The SME conundrum: how the small fleet sector is reshaping the fuel card market

One of the more game-changing trends in 2015 and 2016 has been the majors' outsourcing of small fleet card operations to third party providers. Superficially, at least, this may look like an odd strategy: margins in the "local account" segment are up to five times those achievable from larger fleet customers, so you might expect today's market leaders to do everything in their power to keep hold of "the goose which lays the golden egg".

Moreover, given that effective mechanisms to identify, target, attract and maintain large numbers of small customers are critical to creating value, you may wonder why the majors haven't been able to use their thousands of retail outlets as a distinct competitive advantage in doing those very things.

One obstacle has always been the thorny issue of convincing dealers it's a good idea. Will we turn local customers paying cash at pump price into discounted customers with credit agreements? Will I lose loyal volume on a site-based local account to other sites if the customer has a fuel card in his wallet? Nevertheless, the capacity to come up with a compelling "dealer value proposition" was never the fundamental problem....

No, at the heart of this  - once again - is digitalisation. Look more closely at the end-to-end value chain involved in an SME fuel card relationship, and it's immediately apparent that effective digital marketing capability holds the key.

How do we identify large numbers of small fleets around specific sites? How do we target and attract those businesses? How do we manage and process high volumes of applications and credit requests? How do we issue and send large numbers of fuel cards to lots and lots of very small customers? How, then, do we keep an eye on card usage and manage customer churn? Try to do this through a traditional cards service centre, and the key indicators will very quickly head south.

Without the available capital, the legacy competence or, indeed, the commercial will to invest in such "complex" digital marketing capability, the outsourcing option becomes a no brainer. At that point, the critical strategic questions become: "which bits do we outsource? who do we outsource to?" and "what are the criteria for choice?"

With these questions in mind, there seems to be a lot to play for in European markets. In the UK, some 40% of both Fleet and CRT markets is served by specialist fuel card resellers who have built precisely those digital marketing capabilities, and who offer a choice of most market-leading card programmes. It seems inevitable that mainland Europe's key markets will move in the same direction - but will the model be the same, given that such specialist resellers currently play a negligible role?

What may well change the game is the emergence of new fleet entrants from leftfield. Businesses with already substantial existing SME customer bases coming in from adjacent sectors - expense management and employee benefits to name but two - may start to look like a natural fit as effective new channel partners in the small fleet game. Throw automotive leasing into the mix, with a clear strategic intent to grow presence in the SME sector and to increase fuel management penetration through its contracts, and what emerges is a very interesting picture indeed...

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