Goodyear, Firestone, and Sears are all relatively well-known stores today, but it was around the 1960s-1970s when they started making a name for themselves in the fleet industry. It was during this time that these national account chains — along with such others as BFGoodrich, Maaco, and Lee Myles — started partnering with fleet management companies (FMCs) to provide consolidated billing, product codes, and nationwide pricing.
“This was a big deal for fleet managers,” said Eric Strom, maintenance and safety product manager for GE Capital Fleet Services and a 34-year industry veteran. “It gave them confidence, knowing that the national account network was made up of well-recognized chain stores with consistent billing and pricing.”
It was also a big deal for the FMCs, which often didn’t have enough garages around the country to service all their nationwide customers.
“Having the ability to find the best pricing per service among national account providers across the country enabled us to help our fleet customers make better decisions [about maintenance],” said Jeff Fender, VP of sales and marketing for Fleet Response.
In addition to establishing relationships with these chains, FMCs also formed relationships with glass and rental car companies, which served as an added program.
These partnerships also helped streamline processes. “We would receive one invoice for services performed across the country. So, you may have thousands of transactions in one month, but you’re working off one invoice. That’s a win from both an FMC and a service provider standpoint,” said Fender of Fleet Response.
According to Strom, it also created a lot of efficiencies from a payment, billing, and processing standpoint.
Technology has been one of the main game-changers for maintenance management. In the early 1980s, FMCs started developing online maintenance reporting tools.
“Being able to quickly get their data at their desktop was really the beginning of a self-serve model for fleet managers. Up until that point, FMCs would get all the billing. Everything was paper-based, so there would be boxes and boxes of paper,” said Strom of GE.
Robert Santor, director of commercial sales for Sears Holdings Corp. and an 18-year employee, recalled the early days of working with FMCs.
“It was very cumbersome; pricing was inconsistent, billing was paper-based,” he said. “Some of the first technologies we invested in were the ability to have national account pricing and electronic billing for our fleets.”
Implementing electronic work order authorizations was another big step for the industry over the past decade. “With most FMCs, the service writer has to call the FMC for authorization. It’s a lengthy process, there’s time spent on the phone, there’s room for error, time wasted on double entry of tickets, all sorts of things,” Santor noted. Going electronic has improved Sears’ customer service and reduced chargebacks and time spent on disputed invoices.
Improvements in vehicle system quality since the 1990s also played a significant role in vehicle maintenance.
“Outside of normal PM, major mechanical repairs don’t tend to happen nearly as often as they used to 15 or 20 years ago,” said Fender of Fleet Response.
Strom of GE agreed, noting the impact of technology such as repair facility diagnostic tools and vehicle diagnostic trouble codes in the early to mid-1990s. “The new tools made it easier and faster for shops to pinpoint problems,” he said. “From a fleet manager standpoint, the administrative job became easier with fewer complaints about drivability issues.”
One challenge, however, with the advancement of vehicle systems is the shortage of drivability mechanics, who perform the more difficult repairs and reduce comebacks.
According to Santor, Sears is heavily recruiting and training existing technicians to achieve ASE master certification. “Vehicles these days require a higher-skilled technician, so we’re adding technicians and adding skills to our technicians,” he said.