Ask any fleet manager how they spend most of their day, and you’ll likely get the obvious answer: on the telephone. Driver calls, usually questions and re-quests for help on company policy, fill too many hours each week. The calls cannot, of course, be ignored. After all, helping drivers is the single most important activity a fleet manager must perform. But Oleg Cytowicz of Unilever, the Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey-based consumer/personal care products company, knew there had to be a better way, not only to help his drivers, but to become more productive himself in the balance. He found it in a program called “U Auto Know.”

Daily Phone Calls

Cytowicz, 15 years with Unilever (all but six months in fleet), is senior supply management analyst (fleet operations) for a fleet of nearly 1,000 vehicles, 80 percent of which are automobiles. The fleet uses various lessors. GE Commercial Finance Fleet Services provides maintenance services, and Corporate Claims Management (CCM) handles collision.

Despite the proliferation of high-tech devices available for fleet management, the telephone is still the primary communication instrument in many, if not most, fleet departments. Fleet managers field phone calls every day, often from all over the country, from drivers, their supervisors, or vendors. “So many of the calls were repetitive,” Cytowicz says. “Different people calling, but asking many of the same questions over and over again.” Although the company had a published policy/procedure manual, the calls came in anyway, many in search of interpretations or clarifications of policy. “Serving our drivers is the most important part of my job,” Cytowicz continues, “but there had to be a better way to do it, and a way to free up time to manage the fleet.”

Process Mapping
A few years ago, a reorganization in the company’s home and personal care division left Cytowicz with a reduced head count and fewer resources to draw upon. “We faced a real dilemma,” he says. “How do we continue a high level of service with fewer staff to deliver it?”

The answer lay in process mapping - a detailed analysis of precisely how each moment of the day was spent on various processes. “We counted the number of phone calls taken each day,” Cytowicz explains, “noted when they were taken, and what they were about.” The results were predictable. “The primary theme of most of the calls was ‘what should I do?’ or ‘how do I do this?’ ” says Cytowicz. “The kinds of questions for which answers can often be found in our procedures.” Procedure documents, however, are necessarily general and require frequent updating. Cytowicz decided to take a new approach.

Using an Excel spreadsheet program, Cytowicz took the information gleaned from the process mapping analysis and developed a program that, using subject tabs, addresses the broad spectrum of inquiries that he had been asked via telephone. “The subject tabs run the gamut from accident repairs to personal use,” he says. “We reviewed the questions and subject matter that came to us by telephone, then provided answers and explanations behind the tabs.”

Observers might note that other companies have gone one step better, posting information and fleet policy on the company Intranet site. But that, Cytowicz explains, doesn’t quite finish the job. “Of course, we’ve made U Auto Know available on our Web site,” he says. “But the fact is that drivers and others don’t always have access to the Internet; and questions often arise when drivers are out doing their jobs.” Rather than pulling off the road and making a phone call, they can now simply boot their laptop, log on, and find the answer. “We loaded U Auto Know onto every driver’s laptop,” says Cytowicz, “so that they have access either on or offline.”

Checking the Phone Line
It didn’t take long for Cytowicz to find out how successful U Auto Know was. “In all seriousness, I had to check my phone line to see if it was in order,” he recalls. “Shortly after we first introduced the program, my phone very nearly stopped ringing altogether!” The key, he believes, is that rather than being simply a policy document, or basing the information available on what he believes the drivers should or want to know, the program is based upon actual inquiries, addressing actual questions asked by his drivers. “It’s similar to the “FAQ (frequently asked questions) feature on many Web sites. No matter what the subject, we’ve included it in U Auto Know.”

When it was first introduced, Cytowicz staged a contest to christen the program. “Out of some 400 drivers in the home and personal care division, we got 120 responses,” he says. “There was a great deal of interest and participation.” One driver suggested “Virtual Oleg” which, although flattering, didn’t win. “Once the vote was taken, U Auto Know was the overwhelming favorite,“ he says.

Unilever drivers now have their “virtual Oleg” to “ask” when they need help. “We’ve had a great deal of interest from outside the company,” he says. “Other fleet managers like the idea, and even NAFA has indicated that U Auto Know may be of interest to the overall membership.” Finally, Cytowicz says that there are cost savings beyond the in-crease in his own productivity. “Imagine the cost of printing, updating, and disseminating a hard copy of a fleet policy manual. Gone. We’ve now given our drivers what they need, accessible everywhere they go. A winner all around.”