Serving the customer right
Monday, November 5, 2012
Keeping vans maintained and on the road is vital to the success of a company that relies on its vehicles. Steve Banner looks at the stiff competition for business across the service, maintenance and repair sector.
Anxious to ensure that their customers continue to have their aftersales needs met by franchised dealers rather than independent garages or the fast-fit chains, van manufacturers have put together a variety of packages aimed at retaining their loyalty.
Citroen’s no-cost Upgrade to Business Class programme, for example, gives businesses that acquire a new van free annual servicing for four years/60,000 miles, whichever comes first. The scheme also includes a warranty extension to four years/120,000 miles with emergency assistance and recovery provided over the same period.
Vauxhall is among competitor manufacturers offering a similar deal, this time under the 4x4x4x4 banner that’s still available at the time of writing. As well as four years free servicing, warranty and breakdown assistance, it includes 0% APR finance over the same period.
Free servicing is not quite as altruistic as it sounds. As well as acting as a handy sales aid, it encourages the customer to view the dealer as the first port of call for any and every type of work that needs doing: replacing a broken wing mirror for example, which would not be covered by a free servicing deal and would require payment.
Franchised outlets have for some time recognised that the fear of an unexpectedly big bill prompts some van owners to think twice before using their facilities, and as a consequence many now offer manufacturer-backed fixed-price repairs.
Having launched a network of around 90 Business Centres at the start of 2011 – locations within its dealer network that specialise in meeting the needs of small- to medium-sized firms – Citroen is again well to the fore. Its fixed-price programme means that its dealers will, for example, fit a timing belt for £245.83, rear brake pads and discs for £229.16, and front brake pads and discs for £187.50. (All prices quoted in this article exclude VAT.)
A key advantage franchised dealers have over the independent garages and the fast-fits is the in-depth knowledge they have of the marque they represent, and the equipment they have to hand that is dedicated to looking after its products. As a consequence, while their hourly labour rate may be higher, they may be able to perform certain tasks in half the time it would take a non-specialist workshop.
“We’re the experts on VWs,” says Stephen Bateson, head of aftersales and customer service at Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles. “We’ve got the trained technicians and the latest diagnostic kit.”
The manufacturer’s 70 van centres are supported by 30 authorised repairers. All the workshops have to be open for at least 11 hours a day Monday to Friday and for at least four hours on Saturdays.
“We offer fixed-price servicing, which means, for example, that you pay £90 for an interim service on a Caddy wherever you are in the country,” Bateson says.
Pointing out that they are prepared to handle all makes of light commercial, the fast-fit chains have no intention of allowing manufacturers and their networks to have things all their own way.
Peter Fairlie, group sales director at ATS Euromaster, argues: “More than 95% of our centres can accommodate even the biggest vans and we now offer far more than the tyres, batteries, brakes, exhausts and shock absorbers for which we are best known.
“We’ve spent more than £14m increasing our skills base to include computerised wheel alignment, air-conditioning servicing, and fault diagnostics among other facilities.” More than 170 of its branches regularly service vehicles, including LCVs, 128 can conduct Class IV MoTs while 33 can carry out Class VII MoTs.
At the British Commercial Vehicle Show back in April, Kwik-Fit Fleet announced that it was targeting the light commercial market with a wider range of van tyres with premium, mid- and budget-price choices while at the same time ensuring that some 550 of its depots could accommodate long-wheelbase high-roof models. It also stated it was embarking on equipping its sites with all the tooling required to work on vans as well as ensuring that its fitters were suitably trained.
It has proved to be a worthwhile initiative says sales director, Peter Lambert.
“As well as fitting tyres, exhausts and batteries we can sort out a van’s brakes and carry out manufacturer- scheduled services on the vast majority of light commercials,” he says. “So far as servicing is concerned we are between 20% and 30% cheaper than franchised dealers, we don’t take any longer to complete the work and we only use quality parts.”
“In our experience, tyres typically account for between 25% and 27% of the service, maintenance and repair expenditure on a van,” says Dave Freeman, manager of the commercial vehicle specialist division at leasing company Alphabet, which has some 16,000 LCVs on its books. Tyres can be covered as part of a contract maintenance agreement, he points out, an agreement that means the operator pays the same for SMR in month 47 as was paid in month one: a boon for any business that wants to be able to predict as high a percentage of its costs as possible with certainty.
Tyres, of course, provide the vital contact between a van and the road surface, and a proactive approach to tyre maintenance is vitally important when it comes to controlling costs, says Hankook UK sales director, Barrie Horrocks. He believes that tyre pressures should be checked weekly.
“Allow a tyre to be 10% under-inflated and you reduce its mileage potential by 5%,” he points out. “20% under-inflation spells a reduction of 12% while 30% means a reduction of 32%.”
At least tyre prices are not rising at present, with the new labels detailing their rolling resistance, wet grip and noise levels apparently having zero impact on how much operators have to pay. “Prices have stabilised,” Horrocks says.
You do not have to go to a garage or a fast-fit to buy a van tyre. Visit the Blackcircles.com website, for example, and you can order them online and either have them delivered to your own premises or to any one of 1300 garages that fit tyres on the site’s behalf. Claiming possible price savings of up to 40% when compared with what is charged by other outlets, the site adds that for every £1 you spend you will earn Tesco points that can then be spent in the supermarket giant’s stores.
Not to be outdone, Etyres.co.uk says that if you order your van tyres through its site, one of its 60 franchisees nationwide wide will pop round and fit them at your home, your business premises or wherever you happen to be working. Fitting is included in a price said to be several percentage points lower than what is on offer from the competition, but the real saving says Etyres lies in the time you save not having to take your vehicle to somebody’s workshop and hang around there while the job is done. It fits batteries too.
Alphabet’s Freeman believes that all those engaged in LCV maintenance will have to consider taking at least some of their services to the customer if they do not already do so rather than waiting for the customer to come to them, a view ATS Euromaster’s Fairlie shares.
“We have nearly 1000 mobile service vehicles available for booking on a same- or next-day basis to fit tyres and batteries at non-roadside locations,” he reports.
Three VW outlets now operate vans with the equipment required to carry out a routine service on a van away from the workshop.
Firms such as Auto Windscreens have plenty of experience in going out to attend vehicles. With 300 vans and 28 branches – the total is scheduled to rise to 37 by January – it provides a year-round 24/7 service nationwide.
“If a windscreen is completely broken as a consequence of, say, bird damage, and the vehicle concerned cannot be driven, then we aim to get to it in no more than two hours,” says MD Nigel Davies.
Because screens are bonded into place these days, the van will have to remain stationary for an hour or so once the new screen has been fitted while the bonding agent cures. Drive away too early and there is always the risk the screen will fall out and break. That’s not the only hazard, however, warns Jeremy Rochfort, national sales manager at Autoglass. Airbags often rely on the screen’s strength to work properly and may fail if the screen has yet to bond fully with the vehicle.
“Remember that the windscreen accounts for up to 30% of the structural strength of a van,” he remarks.
Emergency screen replacement represents a minority of the work most fitters take on. In the majority of cases screens are replaced either at the customer’s business premises, or at the driver’s home at the end of his or her shift.
With van windscreens typically costing anywhere from £120 to £160 fitted, according to Davies, while repairs average around £45 to £50, it is scarcely surprising that many budget-conscious operators favour the latter where possible and practical.
“Remember, though, that repairs cannot be conducted within the driver’s direct line of vision if the damage is more than 10mm across: more than about the size of a 5p piece in other words,” he says. Larger areas of damage can be repaired elsewhere, but he recommends that a screen should be repaired no more than three times, and a screen cannot be repaired more than once in the same place.
Repairs have the advantage that they can typically be executed in no more than 20 minutes says Rochfort, and a prudent operator will have the work completed as soon as possible.