Buying into a software system is all well and good, but don’t think it will do your job for you. The right package can turn around the way a fleet is run day-to-day and generate plenty of savings, but the wrong one can overcomplicate things and, if you’re not using it properly, end up as a real cash haemorrhage.

The technology has developed a great deal of late, but in terms of what businesses need, the demands are still pretty old-fashioned. Rhys Harrhy, development consultant for leasing firm ALD’s Profleet 2 system, says the reason for fleets buying into the technology can be varied, but they often boil down to simple things.

“We’re seeing a lot of customers getting back to basics. Traditionally, drivers have been able to manage mileage by inputting data into some sort of spreadsheet and that exposes businesses to scrutiny by HMRC,” he says.

“Other customers are focusing exclusively on cost, so the tools to measure their drivers are crucial for them to reduce their overheads. Others focus on how those vehicles are being driven and where they are.

“Duty of care and risk management are high on the agenda but accurate mileage data and cost reduction are the highest priorities at this moment.”

Ian Hughes, commercial director at leasing firm Zenith, which operates its own Pulse fleet management system, agrees that demand mainly comes from tightening up spending, and adds that fleet policies can quickly be altered for the better off the back of the work a proper software system does.

“The main thrust is cost management or other leakage where drivers or policy can be tightened or managed,” he says. “We’ve been able to look at the types of accidents a particular fleet has undergone, for example, and the type of policy, and adjust that. That change drove a significant improvement and cut downtime and end-of-contract damage charges. That’s typically what we’re seeing. [Fleets] really do appreciate that extra data.”

Even though companies pour time and money into decking out their fleets with trick software systems, cases where the packages are left largely unused are not unheard of.

They’re not necessarily common – not least because someone has made the effort to buy and install the thing in the first place – but it does happen.

Staff changes are one of the biggest culprits for this, as Ashley Sowerby, managing director at fleet software specialist Chevin, explains: “When it does occur, it’s usually due to a change in personnel at the client’s end during the implementation phase. The original project co-ordinator, the business champion behind the decision to invest in the first place, leaves and the replacement lacks the same level of ownership, understanding or enthusiasm required to maintain the momentum.

“Politics can also come into play, with the new member of staff reluctant to get behind a solution selected by their predecessor.”

It’s also worth remembering that a software package is only as good as the people operating it. It will give you plenty of information and answer a lot of questions, but unless you do something with that, it’s a waste of time and capital.

Martin Evans, sales and operations director at Jaama, thinks that negligence is a bigger problem, with fleets operating cheaper systems on a smaller scale: “There is a risk of that. It’s only a tool – it gives you all the answers but you need to know what you want to achieve. We’re not the cheapest on the market, so it’s not something our customers tend to do, but people who just think ‘we’ll buy a fleet system’ and then don’t do anything with it will often go for a cheap one.”

Another pitfall to be aware of is selling your investment to management. Chances are you’re going to need sign-off on buying a software package before it goes ahead, so you’ll have to convince board members or other senior staff of its merit.

But convincing senior management to sign the cheque is one thing, getting them to play ball is another. If management ignore what you’re doing, it can be a pointless exercise.

Evans explains: “There’s no point in having a tool that saves you money if your organisation is going to ignore it. Fleet managers have to be able to sell the information they get from their software.

“They often say ‘that’s great, but the management team’s never going to be interested’. Unless you can sell what you want to change, you’re never going to get anywhere.”

 It isn’t necessarily a case of just getting a financial sign-off either.

A good package mated to the appropriate fleet will be able to worm its way into other areas of the business and make use of itself. But you need to make sure other areas of the business are aware of it and know the ropes.

Zenith’s Hughes explains: “There’s also testing and integrating other systems, handling, payroll – has that been tested and signed off? It shouldn’t be just a standalone product – you should be connecting systems to get the best out of it.”

Evans agrees that a more sophisticated package can work wonders for the right business, but it helps if the fleet manager is switched on to that: “If you have very basic fleet needs then a basic software supplier fits the bill. A true businessman will be looking to achieve more than that and if that’s who you’ve got as a fleet manager then he will need the [more advanced] tools to make savings.”

It’s that kind of functionality and ability to squeeze savings out of previously untapped areas that’s likely to pave the way for the next generation of software systems, rendering fleets more and more self-sufficient.

Evans continues: “Businesses are having to reduce head counts and make themselves more efficient, so it’s becoming more of a self-service basis. [They want] software that will deliver more with less manual intervention.”

Chevin’s Sowerby surmises: “The wider industry is. providing intuitive applications that don’t simply store data but make it earn its keep by providing instant and overt insight into the nuts and bolts of various fleet functions. The demand for fleet information – from fuel costs to accident rates – to work harder, and for software to facilitate the process, is certainly becoming greater.”

What to do before you take out a package

Be under no illusions: a software package won’t magically sort out your fleet. The best examples of software working well for businesses, cutting costs and more are when the parties buying into it are crystal clear about what they want to achieve.

Development consultant for ALD’s Profleet 2 system, Rhys Harrhy, says the best way forward is to lay out a series of objectives that the software has to meet, or at least help you with.

“You need to have a clear set of goals. What are you immediate objectives? Is it mileage capture? Vehicles returning after three years with the right mileage on them? Is there a desire to reduce your fuel bill, or the number of accidents? Is it about CSR credentials? You need to ensure you choose a supplier that is able to offer those immediate wins and ensure you can meet longer-term goals over two or three years,” he says.

Zenith’s commercial director, Ian Hughes, adds: “What are you going to use it for? Has it got a proper business case sitting behind your investment? It also depends on the size and scale of the fleet in terms of the value you’ll get over a good old Excel spreadsheet!”

How to spot a dud system

The term might make it sound like a highly specialised niche but fleet software is actually encompasses a very broad spectrum of services. That means it can be quite difficult, even bewildering, to pick a system that best suits your business’s requirements, and the size and operation of a fleet will ultimately dictate what you need.

Get taken in by the wrong sales pitch and you could purchase something you don’t want, which doesn’t suit your needs and will end up adding to your overall spend.

Managing director of software specialist Chevin, Ashley Sowerby, says businesses need to keep their wits about them before they commit to a package.

“It’s not so much what software providers are selling but how they are selling it. Fleet operations vary tremendously from one organisation to the next and software requirements do the same,” he says.

“Some providers take the ‘stack them high, sell them cheap’ approach but fail to actually deliver a product that meets the needs of the customer. Avoiding this scenario can be easily achieved by basic due diligence during the procurement process.

“Warning bells should ring if the following options aren’t offered: professional scoping of the requirement by a business systems analysis, the opportunity to talk to or visit with the supplier’s existing customers – especially those running a similar operation or within the same market – a full product demonstration and the opportunity to have a play around with an example system.”

Ian Hughes, Zenith’s commercial director, advises scrutinising everything before you take the plunge.

“I’d question certain elements – does it give you the flexibility you need? Are you able to turn the developments around within the time frame you want? Are the updates free of charge? What if you want to change it? They’re all questions I’d ask,” he says.

“It’s also about the scope of what [the software] can and can’t do and the frequency of the updates. How much of it can be bespoke to your own requirements and is this tailoring free? Re-writing of software is by no means cheap or quick.”