the way but now it just comes straight to us, so our delivery times are improved," Samuel says.
"We are on a journey of getting people to know us as a fleet brand and that is something we're looking to continue building up and working on for years to come."