Establishing a great partnership with fleet-minded dealers and manufacturers can make the duties of a small business owner much easier. And when it comes to selecting, ordering, and purchasing vehicles, saving time and money is the name of the game.

Industry knowledge, specialized programs, and reduced pricing are the prime advantages businesses can utilize when purchasing, servicing or remarketing vehicles at the dealer or manufacturer. Having a "business" customer relationship as opposed to a "retail" one is beneficial to business fleets both large and small.

Most Dealers Have Fleet Departments Onsite
Many dealerships cater to businesses and have onsite fleet departments, which allow for timely and knowledgeable help.

Hondru fleet group, located in Manheim, Pa., has four dealerships that carry General Motors, Ford, and DaimlerChrysler models. "Companies have access to all major brands, and can look through our network of dealerships to select or build the vehicle they need," says Stephen Weaver of Hondru's Commercial Fleet Sales department.

Weaver also points out that because the department deals with specific company needs day in and day out, the knowledge provided business customers is far more advantageous than the business owner just walking into the dealership as a retail customer.

"The services we offer businesses in our fleet program are much better than they could receive as a retail customer," says Weaver. "Retail customers don't have access to manufacturer fleet incentives and our commercial programs, such as upfitting."

According to Paul Herfurth, truck and fleet sales manager for Hill & Sanders Ford in Wheaton, Md., it makes more sense to work with a dealer, manufacturer, or leasing company as a business customer and not a retail consumer.

"Many business with 10-15 or more vehicles can qualify for manufacturer fleet incentives," says Herfurth.

He also adds that even though shopping around as a retail consumer is tempting for small businesses, most of the time it does not offer the service and financial capabilities of specialized fleet programs.

Manufacturers work closely with their dealers in an effort to target and meet the needs of commercial businesses.

Ford Business Preferred Network Target Small Fleets
Created in 1996, Ford's Business Preferred Network offers sales, financing, and service for small-and medium-sized fleets.

"Business Preferred Network dealers follow sales and service standards that ensure small fleets are given a lot of attention and are well taken care of," says Jerry Frick, director of commercial fleet and government sales operations in Dearborn, Mich. "Businesses benefit as fleet customers because they have access to a full range of products and services."

Any business that buys or leases five vehicles in the current or previous calendar or model year, or operates a minimum of 15 vehicles qualifies for this specialized program. To get started, a business should apply for a Ford fleet identification number.

Ford Business Preferred Network dealer representatives will go to the customer and help them understand the services and products available to them.

This ID number also makes businesses eligible for Ford's national fleet incentive program, which provides discounts on select Ford models. "Fleet customers have access to fleet incentives through the dealer, which retail customers do not have access to."

If a regular cash incentive is ever greater than the established fleet incentive, the fleet customer is still eligible to take the regular cash incentive.

The program's vehicle lineup is geared toward business-related needs. Models available through this program, among others, include the Taurus, F-series, Sable and Navigator. "Business Preferred Network dealers keep fleet-type products on hand, such as the typical fleet-specified car or truck," says Frick.

Ford fleet customers also have access to flexible financing through Ford Credit Commercial Lending Services, which works with Ford dealers to cater to small commercial fleet businesses. "Buy or lease financing options are structured for each specific company's needs," says Frick.

Also covered under the Business Preferred Network are Ford's Extended Service Plan and Fleet Service Plan. This service plan enables business vehicles to get in and out of the repair shop quickly so that downtime is minimized.

Dealers can also sign fleet customers up for Quality Fleet Care, a process with competitive pricing for parts and service and centralized billing. "Fleets can take advantage of Ford dealers' relationships with vendors, such as upfitters," says Frick. This connection can lead to a wider product stock and reduced prices.

By the end of 2001, Ford plans to have the Business Preferred Network at 750 of its dealerships.

GM's Core Dealers Provide Fleet Product and Services
General Motors Fleet and Commercial Operations offers many programs that help both small and large businesses.

Jim McCallum, director of global and dealer sales for GM in Detroit, Mich., is a long-time veteran of General Motors. He has recently been designated to manage and enhance GM's small fleet business.

"This is a key focus of our commercial department," says McCallum. "We understand that small fleets rely on their vehicles directly, or indirectly, to generate revenue. So, we have many products and services designed toward small fleet customers."

McCallum estimates that there are between 8 and 15 million small fleet customers nationwide (depending on whose numbers you use), and that these businesses need quick access to cars, trucks, specialty vehicles, and upfitted vehicles. "Since GM has the widest selection of any manufacturer in the world," he says, "we are in a great position to help these businesses."

GM's product line includes Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillac, Saab, GMC, Saturn, as well as many others.

GM has 7,000 dealers nationwide, 550 of which are "core dealers." These core dealers focus on the commercial business, have in-stock fleet vehicles, and go to the customer supply needed products and services.

"We understand that when a business needs a vehicle, they need it now," says McCallum. "Businesses are always expanding, generating new business, or turning vehicles over."

Another benefit that a business customer can take advantage of when working with a GM dealer is the dealer's established business partnerships. "GM maintains pools with body companies, which enables the dealer to get immediate access and delivery to a vehicle they might not have in stock," says McCallum.

GM Fleet and Commercial Operations also offers businesses fleet equipment groups, which are designed with commercial needs in mind, while offering good value through discounted pricing. "The brand team works to make sure that the commercial customer gets what they need."

The 2002 Model Year National Fleet Purchase Program (VX5) offers allowances to qualified fleet customers on select new and unused 2002 model year General Motors vehicles sold and delivered to qualified rental, commercial, commercial leasing, and political subdivision fleet users in the United States.

GM defines a qualified fleet user as any company that purchases and registers or leases five or more new cars and/or trucks solely for use in its operations during the current or preceding model or calendar year or preceding 12-month period, or that owns or leases 15 or more cars and/or trucks.

To be eligible for GM fleet incentives, a qualified fleet user must have a GM fleet account number (FAN) and must always be the customer who purchases the vehicle from the GM dealer and meets the in-service requirement.

Other programs GM offers to help small fleet customers include:

  • E-Fleet Product Availability

    This online program helps businesses research and pinpoint needed vehicles, build their own vehicle, and locate a vehicle in a local dealer's inventory. Fleet customers also have access to GM BuyPower, the retail counterpart to E-Fleet Product Availability.

  • Fleet Account Executives

    These individuals are always available to answer any fleet questions. The toll-free Fleet Operations Call Center offers additional assistance to businesses.

  • Flexible Financing

    Includes buying and leasing.

  • Extended Warranty Programs

    GM's Commercial Dealer Council and National Dealer Council keep GM informed on how to better service the business customer.

    "We're developing additional commercial business tools all the time," says McCallum. "We continually ask ourselves 'What is next?' to stay ahead of the curve."

    DaimlerChrysler's BusinessLink Reaches Out to Small Fleets

    DaimlerChrysler has a "focused approach" to reach the small commercial fleet owner through its BusinessLink program, which was rolled out in fall 1999. There are currently more than 50,000 BusinessLink members with a fleet composition of more than 250,000 vehicles, of which Dodge comprises 33 percent.

    There are currently 263 dealers nationwide who are enrolled in the BusinessLink program.

    These dealers provide an outside commercial sales consultant, a full line of Dodge commercial vehicles in stock, upfitted demos, discounts on Mopar parts, a large parts inventory of high wear parts, shuttle service, 24-hour towing/road service, priority next open bay service, and free loaner vehicles.

    "The mantra of the BusinessLink program is to save the commercial customer time, hassle, and money," says Ray Fisher, vice president fleet and remarketing for DaimlerChrysler in Auburn Hills, Mich. "Each element in the BusinessLink program is aimed at accomplishing the needs of the commercial owner."

    Products and services offered through BusinessLink include:

  • Priority service, which helps save the customer's time.

  • A no-charge loaner vehicle, eliminating hassle and saving money.

  • A full line of Dodge commercial vehicles is kept in stock to save time.

  • Discounts on Mopar parts also help to save money.

    The program has been designed to meet each of these important business needs. "Down time means lost revenue for the commercial owner, and this program tells the commercial owner that we understand that fact and that we are committed to do everything possible to put them back on the job as quickly as possible," says Fisher.

    DaimlerChrysler expects its optimum BusinessLink dealer participant level to reach 350 to 400 dealers within the next three years.

    Businesses with 10 or more vehicles can also qualify for DaimlerChrysler's fleet incentive program, which is available through the manufacturer's dealers.

    Manufacturer/Dealer Program Contacts

    Ford Motor Company or call the Fleet Customer Information Center at 1-800-34-FLEET.

    General Motors and or call 800-FLEETOPS.

    DaimlerChrysler or call the BusinessLink support phone number at (877) 284-3546.