It's harder than ever to justify a tool that requires an annual maintenance fee in addition to a significant initial investment. Like e-mail and word-processing, fleet software is so powerful that no one uses the full functionality (if they use the program at all; think how often you've heard someone say they bought software but don't use it). Vehicle technology is evolving so rapidly that software developers constantly release updates; if employees don't get regular training your operation won't enjoy the long-term savings and efficiencies such programs are designed to provide.

Given these realities, developing an Excel spreadsheet or Access database to track assets and repairs is an idea that never dies. But beware: Unless you or someone you know is a programming whiz and has lots of spare time, you'll invest more time, effort, and money than you expect on “software development” of your own. I know a manager who developed a database and, after moving to another position, was asked as a favor to come back and restore it when it crashed. He succeeded, but it crashed again. It's no longer being used.

Keep in mind that you're not the only one using the program. Technicians input information every day that keeps the entire operation running smoothly. Commercial software can automatically generate a purchase order when, say, a particular part's inventory hits a predetermined number. That kind of functionality prevents time-sucks like having to send someone out for a tie rod end or some other crucial part that turns a routine activity into an emergency.

[QUESTION] I know what we spend on fuel and salaries, but that's about it. How do I develop a system that'll establish benchmarks – i.e., fleet age in miles and years, average operating cost/mile, repair turnaround time, and asset availability – I can use to justify expense requests? P.S. My operation doesn't have a computer.

[ANSWER] Whether you're a pen-and-paper operation or using Web-based software, you can't manage what you don't track. If you're starting an asset-management program from Ground Zero:

  • Start a repair folder for each vehicle and piece of equipment
  • Find and use a universal work order; one that covers both vehicles and equipment
  • Find or make a check-off sheet for the maintenance to be performed at each interval of service; populate based on manufacturer's recommendations.

There are other things an in-house solution can't do or requires more effort to accomplish, says City of Fort Wayne Fleet Director Larry Campbell, an American Public Works Association Certified Public Fleet Professional and Indiana Local Technical Assistance Program instructor. He and his 27 employees oversee 1,115 vehicles and 720 pieces of off-road equipment for 52 departments. In-house software limitations include the ability to:

  • Track annual number of repairs by type (i.e., scheduled preventive maintenance vs., say, replacing a police cruiser windshield someone threw a brick through)
  • Track warranty expiration dates
  • Track downtime or move work orders from one category into another (i.e., “being worked on” to “waiting on parts” or “sublet” to “in service but waiting on parts”)
  • Get a quick, overall snapshot of a particular asset.

“Software comes with modules most operations don't use every day, but they sure come in handy when you do need them,” Campbell says.

Some road maintenance software offers a fleet applet or module. It may be appropriate for your needs, but remember that vehicles aren't the type of asset the program was developed for. If you can, go for the software designed first and foremost for fleets.

If you're just beginning to think about asset-management software, your operation probably doesn't already use related software like fuel- and tire pressure-management or vehicle location tracking (AVL/GPS). If you do, you already know you can't use it for vehicle maintenance or to develop replacement schedules. You can't download such data into a home-grown solution, but you can into a commercial program.

All vendors say they provide the best training and support. How important are those elements?

After-sales service is almost more important than the software program itself.

The fleet department in Troy, Mich., enhances the city's revenue stream by servicing the assets of 13 neighboring communities in addition to its own. Fleet Maintenance Superintendent Sam Lamerato appreciates his provider's recent decision to make a dashboard a standard function at no additional fee. He checks it four or five times a day to see what's going on in his shop, which operates from 7 a.m. to midnight. He can see if suppliers are delivering parts on time and check performance indicators like budget goals.

But he appreciates FASTER Asset Solutions' customer service even more. A technician can get phone support anytime. In addition to regional training and an annual visit, the company holds an annual conference where Lamerato networks with people who oversee operations for UPS and other huge fleets. He avoids the potential pitfalls of new equipment and technologies by listening to his colleagues describe their implementation experiences.

To ensure as smooth an entry as possible for new team members, Government Fleet magazine's 2011 Manager of the Year requires each employee to assemble a procedures manual and update the three-ring binder as necessary. In addition to a textual explanation, every step the employee uses Faster Asset Solutions for is illustrated with a screen shot of the software. The manual also must explain how the software integrates with back-office functions like accounts payable as well as fuel- and other fleet-related programs.

Tip for an in-house solution.

Begin by making a list of every single vehicle and piece of equipment that includes these six elements: asset number, year, make, model, class, and whether the asset's in service or not.