AT A GLANCE
Some communication methods for improving fleet image include:
While the image of fleet management has improved, many still don't know about its importance - or sometimes, its existence. Through effective communication, fleet managers can put their industry on the radar.
How Image Impacts Operations
Fleet maintenance is not "throwing parts" at a vehicle; it's not a simple task everyone can do. Fleet is an integral part of government operations that requires training and knowledge of technology, but some still think of it as a "dirty garage." It's important, then, that fleet managers lead the way in informing citizens and officials about fleet operations and dispel possible myths.
Some fleet managers report that the public is aware of fleet operations. "Vehicle-related issues resonate - for example, the average citizen can relate to the concept of a take-home vehicle and what it is worth because they know what it takes to buy, maintain, and fuel their own vehicle," said Rick Hilmer, CAFM, fleet administrator for Prince George's County in Maryland.
Others haven't had the same experience. "I think the public generally doesn't have much of a view about us because they don't know we exist," said Gary McLean, fleet manager for the City of Lakeland, Fla. "Common misperceptions that I've run into is that we're not really accredited or educated like other management positions, that we're basically just running the maintenance side of things."
And then there are those who are misinformed about fleet. People, mostly males, "tend to consider themselves mechanically inclined, even if the only repair they've ever performed on their personal vehicle is changing a flat [tire] or engine oil and filter," said Stephen Kibler, ACFM, fleet manager for the City of Loveland, Colo. "They witness a government vehicle sitting in a parking lot and assume all city vehicles are underutilized."
It's also seen as a non-professional department. "They think it's still a 'grease monkey' operation," said Ernie Ivy, director of fleet management for the City and County of Denver. "Many people don't realize how highly technical this profession has become."
When others see fleet management as a replaceable or less-than-professional service, it makes it an easier target come time for budget reviews, budget cuts, and talks of outsourcing - making it all the more important to communicate the role fleet plays in government services.
Asserting the Importance of Fleet
How can fleet management assert the importance of fleet? Consider highlighting the following facts:
Expertise: "Like most municipalities, our fleet is made up of 28 different classes of vehicles and equipment," Kibler said. "The misconception is that the local lube shop can service a fire truck for their $29.99 special." Ask any local shop and chances are, they don't service the variety of equipment fleet management does. Make sure people know this - Loveland's local shop doesn't service equipment, and officials didn't know it.
Thoroughness: "Break it down to the apples-to-apples comparison," Kibler continued. Compare a local shop's inspection task list with fleet management's inspection list. "When you lay them side-by-side and compare them for somebody who is not familiar with the industry, the difference is obvious. We're much more thorough, much more precise in measurements," he said.
Not-for-profit: Keep in mind that fleet management doesn't need to make a profit, but private shops do. "We don't have to make a profit, so we have always had lower prices," Ivy said.
Essential: There's no denying fleet has a huge impact on government operations. "Fleet operations are among the most visible and direct of government services. Garbage pickup, snow removal, policing, emergency and ambulatory response, street repair, and tree maintenance are just a few of the street level public services that rely extensively on specialty vehicles and operators for their delivery," said Keith Kerman, assistant commissioner, Citywide Operations, City of New York Parks & Recreation.
"Fleet serves as part of the infrastructure in which nearly all other departments rely," added Gary Lykins, fleet maintenance director of the Town of Jonesborough, Tenn.
Kibler noted the importance of preventive maintenance (PM), which, while essential, may be one of the first services targeted during budget cuts. "PM is directly related to delivery of cost-effective services to citizens," Kibler said. When vehicles fail in the field, services do not get done.
Alt-Fuel Leader: Many fleets are testing out the latest alt-fuel technologies. "Public fleet managers have a unique and important opportunity to lead the nation in the transition to alternative fuels," Kerman said. "Public fleets are natural trial and pilot locations for new technologies. Fleet managers can play a critical role in both testing new technologies as part of active operations, and in using their public status to promote and educate the public about them."
Considering the crucial role fleet plays in government operations, how can fleet managers convey this message to others? The key is to communicate effectively with core audiences: public officials, citizens, supervisors, and user departments.
Informing Public Officials
Informing decision-makers about fleet operations is essential. When it comes time to make decisions regarding fleet services, it's best that they're as informed as possible and know that fleet is more than just a bottom-line number.
Lead Tours: Facility tours are an effective way to inform others about fleet management, and many fleets have already taken advantage of this method.
Sam Lamerato, CPFP, fleet maintenance superintendent, City of Troy, Mich., has been offering tours for about seven years, to City Council members, administrators, and the public. The City holds two to three tours annually. They start in the early evening, during a regular shift, and include a light dinner, a PowerPoint presentation, and walk-through tour and live demonstration to meet technicians and see them in action.
"The technicians demonstrate repairs they're making, different types of diagnostic equipment that are needed, and that we own or need to purchase to do our jobs much more efficiently," Lamerato said. "When we write ad memos for this type of equipment, diagnostic equipment or replacement of vehicles, the City Council [members] can reflect back on their tour and put that knowledge forward and tell the other Council members who may not have been in our tour the importance of what we do here."
Ivy from the City and County of Denver calls new appointees overseeing fleet with a personal tour invitation, and he says they almost always accept. During the tour, "we explain to them all facets of how fleet operates. They're all impressed, and then they understand more of how we operate," he said. In fact, he recalled, one new deputy mayor was so enthralled with fleet operations, she stayed for five hours (usually a three-hour tour).
Personifying fleet services is a goal of facility tours. Ron Crowden, fleet manager for the City of Augusta, Ga., said during tours, officials "can see what their $5.4 million budget is paying for, and it gives them a chance to ask questions. This helps build rapport and trust, and they can put a name with a face."
Promote Recognition: According to Kelly Reagan, fleet administrator for the City of Columbus, Ohio, promoting achievements to City Council is one way to communicate the importance and excellence of the fleet department. "When we have a time of recognition for our employees, we always invite City Council, and we include them in recognition ceremonies. They are the ones recognizing the employees from the floor and giving out awards, accolades, letters, and handshakes," he said. "And as you include City Council members, you begin to educate them on your processes." Reagan added that asking for a resolution of recognition to be voted on by the Council further puts a success story in front of Council members. Achievements can include ASE (Automotive Service Excellence) Blue Seal and EVT (emergency vehicle technician) certifications, and 100 Best Fleets inclusion.
Provide Information: In addition to a tour of the facility and meeting staff, Mark Crawford, fleet services manager of Sandia National Laboratories Fleet Services in Albuquerque, N.M., schedules a presentation about fleet activities to allow officials to ask more in-depth questions. "There are several presentations to the different management levels and officials" to get to the full chain of management, he said.
The Denver fleet also shares its business plan that includes a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis comparison to outside sources.
Brian King, fleet manager at the State of Oregon, has attended various state legislature meetings and hearings at this year's session to provide testimony on bills or proposed bills and to answer questions that arise about fleet. By speaking to him directly, legislators can get first-hand, accurate information. "That education is important as well," he added. "Any information that our officials can learn that dispels some belief they have that is not based on valid data is important to get across."
Another way to provide information to a group during a critical time is during the City's budgeting process. At the City of Lakeland, McLean uses that opportunity to "fire-hose PowerPoint shows, talking papers, and anything else I can get in front of our upper level leadership and elected officials about how we develop our billing processes, why things cost what they do, and the level of support we provide to our customers for the money," he said.
Cooperate with Other Departments: The State of Georgia self-insures for all lines, so fleet management has a direct impact on agency and state funds, according to Ed Finnegan, director, Office of Fleet Management for the State. "I have tried to connect Fleet with Risk, Surplus, and Purchasing by demonstrating the interdependence and the efficiencies produced by cooperation," he said. "This has allowed the Office of Fleet Management to have input with legislators and the Office of Planning and Budget."
Communicating with Citizens
Promoting fleet services to officials can go hand in hand with promoting it to the public. At the City of Columbus, a tour with Councilwoman Priscilla Tyson led to excellent results: "Councilwoman Tyson wants the message to go out to the community that good things are happening in the division of fleet for the City of Columbus," Reagan said. She suggested a hearing date so that fleet management can tell its story to the general public.
The City of Troy's Citizen's Academy tours, capping at 18-20 participants per tour, has a waiting list. The City fleet also has special tours, such as for older Girl Scouts approaching legal driving age. Fleet put together a program for them to demonstrate the importance of changing oil and doing a safety inspection before they go on a trip; how to check tire pressure; and how to change a tire, wiper blades, and a tail light bulb. "It's an educational program. I really think fleet managers and fleet operations need to go out and show the public what they're all about," Lamerato said.
The City of Lakeland has raised awareness with an "all-out media blitz" that includes face-to-face meetings with customers, leadership, elected officials, and vendors on a regular basis; a bi-monthly online newsletter published on the City's internal website; communications through an internal Fleet Management Web page; and seeking out local media on fleet's efforts to do things "cheaper and better," according to McLean.
In public outreach, Lakeland held a Public Works night in its downtown park. "We'll be doing public outreach to educate the citizens on fleet, what we do, and what we do well. We'll be passing out information, having contests, all kinds of stuff," McLean said. "We just keep talking and hope they're listening."
The State of Oregon's fleet management division attends the state fair each year to promote and educate the public about its sustainability efforts. At its booth, fleet has alt-fuel and hybrid fleet vehicles set up, and it gets plenty of traffic coming through. "It's an opportunity for my [team] to be in the front line and talking to the public about what we do," King said.
Daniel Nuckolls, CAFM, fleet services director at the City of Concord, N.C., said public outreach includes publicizing successes within the fleet department by including articles in City Circular Magazine, the citizen newsletter, and press releases for local newspapers. "I find the citizens most informed about fleet issues are those concerned with the environment, hence the importance of that aspect of our jobs. The bulk of fleet's public exposure is through our air quality efforts," he said.
Keith Condra, director of fleet management at the Town of Fishers, Ind., is also working on writing articles in internal and external newsletters to publicize fleet. "Keeping information in the forefront will keep people thinking about the importance and value of this division," he said.
When there are complaints or questions from the public, it's best to answer promptly. King said he is always responsive when receiving inquiries or complaints that come directly to him about State of Oregon fleet vehicles. "In some cases, we are able to explain questionable situations about why a State vehicle might be at a certain location," he said. Being receptive to the public increases accountability and, at least for that citizen, raises the esteem of fleet management.
Talking to User Departments and Supervisors
In communicating with supervisors, Kerman at New York Parks & Recreation reported better communication than in the past. "At Parks, we ensure that fleet operations and performance metrics relating to the fleet are presented as part of all senior management meetings," he said. "Our agency culture recognizes now how critical these services are to all our core endeavors, and we engage all senior staff in discussing them regularly."
While some fleet departments may have a direct supervisor knowledgeable about fleet, this can decrease as communications go up the chain of command. "Do not assume any given superior or official has more than a cursory knowledge of your duties," Lykins of Jonesborough said. Arm yourself with facts. Cite statistics when providing information, and when writing reports, use facts and avoid opinion. A well-informed fleet manager can enhance the image of fleet operations.
"With every problem or concern, I try to bring solutions and continually try to show our savings, needs, and improved service," Condra of the Town of Fishers said about communications with his supervisor.
Customer service cannot be emphasized enough when communicating with user departments. "Internal departments have to be viewed like any customer that a private shop has; professionalism, courtesy, cost-effective repairs and maintenance, and being available for any emergency situation [are important]," said Jim Miller, fleet supervisor, City of Sioux City, Iowa.
Show user departments respect and understand that "you are communicating with peers," Lykins added. Use good manners and work the "soft sell" when raising potentially controversial issues such as right-sizing equipment or not replacing under-utilized equipment. "When they have issues, ask to go to the jobsite and see firsthand how fleet management may better assist them," he said.
King at the State of Oregon said sharing data with user department managers can help inform them about their fleet costs and alternatives. Toward the end of last year, he and his supervisor met with heads of larger user departments to educate them on their fleet vehicle costs. For many, it was an eye-opening experience.
In addition, common courtesy can go a long way. Engage the customer, Lykins advised. This can be as simple as asking the driver how equipment is functioning when passing them in the hallway, or following up with a phone call after a major repair, or forwarding on an article relevant to that department's operation. "When engaging the customer, be ready to hear the good with the bad, and always follow through with any actionable issues that may arise during these engagements," he said.
Nuckolls at the City of Concord contacts department directors via e-mail, phone, or personal visit "on matters dealing with any abnormal maintenance issues, specifications, vehicle requests for budgeting, vehicle purchases, accidents, and fuel usage," he said. He sends out a Fleet News e-mail every month that includes fuel use reports, vehicle miles traveled, and items of interest.
Keep often-asked questions and requests handy, Nuckolls advised. "The prepared fleet manager keeps these things at his fingertips because they are the 'heartbeat' of any fleet.
"We have developed a user's guide that operators can keep in their vehicles that will answer most questions that arise about using Fleet Services," he added. "We also have an intranet page with pertinent information and links. Replacement schedules and other reports are provided on a routine basis." Finally, he makes sure staff is familiar with the fleet management system, so anyone can provide needed information when requested. This improves the professionalism of fleet services and streamlines customer requests.
For New York Parks & Recreation, transparency and service are key. "We developed an online tool called VOOS, vehicle out of service tracking, that enables customers to create vehicle work orders on their own, receive regular e-mail updates on service, and check the fleet history for their vehicles," Kerman said. "Through this means, we communicate to all staff, senior and junior, about the status of their fleet [vehicle] and offer improved transparency and service."
Enhancing Fleet Image
Many methods can be used to enhance fleet image, and it's up to the fleet manager to toot his own horn and that of the division. McLean of Lakeland emphasized certification, accreditation, and visibility. "Fleet managers need to get used to talking themselves up and getting into the limelight a little bit." He added that competing for awards, writing for trade publications, and joining professional organizations besides fleet-related entities are also effective.
Industry-recognized certifications, such as the ASE Blue Seal or CAFM and CPFP designations, and awards and contests, such as Government Fleet's Public Sector Fleet Manager of the Year and Environmental Leadership Award, as well as the 100 Best Fleets program, are some ways to increase professionalism and exposure, and can be used as a promotional tool.
Various agencies use these forms of recognition to put their staff in front of elected leadership. Oftentimes, it will get recognized by the mayor, who may issue a congratulatory press release, or will lead to a celebratory event, such as the luncheons held by City of Columbus fleet.
"Make a name for your organization locally, statewide, and nationally. Properly trained fleet managers have the potential to save their local governments a lot of money," Nuckolls of the City of Concord said. "That really is big news, and programs...that highlight such accomplishments should be shamelessly employed."
Another reason to publicize good news: "The precarious image of the fleet management department is proportional to the most recent failure," according to Lykins of Jonesborough.
Continued education and overall presentation are other big factors in increasing professionalism and the fleet image. "Fleet staff, especially in the public sector, needs to modernize in presentation, computer literacy, shop appearance, and customer service," said Kerman of New York Parks & Recreation.
"Educate yourself and never stop learning. Trade magazines and forums are a great source of self-education," Lykins said. "New information can often be the catalyst for procedural improvements. It is in the best interest of the fleet manager and the organization one serves to be on the cutting edge of what is going on in the industry."
When it comes to talking about fleet, some may find themselves tongue-tied. "We should help fleet managers present their important role to others and improve their ability to discuss and educate on their trades and to communicate to their customers," Kerman said.
"The role that fleet plays in maintaining safety needs to be stressed at all times. We are part of the public safety infrastructure of the County," said Hilmer of Prince George's County.
Finnegan at the State of Georgia recommended partnering with the safety department or risk manager to highlight and improve fleet safety. "Make their goals consistent with yours and then share in that success," he said.
Something seemingly minor as personal presentation may make a big difference in image. "In my case, the answer might be to wear a tie more often," Nuckolls stated.
Finally, while cultivating a professional image is an important part of fleet operations, good quality and on-time work is essential. "Half the battle is relationships - the other half is results," Nuckolls said.
Fleet from another Perspective
Mary Kerwin, mayor pro tem for the City of Troy, Mich., was first introduced to fleet services through the Fleet's Citizen's Academy in 2001. With 15 years as a policy maker, Kerwin at the time of her tour was on the board of education. Kerwin now works to approve funding for departments including fleet services. With the knowledge gained about fleet through her tour, she is able to make more educated decisions.
"If I just sat at council and read a series of numbers, facts, and figures, I think I would be far more removed from recognizing what is paramount to the fleet maintenance division, which really is quality of work, teamsmanship, and cooperation," she said.
During her tour, she was able to witness firsthand the processes and complexity of servicing a vehicle, from preventive maintenance to repairs to handling advanced technology in vehicles, she said. "It's far more than changing out a tire or making a small repair. It's in both prevention and breakage, in keeping well-maintained equipment, and the value [fleet] adds because they are so diligent and careful in everything they do. You would never read that from a list of columns [on a budget]."
A Word From the Supervisors
Dave Bush, assistant director of finance and management at the City of Columbus, Ohio, who directly oversees the fleet division, says he's seen a change in the past 25 years in the image of fleet management - from "dirty and grungy" to "mechanics with more formal training than a lot of other disciplines. These guys are pretty knowledgeable, and their diagnostics require them to use sophisticated technology," he said.
With fleet a division under finance and management, Bush said this has led to some operational efficiencies. Fleet is more tied to the budgetary process; for example, fleet is able to directly tell finance that replacing a unit or equipment is cheaper than maintaining it, and finance is able to get a early report on how vehicle replacement funding will be spent before it's even presented to others. "We're doing our homework on the front end, so we've been able to move vehicle purchases more quickly," he said.
Jim Greene, deputy city manager for the City of Concord, N.C., is the direct supervisor above the fleet services department, in addition to eight other departments. He thinks face-to-face interaction is the best method of communication. He and the fleet director have drop-in meetings a few times a week, in addition to e-mails and phone calls. Scheduled monthly meetings with the city managers and department heads allow the fleet director to discuss Council agenda items and other City issues, he said.
"E-mails are good and are sent often by Fleet Services to keep me informed on operations, but I find the face-to-face contact through informal drop-ins and formal staff meetings to be the most effective in communicating issues and concerns," he said.
Suggestions to Improve Fleet Image
To enhance fleet image, Bush at Columbus warned fleet managers against being esoteric. Make sure the audience understands what ASE and EVT certifications mean, what it means to be named among the 100 Best Fleets, and what certain awards entail. "We're trying to be mindful that our audience is not in the industry," he said.
Greene suggested to "get your fleet staff involved and out of the shop." At the City of Concord, the fleet director serves on and helps lead teams, is a presenter to leadership groups, and is involved with classes that introduce citizens to local government, Chamber committees, and civic groups. The fleet team also conducts facility tours. By reaching out to citizens, fleet can enhance its image and inform the public about the service.
"To be successful in educating the public, city management should support and encourage those community relations efforts for fleet services," Greene said.