Under the Microscope: We talk to BMW's new corporate boss, Steve Oliver
12 May 2017
Author: Debbie Wood
Walking through the doors at the BMW store on Park Lane epitomises why BMW is one of the biggest premium brands here in the UK.
Lavish, high-tech and beautifully presented, the site is extremely impressive, and the first-class customer service that comes with it makes you feel like you've almost gained celebrity status.
This was the venue chosen for us to have our first introduction with the new corporate sales manager for both BMW and Mini, Steve Oliver, who joined the firm in December last year.
Bringing with him a wealth of customer service experience and a passion for fleet, Oliver has set a huge target for his team in 2017: to be the best fleet operation in the business.
Enhancing the customer experience
Although BMW and Mini are viewed quite separate within the market, when it comes to corporate, the team works across both brands. Following a significant expansion of the department last year, there are now 40 people working within BMW and Mini corporate, one of the biggest teams in the industry.
According to Oliver, the expansion of the team has enabled both brands to make progress more rapidly and, importantly, get closer to their customers.
"In corporate the two brands are combined and it works really well because we have a broader discussion with fleets to find out what works for them and it gives us more options," Oliver tells BusinessCar. "There's been a lot of resource put behind corporate and we're trying to ensure that we're more focused on what we're trying to deliver."
Oliver has some big plans to put the attention firmly on the company car driver this year and aims to deliver a customer experience closer to what retail buyers receive.
"We've set our focus on being the best team in the industry and from that point you start breaking down what you're currently doing and start planning ways to improve," says Oliver. "People and planning are the first steps, and understanding ultimately that we need to have a bit more focus on the company car driver in the retail environment. It's all about raising the profile of what we do as a business and clarifying it too, because maybe from time to time we've made things too complicated."
Research shows that BMW already do pretty well when it comes to customer service; however, Oliver wants to continue improving and is looking to develop programmes this year to ensure both brands are engaged with company car drivers and make sure at a retailer level they are given the "warm welcome they deserve".
Rental has it benefits
Of the 182,593 cars sold last year, around 64,000 went to corporate customers, representing an overall fleet share of 35%. This includes SME, true fleet, Motability and rental channels.
Unlike many manufacturers, who have been moving away from rental, Oliver sees it as a very positive channel that has helped bring significant success for both BMW and Mini.
"Rental is very important to us - it creates 400,000 test drives every year, which brings a significant benefit. The average hire car usage is three days and it's really important that we participate in all aspects of the marketplace moving forwards, including rental."
Last year was a very successful period for the firm. Corporate sales grew by 20%, and with a number of key products launched for both brands this year, more growth is expected in 2017.
Mini is an emerging brand in fleet, which kick-started with the arrival of the five-door hatchback back in 2014. With the launch of the new Countryman in February and Clubman last year, there's now more choice than ever for company car drivers, and Oliver expects Mini to do very well this year, with increasing exposure of these new cars and dispelling previous perceptions of the brand high on the agenda for the corporate team.
"The UK is very much the heartland as far as Mini is concerned. There's a much broader range now and even though some people have a historical view of Mini and think the size of the latest models detracts from that heritage, once they drive the car they find that essence of fun is still very much alive in the cars today," Oliver explains.
"You've got people that can progress through their company car life with Mini now. There are so many different guises, whether it's the five-door or the Countryman, and there's a lot more to come."
You'd have to be living under a rock in the South Pacific to miss the current backlash against diesel. Ever since the emissions scandal made headlines in 2015, diesel hasn't escaped the spotlight. With pending legislation, scrappage schemes and additional charges afoot to penalise drivers, it's fair to say that its future in fleet looks uncertain.
However, the large proportion of headlines and negative news surrounding diesel fail to recognise the huge leaps forward the latest Euro6 engines have made in terms of efficiency and emissions. Oliver believes fleets need to be looking at each individual driver and ensuring the engine suits the mileage and type of journeys they typically do, and for many, diesel may still be the best solution.
"We're very positive about diesel and what we seek when it comes to the media headlines is balance," Oliver explains. "Our approach is about getting the right car, with the right fleets for the right end user. There's a lot of adverse noise about diesel, which we think is gaining a level of momentum that is not quite justified, and actually what we're trying to do when we speak to fleets is understand and make sure the engine choice is fit for purpose."
Combined, BMW and Mini have one of the biggest plug-in hybrid ranges of any manufacturer, and from now on, as with the new 5 Series, whenever a new car is launched a hybrid option will be available.
Sales of the 330e (the plug-in version of the 3 Series) were limited last year because of supply to the UK. That issue however, according to Oliver, has been much improved for this year.
"Last year there was a limited number of cars available - we simply couldn't get enough of them. Now we have good availability of the future production of 330e and 530e. With the 530e we've seen a lot of interest already and I think it'll do very well. How well it does will ultimately be governed by supply. As each year unfolds we will see the growth in plug-in hybrids, undoubtedly."
Modest growth expected
It could be argued that BMW's huge popularity is in danger of moving the carmaker away from its premium status into more mainstream territory. However, Oliver believes the UK has a preference for premium brands, and key to staying on top will be making sure the products and the technology inside the cars keep updating, while ensuring that the service the customers receive is first class.
Oliver wants the corporate team to be the best in the business, and to achieve that a firm focus on customer service will be essential. If the treatment we received at the Park Lane retail store is anything to go by, though, BMW is well and truly on its way to achieving its goal.
"I'm very fortunate, joining a company like BMW where the corporate sales result is 20% up. It's not like things are badly broken - we're in a really strong position," Oliver concludes. "There's no need for massive change, but we just need to be attentive. We need to make sure we are listening to our customers, understanding what they are saying and improving how we deliver that."