Today’s vocational van and work truck fleets depend on upfits to customize their vehicles to fit their unique needs. And the often complicated upfit process starts with specifying your requirements.
“Fleet managers have to balance making stakeholders and drivers/users happy while working at times with minimal budgets, which can prove to be difficult. They also have to consider safety first, and the best and most cost-effective product for the job at the best value,” said Mathew Marcussen, director of customer relations for BrandFX.
From refusing to make changes to a lack of communication, mistakes are costly, and a fleet manager must work hard to avoid these top mistakes.
MISTAKE 1: Having an ‘If it’s Not Broke, Don’t Fix It’ Mentality
While it can be tempting to rest on your laurels when it appears everything is moving smoothly, successful fleet managers are ready for change.
“Unfortunately, some fleet managers have the ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it’ thinking. There are new innovations every year, and fleet managers need to be aware of them. Don’t just take the word of one upfitter or one FMC. Do your homework,” said Jeff Haag, vice president of fleet sales for DECKED. “Get completely engaged in the industry in terms of new product offerings. Attend trade shows, engage with suppliers and other fleet managers. Overall, have an open mind to new upfitting methods.”
Jonathan Culp, director, fleet and leasing sales for Dejana Truck and Utility Equipment, also cautioned against “tolling over the old spec because we’ve always done it this way.”
MISTAKE 2: Not Truly Understanding the Upfit's Purpose
It’s incredibly important to understand precisely how the upfit will be utilized.
“A common mistake is fleet managers not fully understanding the functions of the modification being requested,” said Travis Leonard, account manager for Fontaine Modification.
Fleet managers must also understand the driver’s perspective on how the body will be used when performing on the job.
“However, any changes need to be done in parallel with standardization efforts. Making each vehicle distinctive can move the company away from standardization. Many specialized, non-standard vehicles can result in higher acquisition costs, maintenance costs, design costs, and can have less of a chance of being utilized in other parts of a business,” said Marcussen of BrandFX.
MISTAKE 3: Not Allowing Enough Time
It’s essential to allow time for completion of the upfit work.
“If a truck is built May 1 at the OEM and needs to be at the customer in service on May 15, that will be very difficult to accomplish unless agreed to and planned for ahead of time,” said Nate Eichinger, director of operations, Light Duty Truck and EV Solutions for Fontaine Modification.
It’s critical that everyone involved in the upfit process is brought into the fold as early as possible — before ordering the vehicle.
“Bringing everyone on board early in the process provides time to react and procure the necessary components to complete the job on-time, as promised," said Craig Bonham, vice president of commercial vehicle at Safe Fleet. "This is critical when there are components to be sourced for the upfit since many have longer lead times than standard SKUs. This is more of an issue today since companies rely heavily on just-in-time delivery of componentry. This helps keep an operation running lean with less work in progress,”
MISTAKE 4: Failing to Perform a Pilot Review
Bill O’Shea, senior account manager for Fontaine Modification, noted that one of the top mistakes he witnesses is fleets not performing a pilot review — either physical or at least on paper.
“Try something different occasionally in small numbers and gather data from the field. Move these units around and get a variety of different sources of feedback,” said Culp of Dejana Truck and Utility Equipment. "The collaborative process will give a better result; even if you choose to go with the same spec, you’ll have better data to support why."
MISTAKE 5: Not Rating the Vehicle Properly
It is also critical that fleets prioritize spec’ing each vehicle for its intended job function.
“Determine what’s the best, most effective — both in terms of cost and operational efficiency — specification for each vehicle’s application,” said Kelly Klemisch, regional engineering manager for Holman Enterprises. "And the more you know about how your business functions daily, the better equipped you’ll be to develop a vehicle and upfit specification that helps your business enhance productivity."
Not properly job rating the vehicle for the application it’s to be used in — or the environment that’s it’s placed in – will result in added costs and reduced safety.
“Decisions made at the chassis or van level often don’t account for all the ancillary equipment put on that vehicle," said Safe Fleet's Bonham. "If it is not properly job-rated, that could inadvertently affect the performance, lifespan, or the safety of the vehicle."
Another mistake often made is “overweighting the vehicle to avoid going up a size,” said Culp.
To ensure upfits are spec’ed correctly for your needs, work with your suppliers.
“Be willing to hear the upfitters’ feedback and be willing to come and look at a truck yourself,” said Brad Howard, director of operations for Fontaine Modification.
MISTAKE 6: Making Cost the Only Determining Factor
Fleets obviously have budgetary guidelines. Sometimes those guidelines dictate the choice of the upfitter or the product that will be procured for a specific application.
“While the price is a key component, fleets should expect to get a realized return on investment, and to have an understanding of what the total cost of ownership is for that vehicle,” said Bonham at Safe Fleet.
If an organization bases its procurement decisions purely on up-front acquisition costs, it can result in significant, often costly, challenges throughout the vehicle’s lifecycle.
“In many cases, your vehicles are likely under spec’ed for their intended job function leading to safety risks, increased maintenance costs, unforeseen downtime, shorter lifecycles, reduced resale value, etc.,” said Klemisch of Holman Enterprises. "While you may be able to reduce costs at the time of the acquisition, you’ll likely experience significantly higher costs and reduced productivity throughout the vehicle’s time in service."
And as is the case in many industries, less-expensive products may not be of the same quality as a higher-priced product.
“At times, less-expensive products have a shorter lifecycle, leading to higher replacement and service costs after the sale," Bonham said. "If the product is failing because the equipment isn’t holding up, that leads to a replacement, which drives an escalated, un-forecasted cost on the vehicle. Vehicle downtime as a result of doing the repair means the vehicle is out of service and not generating revenue, so it actually costs the fleet money."
It’s important that fleet managers understand how decision-making may impact another department’s budget negatively.
“Use your connections and knowledge of different budgets and initiatives inside your organization to show the cause and effect of your decisions," said Katie Groves, national fleet sales manager for Adrian Steel. "This demonstrates that you care about the business as a whole and not just the individual metric that you are being measured on."
MISTAKE 7: Starting Too Late
An important issue is getting started on a project too late to spec out a vehicle for the equipment desired.
“Many times, the vehicle is on order, but a decision hasn’t been made on who to buy the equipment from, which can be problematic. This can lead to equipment specification changes that could potentially jeopardize the owner/operator’s expectations,” said Bonham of Safe Fleet.
Organizations stand to benefit significantly by establishing a proactive strategy for cycling vehicles.
“The absence of an effective, proactive cycling strategy often results in a significant number of units remaining in service far too long, leading to increased maintenance costs and downtime as well as a wide range of operational challenges for your frontline employees as the nature of their role evolves," said Klemisch of Holman Enterprises. "Ideally, your organization should work with your fleet management partner to determine an optimal replacement cycle for your vehicles. Then, you can better customize your upfit packages to match that cycle and ensure they’re reassessed on a regular cadence."
An excellent way to ensure you aren’t behind is by working with your key providers.
“Work with your fleet account executives and other key strategic partners to build a fleet plan focused on accomplishing your specific goals,” said Groves of Adrian Steel.
MISTAKE 8: Lacking Clear Communication
Some of the most common mistakes fleet managers make when spec’ing upfits are related to communication.
“Fleet managers do not often understand what those in the field want and communicating their expectations to the upfitter. Not having an open dialogue as to what will and will not work for your company for an upfit can be detrimental to getting what you need,” said Chris Rolsen, national business development manager at Knapheide.
Communicate with everyone.
“A big mistake is not talking to the upfitter before spec’ing and ordering the truck. There may be specific things the upfitter will need or extra options that can be removed due to not being needed for the upfit,” said Eichinger of Fontaine Modification.
“Communicate as much as possible with the upfitter with regards to what you expect to accomplish with the build. The more information the upfitter has will ensure that the customer gets what they want,” Rolsen added.
Be sure to keep up to date with the OEM on product updates and changes that may occur with model-year changeovers.
“It’s also important to keep in touch and receive product updates from upfitters and manufacturers,” said Patrick Clark, director of fleet sales for Dejana Truck and Utility Equipment.
MISTAKE 9: Not Including the Right Decision-Makers
Making decisions without involving the right players inside the organization will cause issues down the line.
“At a minimum, procurement, operations, and safety all need to be involved in fleet decision-making to ensure success across the board. The right departments are specific to each company. For example, sometimes risk management/HR ought to be in the loop as well,” said Groves of Adrian Steel.
Remember, developing specs isn’t just a fleet project; it’s an overall business project.
“Fleets will benefit greatly by soliciting input from other fleet stakeholders throughout your business, particularly your operations and frontline employees. Collaboration is key. Spend a day with your technicians in the field. Interview operations managers to find out how vehicles are used and if there are opportunities for improvement. Try to be as hands-on as possible and involve your various fleet stakeholders in the process to avoid a potential disconnect between what looks good on paper and how the units are actually being used daily,” said Klemisch of Holman Enterprises.
Groves agreed: “Find out who the other players are inside your organization and make connections with them. Collaboration is key to success in this scenario,” she added.
The Bottom Line
It’s important to have a proactive strategy in place for developing upfit specifications.
“Take your time and be thoughtful in your execution," Klemisch said. "Proper planning helps to ensure a quality specification, which, in turn, helps to improve the lifecycle of the vehicle. Be sure to allow time to thoroughly review specifications and be mindful of factory order cycles. Without an effective, proactive strategy, you may find yourself purchasing units from dealer stock (rather than factory order), driving costs higher and/or potentially delaying delivery, which often hampers productivity. Additionally, without a proactive approach, you may not be able to acquire units with the proper upfitting on time, which can result in a wide range of operational challenges for your frontline employees."
Safety is, and always will be, a top concern for vocational fleets.
“Ask yourself: does the vehicle operate ergonomically? Does it help to isolate the operator from potential injury?" Bonham said. "Companies today expect to get their work done faster than ever before because efficiency is a revenue-generator for them, and sometimes the ‘hurry-up’ processes lead to potential injury. Because of that ‘hurry-up mentality,’ it’s important to evaluate how a product will function in high-energy, demanding environments — both functionality and safety."
The bottom line? Know what you need and make sure you get it.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want now or in the future. Do not settle for what you might have always done. Technology changes, tools change, customer demands, and business changes,” said Andrew Reyntjes, director of fleet and commercial sales for Truck Accessories Group.