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What a fleet manager should be looking for in a fleet management system

Robert L. LaRoche, CAFM
Fleet Manager
Water & Power Fleet Services
City of Glendale, California

When you have decided to upgrade your fleet management software, just what should you look for in a new system? This article contains a few pointers, but to paraphrase Hippocrates, "First, do no harm." Don't change software packages for the sake of change. Have a goal, whether it is to improve tracking, expand benchmarking or to upgrade for better support and customer service. Don't just buy whatever your current vendor is offering as a "new" system because of the appearance of a price advantage. When the City of Glendale implemented its new software in 2002, for the first time having all four city maintenance sections on the same system, each section had its own reasons for changing. All of the reasons were defendable and appropriate, so from four different directions—Police, Fire, Water & Power, and Public Works—a consensus on what was needed from the new package was reached.

Service and Support
This may be the most important concept to consider when choosing a system. The vendor you deal with must be able to provide you with timely, effective software support. Regular upgrades, patches and fixes should be included in the annual cost of your support package. A company that provides customer input to make the changes you may need in the system is always more desirable. Many companies now offer WebEx or some other brand of Internet communication software to directly interact with your workstation and server. This allows their technical support staff direct access to your system which makes problem solving easier and faster. Furthermore, make sure that the support contract is affordable, as it should be a factor in your cost/benefit analysis for purchasing any software package.

Interface vs. Integration
A serious question should be addressed at the start of any software purchasing process: How will it work with the other programs we are running? Will your organization require automated integration with its financial and billing programs? Integration usually means that your fleet management software will be just another module in a larger, more comprehensive program, whether it is financially based or a facilities management package. Getting presearch input from your organization's financial and IT staff is important.

  GWP Fleet Services

Interfaces are also important coming into your new system. Most organizations are utilizing some form of automated system to track fuel issues to equipment. It is critical that your new software vendor be able to provide you with a fuel interface package to eliminate the manual data entry of your fleet fuel transactions.

Will regular reporting from the maintenance section be sufficient to provide information for these requirements? In fleets using "charge-back" billing, detailed invoicing and reporting are sometimes required to justify expenditures through auditors or contract administrators. Although sometimes cumbersome, this "biological interface" is often the best answer for matching two disparate systems. The reporting functions of the software are critical in creating this interface.

Reporting
This can make or break a potential software purchase. Canned reports, those included within the reporting functions of the system, should be most useful for maintenance and direct support staff. These employees don't have extra time to spend creating routine reports. For other reporting, it is best to make sure that the database structure is an industry standard (Access, SQL, Oracle, etc.) so that your administrative staff can utilize off-the-shelf report writing software (Crystal, Goldmine, Mastermine, etc.) to make the custom reports that you and your customers need. Although this obviously requires your organization to purchase additional (although low-cost) software and may require more training, using data mining allows the fleet manager to retrieve targeted, accurate and up-to-date information for benchmarking and performance measures. As mentioned previously, it can also provide the solution to your "charge-back" or system interface needs.

Data Entry
Any maintenance software package requires some form of data entry for parts, labor and other miscellaneous entries needed to support tracking of vehicle maintenance and operation costs. Most systems now utilize technician logon to track labor hours. This is the computerized extension of a time clock with the expanded capability of real-time tracking on specific repair functions. Ease of usage is very important at this level, as a fleet manager doesn't want technicians expending a large amount of time on computer functions. The computer should be a technician's tool, not a hindrance.

The data entry function for parts, sublets and miscellaneous costs is a secondary concern, as it can be maintained by supervisory or clerical staff. Much has been made over the years about the simplicity and ease of using barcodes to eliminate data entry. Fleet managers should take great care in selecting a system with barcode capabilities as a priority. During a past warehouse upgrade, one municipality actually identified the number of computer keystrokes which would be saved by implementing barcode readers as part of a cost/time benefit analysis. Unless you are dealing with a big inventory and a large quantity of repetitive transactions, barcoding often takes more time and cost to set up and maintain than will ever be realized in savings.

Remote data entry units are also a popular item. Again, it is important that you investigate and justify an actual need for this capability. Obviously, if your organization requires you to regularly send technicians into the field to perform maintenance or repairs on multiple units, then this type of data entry may be desirable. Technicians working directly in a shop should not need a remote unit to download information into a computer which is 30 to 200 feet away from their work area.

A more recent trend in software is the utilization of a browser-based user interface. Although these programs potentially simplify the IT end of software implementation and support, they can create data entry slowdown. The constant refreshing of browser screens as each field is filled can impact data entry time considerably.

Motor Pool
Some fleet managers perform the maintenance and repairs needed on the vehicles and equipment comprising a fleet. Others are required to track the usage and organize the operations of the fleet units. For the latter, motor pool capabilities may be required in a new implementation. Motor pool functions are sometimes included within the basic framework of the software, can be purchased as additional integrated module, or can be obtained from a second-party vendor and (hopefully) interfaced or integrated with your fleet management package. These functions can be as simple as logging out vehicles to individuals or sections, or can be so complex as to include GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) real-time tracking and mapping of a vehicle's position and status. Be sure that there is sufficient cost savings realized from the use of these intensive systems before considering these packages.

The IT World
Many vendors are offering Internet-based systems in which the server is maintained by the vendor or by a contracted partner. This usually results in a lower initial investment but can increase your follow-on costs. Also, to select this option, you must be comfortable with the concept of releasing control of your server operations to an outside agency. Again, the data entry problems which can accompany a browser-based system would also come into play with an Internet/Server combination.
 
Try to research and select a vendor with whom you can work and that hopefully will be around for a number of years. The fleet maintenance software field has enjoyed great success and even greater failures, resulting in a number of corporate consolidations and mergers during the last decade. The system you buy from a vendor which is taken over by another entity may well become a liability to the new company, and your service and support may be limited or eliminated, forcing you to start over with the purchase of a new package.

Build a Project Team
To start your software search, an important tool will be to build a project team which can help you define your needs and ease your implementation. Members of this team should include a person from your organization's financial, IT and HR (training) sections. The team should be led by the fleet manager and should also contain at least one technician. Also, if the fleet manager is uncomfortable with the cutting edge of computer technology, he or she should include a member of their own staff who can interpret the IT jargon.

This last could in fact be the most important advice you consider. Use the expertise available to you to provide an alternative source of information and consideration. Vendors will always promote their own product as your best option, so careful research, investigation, internal input and objective evaluation are your best tools to assist in the selection of a new software package.

Robert L. LaRoche can be reached at (818) 548-2095 or at rlaroche@ci.glendale.ca.us.

Editor's Note: Knowing Your Costs: Maintaining a Competitive Edge in Fleet Management (video and CD-ROM) and Top Ten Performance Measures for Fleet Managers (publication) are excellent resources in the area of fleet management. Both can be ordered online at www.apwa.net/bookstore or call the Member Services Hotline at (800) 848-APWA, ext. 3560.