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Under the Microscope: We talk to Stuart Thomas, head of fleet at the AA

Date: 09 June 2017   |   Author: Rachel Boagey

The historical town of Oldbury in the West Midlands is home to Britain's largest breakdown provider, the Automobile Association, better known as the AA. While the AA isn't quite as old as the town, the company does have quite a history, having providing its services in the UK for more than 100 years now.

When thinking of the AA the first picture that will probably come to mind is a yellow recovery van on the hard shoulder. While this is very often the case, the AA insists that there is now much more to the company that just its recovery services. Innovative vehicle diagnostics and telematics enabled by various industry partnerships are now part of the AA's DNA, enabling the company to consistently improve its customer service offering.  

To date, the AA has 15 million customers and, of these, 10 million come from the B2B sector.

According to Stuart Thomas, head of fleet services & SME at the AA, the company's relationships with fleets are vital. He tells BusinessCar: "We have relationships with virtually all UK fleet drivers, either directly through the fleet supplier or the relevant manufacturer. This allows us to provide support for the entire lifecycle of the vehicle."

In the past, the AA was predominantly a product-led type of business but is now focusing on providing a more "needs-based" service.

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"People recognise the AA as doing breakdown but we do a lot more than that," says Thomas. "We have a driver training business and a financial services business. There is myriad of products, which we have not necessarily pulled together and painted a picture of, besides breakdown. We are focused on personal and fleet - pulling end products together to support end goals of the business."

Just last year, the AA invested around £150m into its systems, a large proportion of which has gone into frontline services to improve its offering to fleets. "This has allowed us to invest in 3,000 AA-liveried resources so we can continue to have significantly more dedicated roadside patrols than anyone else, repair more than eight out of 10 breakdowns at the roadside, increase the number of motorbike patrols that attend vehicles in heavy traffic, and expand our support network of audited garage agents," says Thomas.

Quality of service

Thomas explains that the quality of service that the AA's customers receive is the reason why it is able to retain them. In fact, 65% of motor manufacturers rely on the AA to manage their fleets, alongside 50% of banking and added-value account customers and 35% of SMEs. "In all of these sectors, we have a larger market share than our competitors and we are able to retain these customers, year after year, because of the quality of our services," says Thomas.

The AA owns over 2,500 roadside vans, operated by more than 3,000 patrols - more than any of its competitors. "Our customers see us on the roads; we are not an agent," explains Thomas. "We take more responsibility and also offer a broader range of services than our competitors."

An example of this is the AA's Key Assist and Fuel Assist technologies. The company runs a total of 60 fuel-assist vehicles to help their customers when they have accidentally misfuelled their vehicle. "We also offer a mobile key-cutting service for recoding and cutting of most keys, as well as a battery-assist service, which enables us to get a battery out to the vehicle and replace it at the scene," says Thomas.

Any time, anywhere

Recovery is what the company is famous for, however, and in 90% of cases the AA can fix a broken down vehicle at the roadside. It will attend call-outs anywhere in the UK and has partners across Europe too.

The time-saving focus is especially useful for fleets as time spent off the road means a loss of money. At the headquarters, Thomas showed us the multiple ways in which the AA tries to decrease downtime of fleet vehicles with a multitude of new vehicles equipped with technologies that are able to support in many situations, one of which was the Multi-fit Wheel, which was rolled out in April 2016 and is already saving more than an hour at the roadside for vehicles without a spare wheel.

"We launched our Multi-fit Wheel in response to the 'pothole puncture epidemic' in the UK, and the fact that up to a third of newer cars don't have a spare wheel," explains Thomas.

The Multi-fit Wheel comprises a slim-fit wheel and tyre with a range of interchangeable hubs and stud sets that will fit up to 90% of cars that don't carry a spare, as well as caravans and some trailers.

The electric future

To stay ahead of the curve when it comes to future technologies, Thomas explains how the AA is ready to help drivers and fleet managers make the most of the electric vehicle revolution and cut their motoring costs. To do this, the AA has developed EV training and support, which will ensure they are ready for what is predicted to be the biggest change in our industry. "We have teamed up with Chargemaster to provide advice, support and access to a UK-wide network of chargers," Thomas says. The first of its kind in the UK, the new partnership delivers a range of benefits, including bespoke charging units, access to thousands of charging points and preferential charging rates.

Telematics has its benefits

Alongside its vehicle recovery services, another area becoming a big focus for the AA is telematics. In a recent report compiled by the AA and BT Fleet, 67% of fleet managers felt they could benefit from advice on how to use their telematics data and 59% of fleet managers indicated that they are likely to increase their spending in this area.

Thomas explains: "All patrols also now have the Bosch KTS 570 diagnostic system which is recognised as the best in the marketplace. It gives the AA access to more diagnostic codes than any other system. There is also an agreement with Bosch that the two organisations will work together and develop the tool."

The AA uses telematics to improve its repair services, as well as improve customer satisfaction. Telematics enable the company to collect and analyse data to determine the location, speed, fuel levels and the condition of vehicles. "It also allows us to offer various services, from spotting when a battery is about to fail to recommending nearby fuel stations," Thomas explains.

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 Each AA patrol carries a G1 Tablet that boasts several communications tools that enable a better level of customer service: a sat-nav function telling the patrol exactly where the customer is and how to get there quickly, links to tools, diagnostic information and a training manual. They also carry out remote diagnostics to increase repair rates even further. The AA has recently upgraded AAHelp2, which allows vehicles to automatically call for assistance when they break down using on-board telemetry, increasing the firm's digital capabilities even further.

While investing in telematics is becoming a crucial part of successful fleet management, Thomas doesn't think it is realistic that all fleets will go ahead just yet. "I think for now it's needs-based, and what I mean by that is some fleets with just two or three cars may not yet think they require route planning as the fleet is not of a big scale. For bigger fleets, however, they are now realising that the duty of care, deployment, journey planning and cost savings benefits that come from telematics are vital."



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