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Talk it out

It seems trite to suggest that many of the arguments between fleets and service providers could be addressed through some improved communication, but it is a theme that emerged time and again during a...

It seems trite to suggest that many of the arguments between fleets and service providers could be addressed through some improved communication, but it is a theme that emerged time and again during a panel discussion hosted by the Technology and Maintenance Council.

The need for a better definition of “shop supplies” offered a clear example of some common challenges that exist.

“What is a shop supply? Is it a doughnut?” asked Paul Wion, corporate fleet supervisor for Lewis Tree Service, a fleet with 4,200 assets. The comment generated a few chuckles from the crowd, but other fleet representatives quickly echoed similar thoughts. There certainly tended to be wide differences in the charges, whether they involve flat fees or calculations based on a fixed percentage of the invoice.

Wayne Corron, road rescue manager for PAM Transport, suggested he’s been particularly baffled by miscellaneous shop charges that appear on what should be a labour-only invoice. He wants to see details about all the bolts, nuts and washers that are used.

But fleets have to realize that shop supplies such as those to clean parts are very real, added Chip Huber of Q Fix Truck Service, referring to the figure that he calculates as 4% of the parts costs.

It was just one example of the issues that can emerge when communication falters.

In some cases, communication issues are being addressed by leveraging technology. If the request for a repair on a Waste Management truck is not addressed within 24 hours, for example, e-mails are automatically generated to service representatives, dealers and anyone else who is involved in the job.

“Every fleet out there has their own preferred (communication) method and every service centre out there has their own preferred method,” says Gary Cummings, executive vice-president and COO of FleetNet America, which coordinates roadside service and maintenance management services for 500,000 vehicles. But e-mail itself may not solve a problem because the information still needs to be collected in one place.

“We use a portal system to interface with customers. (It) sends estimates to fleet people and it’s a quicker response time, which keeps the technician on the truck,” says Jim Pennington, service manager at Truck Centers in St. Louis, Mo. That can be a particularly important step in the process. If the mechanic is pulled away from the job, it could set back a repair by eight to 24 hours, he adds.

Some of the tools will be decidedly low-tech. “A telephone call (to pre-approve diagnostic work) is generally right to you, whereas an e-mail can sit in the queue and wait and wait and wait,” says Wion.

Corron ensures that there is always staff on duty that can authorize repairs without making yet another phone call. The only challenges seem to emerge if the final dollar figures are higher than an initial estimate. “If it’s within reason, you know we’re going to pay it and go on,” he says.

Still, one of the greatest frustrations of all continues to surround the variations in cost that can take place on the road.

“We’ve had incidences where we’ve had a breakdown on the road and we’ve had to pre-pay,” Wion says. “They took advantage of that situation … are you really getting what you paid for? That’s what you tend to think about.”

“We, as dealers, typically don’t treat other dealers very well when it comes to a rework situation,” Pennington agrees. “You’ve got the dealers out there who think their way to make a profit is through another dealer’s woes.”

Some of the issues will be addressed as more service networks move toward national pricing, establishing predictable standards, suggested Dick Hyatt, president of Decisiv Inc., which has a Web portal that connects fleet managers and service locations.

Still, shops agreed they were frustrated by the nature of some of the negotiations that can emerge. Huber, for example, is discouraged by the number of disputes over credit card charges. “There is a lot of consumer cardholder protection, but as far as merchant protection there is very little … many times the cardholder doesn’t even respond.” The most vulnerable transactions of all are those completed without a credit card in hand, he adds. Negotiations are also a two-way street, Pennington says.

“You may want to fire that small fleet that may want to beat you up (on price) no matter what.”

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