Under the Microscope: We talk to Skoda's fleet boss, Henry Williams
19 January 2017
Author: Debbie Wood
A new fleet boss, an all-new Superb that majors on desirability, and even more focus on customer service are just some of the reasons why Skoda achieved record growth in 2016.
Far from being a sales fluke, the firm has set out plans for long-term growth moving into 2017 and beyond, especially in fleet, with new boss, Henry Williams, at the helm.
In-house and external surveys, plus numerous awards show that when it comes to customer service, Skoda is one of the best in the business. But Williams believes more can be done to make the relationships the brand has with fleets even stronger.
"Looking at how far we've come and how much growth we can still achieve is really exciting," Williams tells BusinessCar. "I challenge my team to be the best and do the best at every opportunity, that is my philosophy - I want to add a lot of value, make a difference, make our customers more happy than they've been before and drive the business forwards."
One of the key areas for growth this year is the SME sector. Skoda will be investing heavily in its local business programme and expanding the current number of its local development managers from 23 to 40.
Based in the dealerships, the managers spend most of their time going out and visiting customers and building vital relationships. They are employed by the dealer but supported by Skoda in terms of training, mentoring and providing them with the tools they need to be able to do their job to the best of their ability.
"This area is such a big growth market for us and we take such a small share currently," says Williams. "We're going to be investing heavily to grow the number of local business development managers. At the moment the scale of coverage that we have in the dealer network has been fairly small - we need to make sure we have national coverage."
Skoda's approach to customer service is to deliver more than what's expected. Williams wants his team to become closer to the customer and provide fleets with help and support in a number of areas, like tax changes and salary-sacrifice updates, which don't usually sit directly within a manufacturer's remit.
Having a human relationship, according to Williams, is absolutely critical for good customer service and Skoda's more personable approach is what will set them apart.
"My vision for the team is that, for any fleet manager in any company, the Skoda area manager is the person they talk to about anything, not just about Skoda, but about industry issues and fleet management. It's not just about selling the product; it's much deeper than that," says Williams. "I think that if we can get to a place where we are offering a level of service where we become a one-stop shop, it'll be better for the fleet manager, it'll be better for us, and it'll offer a better relationship."
Desirability is key
Skoda has always been a brand that has majored on value for money and practicality, and in 2015 desirability was added to its list of credentials with the launch of the new Superb. This is car that has brought significant growth to the firm, especially in fleet, and a raft of new customers from premium German brands.
As part of further enhancing the desirability of the Superb, Skoda has added a new Sportline trim to the range, which adds sporty styling aspects such as bigger alloys and gloss black touches. There are also new interior features like LED ambient lighting, sports seats, and black headlining to give the car a more premium look, and Williams expects the uptake to be significant.
"We've not targeted to take volume out of the premium sector - we still rest by our key values, with value for money being one of them, but we are getting people coming down into the Superb, which is part of the reason for the trim mix to be driven up.
"We're building on the value, practicality and reliability credentials that we're known for and adding desirability to it. We're not going to lose sight of the basics moving forwards, just add to them," says Williams.
The Superb and Octavia currently make up around 75% of fleet sales and the Superb, Skoda's flagship car, sold double the volume it did in 2015, quite an achievement in a declining sector.
In February this year the Kodiaq, the firm's all-new seven-seat SUV, will finally arrive in showrooms and will be joined by a facelifted Octavia a little later in the year.
The Kodiaq is a milestone car for the firm, which Williams believes will make people look at Skoda in a whole new light.
"Kodiaq is an important car for us. It's going to bring new people to the brand and make people look at us and think - is that really a Skoda? It's a great-looking car, which still remains true to the values Skoda stands for," says Williams.
One area where the Czech firm has been noticeably absent is in electric technology; however, Williams believes playing the waiting game until the technology can deliver what the customer wants is the best approach moving forwards.
A plug-in Superb will be first to join the range in 2019, likely to be followed by a plug-in version of the Kodiaq shortly afterwards.
"We don't need to be first. Waiting for the infrastructure is important. We are known for being a practical brand and it's important that our cars deliver what the customer wants," says Williams. "It's got to be right. What you wouldn't want to do is put a plug-in hybrid in the marketplace where it doesn't stand up to the customers' expectations of the cars they are driving today. Hence why it'll not be until 2019 when we have a car here in the UK. You will see more electric products from Skoda moving forwards, though, that's for sure."
Growth in 2016 and beyond
Around 53% of all Skoda sales come from fleet and the firm ended 2016 10% up year on year in true fleet sales.
As previously mentioned, SME will be a key area of growth for Skoda in 2017 and the arrival of the Kodiaq and facelifted Octavia is expected to further boost sales. Despite the ongoing economic uncertainties surrounding Brexit, Williams believes Skoda is exceptionally well-placed to continue to strive for growth.
"The market goes up and down all the time, but if you build your foundations on long-term sustainable business you can insulate yourself a bit from what is going on and that continues to be my strategy, to continue to develop that part of the business to make sure we have a good structure moving forwards," Williams concluded. "2016 was good but this year will be even better."