Private fleets: The measure of success

Sept. 9, 2014
Private fleets are using new benchmarking tools to help take classic customer service to the next level

Talk to anyone who runs a private fleet and the first thing you are apt to hear about is customer service—and for good reason. The ability to deliver highly personalized, top-rate customer service is arguably the most important value private fleets can bring to their parent organizations.
Great customer service is not a static goal, however, a fixed star to reach for every day.

Expectations change and increase constantly as do the obstacles to success. As a result, good private fleet managers tend to be tireless in their quest for improvement and for anything that will help them enhance their fleet’s value to the organization. Today, that includes advanced analytics and benchmarking mixed with old-fashioned dedication and hard work. When it all comes together, the results can look a little like magic.

“I think customer service is our number-one attribute,” says Bedford Monday, CTP (Certified Transportation Professional), general manager for Schwan’s Consumer Brands, with responsibility for managing the transportation of the company’s retail products and the shuttling of products between warehouses. “Private fleets have to differentiate themselves from third-party logistics providers and common carriers.  There has to be a real difference with how you serve the customer.

“Here, drivers and customer service representatives are the face of the company—the ones who build and maintain relationships with our customers,” he adds. “This is true of all private fleets.”

It is certainly also true at the Britt Hunt Company. The company’s vision statement (“To be the best in sales, service, and direct distribution.”) recognizes transportation as a core competency—one of the keys to the overall success of the enterprise. Doug Sanford, CTP, vice president of distribution at Britt Hunt, is in charge of making the transportation part of that vision a reality every day for some 3,000 convenience store customers in 14 states.

Those customers get deliveries of Hunt Brothers products, including pizza and wings, customized ovens, counters, outdoor signage, freezers/refrigerators and much more via the company’s private fleet of about 103 vehicles operated by 77 professional drivers.

“Our folks are dedicated to serving the customer,” Sanford says. “Our drivers are the links back to the company. They are really account managers, not just drivers.  They discuss sales with our customers, do training, check the ovens, prep the counters and put up marketing materials. They also help develop orders and rotate stock. That means they need to be company-minded to understand the whole business and to feel connected to it.”

No excuses   

Bill Hartman, CTP, is fleet director for NEP Broadcasting, which provides mobile broadcasting studios to networks covering major events from sports to concerts and big award ceremonies (think of the Oscars) with a fleet of about 100 trailers and 89 tractors.  “We will provide 18 to 20 trucks/trailers to the U.S. Open golf tournament, for instance,” Hartman says.  “There are international, national and local networks covering the tournament and nobody shares facilities.”

For Hartman, dependable customer service is everything—it is the product. “This business can’t survive without the private fleet,” he says. “This is TV that happens inside a truck. All the networks lease or rent these mobile studios from someone, and we are the largest. Our drivers are each assigned to a truck, so they provide consistency to our customers. They know how to work with the TV crews on setup and so on, which is extremely important. And the drivers understand that. In fact, some clients request certain drivers all the time.

“If a client gets used to you, the dollar difference [for the service] is worth it,” Hartman adds. “Customer service for us is just huge. This is a business where there are no excuses. If that basketball game is not on TV as scheduled, it is a big problem.”

When Mike Little, CTP, director of transportation for Mid-South Baking, talks about customer service, he looks at the process and the unique effect of providing superior customer service with a private fleet. “A private fleet gives a company the ability to project influence,” he observes. “Rather than simply offering a product, the company is able to deliver the product with direct control of the personnel and the supply chain.”

Control of the fleet allows the company’s goals such as profitability, sustainability, philanthropy and marketing to directly reach the customer, Little adds.

“The control growing from ownership drives alignment and accountability and enables [a level of] consistency and predictability in an industry where outcomes are highly influenced by external and often incontrollable factors,” he notes. “A private fleet also gives the parent company the ability to react to marketplace changes quickly because the private fleet exists to serve the parent company’s customers.”

A need to exceed

While all this is true, it does not make it easy to achieve nor does it mean that private fleets which finally battle their way to best-in-class status can coast and enjoy the fruits of their labor. Oh no!

“Either the private fleet is exceeding the expectations every day, or it is not,” Little says. “The private fleet that is not adequately differentiating itself is ultimately the ‘before’ case, competing solely on price with outside suppliers—and that is an unenviable position.”

As a result, private fleets like Mid-South Baking are constantly measuring themselves to make sure that they measure up. “I want every comparative tool I can get to help me look at my fleet and my opportunities (both positive and negative) through the perspective of a different fleet or a different fleet operator,” says Little. “The more different views or perspectives I can gather, the more potential solutions exist in our repertoire and the better we can support our parent company.

“The National Private Truck Council (NPTC) has a great benchmarking survey they do each year. Reading that, a fleet operator can see how the trends in his or her fleet match with those reported by other fleets,” Little says. “I’m also a big supporter of sharing best practices and visiting other fleets. We have so much in common and yet our approaches to solving similar problems are often quite different.

“In our industry, especially on the private fleet side, we should be working to disseminate as many best practices and winning solutions as possible. Private fleets are not typically in direct competition with each other, so if we raise the performance of our industry overall by knowledge sharing, then the private trucking fleets and trucking in general become safer and more profitable and productive, ultimately creating a more sustainable business model.”

Schwan’s also uses benchmarking to measure fleet performance, and to show customers how the fleet measures up to its competitors. “We do use benchmarking and participate in the NPTC annual benchmarking survey,” Monday says. “It is how we relate back to our customers about how we stack up to the competition. Benchmarking is how you get to be best in class, and that is what we all strive to do. If we rested on our laurels, where would we be right now?”

Monday is a big user of big data and depends upon the insights it can offer the company he works for, but he does not view it as a panacea—where more is always better. “We collect data on our own trucks and equipment and measure that,” he says. “However, the amount of data that you can collect can be overwhelming. You can analyze a fleet to death. You have to be able to relate to your employees; they are still your greatest assets. The goal is to [use data] to help them make the right decisions.”

Sanford, like Monday, is a data enthusiast with qualifications. “We do benchmark and set standards,” he says. “Sometimes it even drives us to buy different equipment or to change to other vendors, but numbers are just numbers. There is more to the story than just the data. 

“Analytics, I think, can sometimes drive us to hit nails that don’t need to be hit,” Sanford adds. “Sometimes you need to know the context, the whole story before you act. We were in the land rush of data like everybody else; the rising cost of fuel and the rising cost of equipment drove us to data analysis. Today, you have to know the ‘eaches;’ [sic] you have to understand all the pieces of the puzzle.

“Still, you don’t want to overburden drivers with too many metrics,” Sanford adds “In the end, we measure our customers and how they measure our services. It would be crazy, for instance, to let a great sales person go because they were not so hot on miles per gallon. We do like analytic tools, but there has to be a balance.”

More than data   

To the National Private Truck Council, this is all a familiar conversation indeed. NPTC has long been dedicated to helping private fleets survive and thrive. “You can’t just be a good trucking person like you could in the old days,” says Gary Petty, president and CEO of NPTC. “Today you have to understand finance and company politics and customer service. You have to know the numbers and be able to translate them into actionable plans.

“When you step back from the data we collect and analyze, however, there are still other certain fundamental things a private fleet requires to be successful over the long haul,” he adds. “Private fleets need board-level support. They need to be viewed as a part of the whole—a justifiable strategic investment in making the transport element of the business better than it would be otherwise.

“Private fleets must also have a business model that works,” Petty says. “This requires a very disciplined management and analysis of how to best utilize every asset every day—and things change every day. All this requires a top-notch team that really knows what it is doing and does it better every year.”

About the Author

Wendy Leavitt

Wendy Leavitt joined Fleet Owner in 1998 after serving as editor-in-chief of Trucking Technology magazine for four years.

She began her career in the trucking industry at Kenworth Truck Company in Kirkland, WA where she spent 16 years—the first five years as safety and compliance manager in the engineering department and more than a decade as the company’s manager of advertising and public relations. She has also worked as a book editor, guided authors through the self-publishing process and operated her own marketing and public relations business.

Wendy has a Masters Degree in English and Art History from Western Washington University, where, as a graduate student, she also taught writing.  

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