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Its All About Customers

When introducing a new innovation into a business, it's important to understand whether it will be beneficial to your customer.

Nigel Malcolm is the managing director of Fleet care, Australia's largest privately owned fleet management company. As the driving force behind Fleet care's growth, Malcolm has highlighted a commitment to technology and innovation as key factors in the company's business success.

Hailing from a car service background, most of his earlier life was spent in the automotive dealerships in the service department.

"I dabbled a little bit in finance and sales, but my real focus had been always service – it was really from that that I saw there was a gap in the market – the need for a provider that was more focused on customer service."

The year was 1989 and business conditions were challenging, but Malcolm had his determination and a solid kitchen table, which was his initial base.

"There I was in the lounge room, running a business for the first time in my life and it presents all the new challenges. I think anybody that's ever worked from home, and especially established a business that would be more than a home-style business, understands those challenges that come from that type of environment," he says.

These days, Fleet care manages vehicles – company cars, trucks, buses, plant and equipment."I suppose our direction’s a bit different from a lot of our competitors — we’re more involved in the entire management of them. So it's not just about finance, it's about the fuel cards, looking after the drivers correctly, handling accidents, doing the maintenance side of the vehicles, advising the clients on the type of vehicle and the best funding methods that they should be using, right down to providing the 'E-tag' that goes up on the windscreen,"says Malcolm.

Malcolm believes innovation and technology have been critical to his success."From the day I founded Fleetcare, I made a decision that technology and innovation would be our major drivers. I don't believe that you can use technology alone to get to where you want to go to, a lot of our decisions or the innovations that we bring in – be it technology or change in product – is really customer driven, and I believe if you don't have that customer drive behind any of those changes you make, you might as well just throw the technology in the bin,"he says.

There were times, he admits, where he had to grapple with that great Australian characteristic which holds many businesses back, and it's called 'scabbiness'. Many businesses are run by scabs that too frequently question whether they can afford technology that is there to help them grow.

"We came across it more than others because we pushed the technology stakes right at the forefront. We were one of the first organizations to deliver short message system (SMS) messages to drivers or via email to actually cut down the workload for our customer, at that early point we suddenly found there were many organisations that didn’t have phones in those days that would SMS. So whilst we had a service there, we had limited customers that we could talk to that way. But over time, generally technology does catch up, but there’s certainly that element there."

Eighteen years of focused growth has resulted in an impressive outcome."Our competitors are all massive — they're all basically finance institutions and some of them are international businesses. We manage just over 15,000 vehicles across Australia and we're probably ranked somewhere between five and seven in the market. As we've grown we actually haven't added the same number of staff as we have the number of vehicles."

Putting himself in the position of someone who aspires to build a business like his, starting from a kitchen table and going to more than 40 employees, what big obstacles has Malcolm had to overcome that have made the difference in the growth process?

"Certainly growth is one of the big obstacles. We actually doubled the size of our business two years running and we go through quite rapid growth cycles. I think being able to control those cycles [is important] – I have a strategy where we drive the business to growth and then we allow it to stabilise for a while. That protects your customer, that protects your new customer, you get to learn about them and understand what their needs are, and then you go into another growth cycle after that," he says.

Malcolm acknowledges that he made some mistakes along the way and learned some lessons. Here are his lessons for people who are on the doorstep of become employers.

"The mistake we've made occasionally is we've come up with an idea and we've said 'this is a great idea, this will work, this will make a difference for our customer', but we forgot to ask them. Earlier this year I was in Sydney talking to a group of companies about web portals and how you make your customer-facing portal really customer-savvy.

"The point I made to them on that day was don't get hijacked by your IT development team because they don't know everything! What you need to do is talk to your customers and talk to your own people — often those people right at the coal face are the ones that really do understand what's going on," he says.

Malcolm highlights the importance of creating opportunities to communicate with customers, such as a presentation or forum."We create small focus groups to find out what their needs are. We might think an idea is great or we might feel that our web portal, which is getting huge numbers of hits and everybody says it's good, but sometimes you ask them and say 'what about this component?' and ask them what they would like different. It's interesting what comes back. I think you need to listen and you need to create an environment to be able to talk to your customers."

Source: Peter Switzer

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