Under the Microscope: We talk to Nissan UK's sales director, Darren Payne
03 March 2017
Author: Debbie Wood
It's all change at Nissan, with a restructured corporate sales team, a new product range and a focus on autonomous technology all part of a wider plan to deliver growth in fleet in 2017.
Having joined the company in May 2016, Nissan's UK sales director Darren Payne is striving to deliver the firm's best-ever fleet performance this year, and his newly expanded corporate team will be crucial to success.
A series of key appointments were made in 2016 to grow the team from 51 people up to 75. It's all part of a key focus to deliver a greater service to fleet customers, something Payne admits has become something of a challenge in recent years.
"The choice has been expanding for end users, which means there is more ground for brands to cover. It's one of the reasons we have invested in more resource and spent a lot of time profiling the fleet market," he tells BusinessCar.
Payne heads up both the retail and corporate UK business and appointed Robert Tweedie last year as fleet sales director to oversee the day-to-day fleet operations.
Within the team are eight fleet sales professionals, who form a new, mid-sized fleet team responsible for looking after customers with 50-300 vehicles.
To support the larger fleets, there are also six corporate sales managers, as well as two EV managers, four contract hire and leasing managers, and a dedicated fleet marketing team.
And the changes are clearly paying dividends: Nissan grew its true fleet volumes by 2.9% in 2016 although Nissan's fleet market share has remained consistent at 6.5%.
"The team restructure is going well and that's part of the reason for the growth in fleet. When you look at our true fleet volumes that have increased, we're pleased with that result. The movement in-house is starting to produce some results for us. We're investing in our products and our people and looking at how we can develop our fleet dealer network," Payne says.
With the in-house team up to full strength, Payne is now turning his attention to the business sales managers who work within the dealers and generate small business, typically fleets of 0-50 vehicles.
"We have 57 dealers currently in the UK with a business manager. We would like to grow that ideally, but we don't want to increase it for the sake of increasing it. We will work with our dealers to make sure it's worthwhile for everyone," Payne explains.
Qashqai changed everything
Key to the brand's growth over the past few years has been the Nissan Qashqai, a car that defined the now booming SUV sector. Celebrating its 10th birthday this year, the Qashqai is still the biggest-selling SUV in the UK and currently accounts for 41% of Nissan fleet sales, including LCVs.
"The exciting thing is that it's now our 10-year anniversary for the Qashqai. We invented that segment and we've been staying at the top despite the increase in competition," says Payne.
The X-Trail is also doing well for Nissan, currently accounting for 13% of fleet sales, a figure that is expected to grow with the arrival of a new 2.0-litre diesel late last year. Joining the line-up in 2017 is the all-new Micra, a car that has been significantly improved over its predecessor and which will be important for fleet this year.
"The new Nissan Micra doubles the sector opportunity for us, so it's a key car, especially in fleet. The reaction we've had so far is really positive," Payne says.
The Qashqai will remain a heartland fleet car for Nissan, though, and to keep it ahead of its competitors and top of the sales charts, according to Payne, autonomous technology is going to be key.
"How we manage to keep the car at the top is through the design of the vehicle and also the technology we are planning to introduce," Payne explains. "We are going to showcase the autonomous driving on the Qashqai through to 2020."
Payne believes fleet will be a key market when it comes to the adoption of autonomous driving technology.
"I think autonomous technology will help fleets and I'm sure companies will look at the duty of care perspective," he says. "There's no legislation towards those types of vehicles to accelerate uptake at this point, but I think from a fleet point of view, they will be the first to adopt."
Nissan has just started testing an autonomous Leaf in London, which is the firm's first real-world trial of the technology and follows on from a recent announcement that future iterations of the Leaf and Qashqai will be equipped with technology to enable single-lane autonomous driving on motorways.
"We see autonomous technology developing in three stages: the first is on the motorway, where the vehicle follows the one in front; the second stage will be when the car can autonomously change lanes; the third stage is being able to use the technology to navigate at intersections and crossroads," Payne says.
Electric vehicle technology will also be a key focus for the brand this year. However, Payne admits that the UK is not quite at the point of mass adoption yet and awareness is still a key stumbling block.
"There's a lot of interest still in electric vehicles but we're not at the point yet of mass market. I think it's all about range and whether the cars are fit for purpose," he says. "There's also still a lot of drivers and fleets who haven't experienced an electric vehicle yet and we have a lot of work to do to keep building awareness."
Working in an alliance
Nissan forms part of an alliance with Renault, Infiniti and soon Mitsubishi, as the company brought a 34% stake in the latter last year.
All brands operate individually in the market, however, there are clear opportunities for a collaborative approach to secure business deals, particularly with Infiniti, as there's been growth in the premium sector over recent years.
Working more closely with Renault on Nissan's light commercial vehicle business is another opportunity Payne is keen to explore further.
"As a car brand Nissan is well positioned, but from an LCV point of view, Renault is much stronger so I think there's an opportunity there for us to develop our van business," Payne says. "What we are particularly interested in is the quality of that business and not just volume for volume's sake. We are working with our dealer network on how we can position ourselves and how we continue to try and differentiate ourselves from our rivals.
"We are sharing a number of things like platforms and engines, so, especially with Renault, there are clearly some similarities with both model line-ups: we both have an electric vehicle and a van. Each brand works independently but technology can be adapted for
Joint partnerships within the alliance and new technology are important, but ultimately the key focus for the Nissan fleet team in 2017 is growing the firm's true fleet share and continuing to improve the service offered to corporate customers, something Payne believes the brand has never been better positioned to deliver.
"A small share increase for 2017 is the goal, but what we really want is to build quality business, and that means true retail business, true fleet business and selling to fleet customers. That's what we're really interested in for growing our business."