Under the Microscope: We talk to Honda's new corporate operations manager, Marc Samuel
02 August 2017
Author: Debbie Wood
Honda has gone through some challenging times in recent years but 2016 marked a real turning point for the Japanese car-maker.
The arrival of the tenth-generation Civic, a new consistent approach to corporate sales and the appointment of Marc Samuel as fleet sales operations manager have all proved key milestones for the firm as it aims to re-establish itself in fleet.
"Historically, we've dipped in and out of fleet and, a few years ago, we decided that we needed to stabilise and work out how we would continue to operate in the fleet market moving forward," Phil Webb, head of cars in the UK for Honda, tells BusinessCar. "We didn't have the right roles and, therefore, we weren't accessing the right customers at the right time. As 2015 was the year that we started getting better products, which now continues with the new Civic, it was a time when we saw a real opportunity to grow corporate fleet."
Another new initiative has been 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.
"The corporate end of sales hadn't necessarily been dealt with in the right way when customers were walking in to see us," says Samuel. "It's been quite an interesting and challenging time as we needed to redo the training programme and start again to make sure we had everyone at the level they needed to be at."
Virtual fleet managers
The corporate team within Honda has also completely changed over the past 18 months, and roles have been brought in and moved around to make sure more of the market can be reached. Two new account managers cover the larger corporate fleets, and there are also two contract hire and leasing managers who develop key relationships with the industry. The residual value manager and whole-life costs manager are also integral to the new Honda set-up.
"We are investing in people and making sure they have every tool they need to be doing their job effectively in order to continue the conversation, because we recognise that we need to be out seeing customers four or five times a year, building that relationship and having a purely consistent message throughout," Samuel explains.
Although face-to-face relationships are important, 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', a new initiative that is really taking off for Samuel and his team.
"The virtual fleet manager project has worked so well because, whereas your classic fleet manager would have to find time to sit down face to face with the customer and go through the fleet policy, now, someone who has more than two or three plates spinning at one time actually has 25 minutes to have a structured phone call or Skype meeting," Samuel explains. "It's what the customer has been wanting as they have a finite amount of time; they need a reactive approach that is going to fit into everyday life."
New and now
Honda sold 57,000 cars in the UK last year and around 30% headed into fleet. The Civic takes the lion's share of sales but the CR-V also consistently performs well for Honda, and a new version will come to market next year. The Jazz is also particularly strong in motability, an area Honda has had much success in over the past few years.
At the moment, there are no plans to change or add to the current line-up aside from model changes, but the UK represents 39% of total European business and has a strong voice, so when new cars emerge globally, it's likely to take precedence over other markets.
At the Paris Motor Show in September 2016, Honda announced that two thirds of its line-up would be electrified by 2030 globally. Europe is expected to be a leader in this and is aiming to hit that target by 2025.
The ultimate goal is very much hydrogen fuel cell for Honda, though, and it's just a question of when it comes and what the journey to get there will look like.
"If you think about where Honda has been in the past, it's been at the front of fuel cell and different innovations, and it needs to get back to that point. We are part of the High 5 project to look at what hydrogen fuel cell technology needs for the future as the infrastructure currently isn't there," says Webb.
"Our end game is hydrogen fuel cell and there will be a number of stages moving towards that. As R&D continues, our range will need to adapt to what powertrains we can use," Samuel says.
Electrification is expected to start making an appearance in the Honda line-up from next year; however, we will have to wait until Frankfurt Motor Show in September 2017 to learn more.
"Change is inevitable; it's just a question of when. The good news for us is that we now have a corporate team set up so we can accommodate whatever may come," Webb explains. "I've been at Honda for 20 years and we've never had that."
Not a volume manufacturer
Looking ahead to the rest of 2017, Honda actually predicts it will sell slightly fewer cars this year, falling from its current 2.2% market share to 2.0%, mainly due to timings of vehicles coming to market and the fact that the Civic range still needs a diesel, which is expected to join the range at the end of the year.
In 2018, more growth is expected; however, Webb is keen to point out that Honda is not looking to be a big-volume brand in the UK.
"We don't want to be a recognised volume player; that's not what we're about. We want our cars to be seen as quality cars at the right volumes," Webb says. "Some of our customers will wait a good couple of months for our cars and we don't have a huge stash behind
User choosers are big business for Honda but Samuel is keen to explore other areas of fleet moving forward too, and Webb has set a challenging target for 70% of sales to be conquest sales on the new Civic - something he believes will be achievable now the team structure is in place.
"People are looking at the vehicles that they drive and it's up to us to be dynamic in order to deal with that response. We have the team and the network in place now to deal with that. Until we have certain clarifications on legislation and Brexit, we can't really account for some things, but I think we're well equipped to grow and deal with the challenges that come our way," Samuel concludes.