Cream of the crop
One the mostly fiercely contested parts of the fleet market is the premium sector. Here sales have remained strong throughout the recession, with models such as the 3 Series and C-Class regularly appearing in the monthly top 10 sellers lists, at the expense of erstwhile mainstream champions, notably the Mondeo.
While BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz variously lay claim to being the best in terms of desirability, reliability and residual values, only one can be the best seller. Or can it? Ignoring BMW's MINI and Mercedes’ Smart brands, whose sales are accounted for separately, all is not as perhaps as it seems at the rarefied end of the car market. Mercedes, for instance, has been trailing in third place since 2004, when it was overtaken by Audi. However, in August this year Audi’s sales pushed ahead of BMW for the year to date. An impressive and symbolic event in equal measures.
As Volkswagen Group's upmarket upstart, Audi has been chipping away at BMW in recent years, offering a bewildering number of models, 39 at the last count, which have clearly struck a chord with user-choosers and fleet buyers.
Whether Audi is now officially the biggest premium brand in the UK remains to be seen as sales of this year's all-new 3 Series gain momentum. While all three are jostling for the top spot, Audi's new UK director, Martin Sander, told me he would prefer to be the number one in terms of customer satisfaction; an acknowledgement that Audi had some work to do in its dealer network.
The German-born boss started in the UK back in January and invested time and money in developing the brand's dealer network to make sure facilities and staff are up to scratch. He has also combined all sales – new, used and fleet – under Paul Sansom who became head of sales in August.
This new position sees Sansom – formerly Audi's head of aftersales and service, before that he was Jaguar's fleet sales boss – taking charge of all of the brand's head office fleet and retail sales operations.
‘I will be looking to him to unify the two teams so that we can maximise synergies and ensure Audi has the best possible sales processes, systems and programmes in place to help us realise our ambition of becoming the number one premium brand in the UK.’
Sander's message is clear. With sales evenly split between fleet and retail he wants consistency across the brand so fleet managers, user-choosers and private customers all get the same top notch experience.
‘At the end of our sales process is an Audi customer and we expect them all to have the same Audi experience. That is why it makes absolute sense to have one senior management head in the organisation overseeing all sales processes,’ he said.
Sander does not underestimate the importance of that dealer interface with fleet bosses on both the sales and servicing side and is looking at ways of fine tuning it.
‘All of our fleet business, with very few exceptions, goes through our dealerships. Our dealerships are in charge of our fleet business,’ he said.
‘Fleet is 50% of our volume so it is tremendously important for us and our dealers, particularly in the small business area where we've had a special focus over the last couple of years, supporting our dealers to build relationships with businesses in their community to open up this sales opportunity.’
For fleet managers and user-choosers a welcome outcome of this three way jostle for hearts, minds and company cheque books, should be higher quality and more attentive levels of service than ever before.