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CIO Interview: Neal Sunners, CIO, Avis Budget Group

CIO international and senior vice-president for innovation at car rental firm aims to remove customer stress by driving mobile self-service applications

Car rental giant Avis Budget is driving a digital transformation strategy with mobility at its heart, designed to deliver improved customer engagement, and automation to increase staff efficiency.  

The mobile-centric applications, being developed mostly by the company’s 600-strong team distributed across Bracknell, Budapest and India, are designed to remove customer stress by providing self-service. 

While enhancing operational performance, digitising the workforce also has a direct correlation to customer satisfaction, says Neal Sunners, Avis Budget’s international chief information officer and senior vice-president for innovation. 

“I could say our priorities are digitisation or transformation, but I am getting a bit tired of all the buzzwords that everyone uses,” he tells Computer Weekly. “Putting it simply, there is a major focus on improving the satisfaction levels of our customers, and at the same time improving the working life of our colleagues. 

“When I stand on stage and talk about these things, whether the conversation is around innovation, digitisation or transformation, I would say that these capabilities are significant outcomes, driven by our strategy. 

“This is definitely part of our investment in technology to better serve our customers and our colleagues. Of course, there is a lot of background work that goes on to support those apps.”

As Avis seeks to extend its reach as a mobility services provider, a series of capabilities are being introduced, all of them designed and developed internally, supported by external partners such as TCS and Mindtree, when required. 

The company employs development frameworks such as Xamarin and Phonegap, but also has native-built apps. The applications are deployed on iOS, Android and Windows devices, and the core staff-facing element is a platform dubbed the maintenance and damage management system (MDMS). 

“There is a major focus on improving the satisfaction levels of our customers, and at the same time improving the working life of our colleagues”
Neal Sunners, Avis Budget

Examples of processes that have been transformed by MDMS include the company’s previous need to fill out forms and manually log repair work for vehicles into repair shops, which would require higher-than-acceptable out-of-service days for cars. 

“We quite often had a very linear relationship between the rental location and a nearby garage,” says Sunners. “Also, as we couldn’t predict the damage, so we couldn’t predict what parts would be needed. So the garage could only order parts once we said we had the damage, and so on. 

“MDMS allows us to bid out that work to a network of local repair shops and get the bid back based on the time and cost element. That way, we can return the car to service far quicker – and that’s a way we can serve the customer better and provide operational efficiency.”

Driving self-service

From a consumer’s point of view, Avis is looking to introduce “significant levels of self-service” through its mobile application Avis Now, says Sunners. The app includes functionality such as enabling consumers to select, upgrade and exchange cars in advance of their arrival at the rental location, and pick up and return cars without the need for human interaction. 

The app also allows customers to see accurate fuel and mileage readings for their journey and receive electronic receipts. Upon returning the car, customers can use digital signature technology to confirm any damage that may have been done. This simplifies the damage process and reduces costs, delays and customer frustrations, says Sunners. 

“Traditionally, customers may have found out about any damage in the post a considerable time after,” he says. “Now it is all done instantaneously through a smartphone.”

To reduce customer queues during peak times and to get around the physical limitations at many locations where extra desks cannot be brought in, tablet-based apps have also been rolled out for further self-service. 

“That way, we can put more staff at locations,” says Sunners. “We can meet and greet at airport arrival lounges, discuss needs on shuttle buses and deal with walk-ups who are generally wandering into the rental area. 

“We can deal with all of those on the tablet, as opposed to having customers queue to get to a desk.” 

Mobile developments 

To develop its mobile portfolio further, Avis is working to deliver a new application programming interface (API) platform for the group across all its brands, including Avis Budget, Maggiore and Zipcar. This will enable the firm to form new partnerships and support its existing partnerships, says Sunners.    

“We have decided to make a very significant investment in that platform to provide a much broader range of API capabilities to our partners,” he says. “I believe we are among the first to deploy such smartphone and tablet-based solutions.”

Avis Budget has more connected cars operational in its fleet than any of its competitors – more than 60,000 connected vehicles globally, and that figure is growing.  

“You may see cases of others saying they have connected a car here or there,” says Sunners. “But we have an increasing number of partnerships with original equipment manufacturers [OEMs] where we are talking about the technology and working collaboratively to implement connected fleet technology.”

Telematics data

Avis uses its own in-car devices for times when it can’t use OEM systems for its Zipcar brand. These provide both telematics data and functions such as lock-unlock, blow the horn or flash the headlights, which is useful for customers who are trying to find a rented vehicle in a car park and can’t remember the licence plate number. 

Zipcar’s self-service functionality has just been augmented with “free floating” features for the company’s London operation, which means customers can pick up a car and drop it off anywhere, instead of having to bring it to a particular parking space.  

Sunners says Avis is also looking at new relationships with partners that are more advanced in the mobility space than car rental or car sharing, such as energy or healthcare companies. 

“We have got some very exciting announcements coming up in that space,” he says. “If you talk about fleet management, fleet acquisition and disposal, bookings, maintenance and servicing, connected car technology, we do all that – but there is much left to do.”

In addition to its own mobility efforts, Avis has joined other corporations in the Rocketspace Mobility Accelerator Programme, collaborating with other non-competing organisations and the startup community to look at how it can use emerging technology to improve its offering. 

“We have the infrastructure to provide mobility services on a global scale and proven pedigree in each of these areas,” says Sunners. “But we have not really previously described ourselves in that way, so we think we are a bit of a best-kept secret where we are learning to express ourselves differently. There is a lot of perception-changing to be done.”  

According to Sunners, the next 12 months will see the development and release of new functionality for Avis’ mobile management systems, as well as the mobile apps for consumers. Some will be launched in Europe, with North America, Australia and New Zealand launches planned within six months.

Investigating blockchain 

Avis is also about to start a blockchain pilot, which will be particularly interesting in business areas such as Zipcar, where there is no physical interaction with customers, who register online for the service, submit their driving licence and photographs digitally and then make bookings via the web or mobile apps.  

“As we already operate in a virtual world, we are looking to use blockchain technology to identify and authenticate our customers,” says Sunners. 

“A customer photocopied their driving licence last week, we verified that it was good, but then they get disqualified two days later. How do we know that and how do we assure ourselves that our customers are entitled to drive our vehicles? How do we know they’ve got sufficient funds for the usage they’re going to embark on?

“It’s about identity security validation in real time on a per-transaction basis, as opposed to once every now and again where we have to validate it.”

Part of the investigations Avis is carrying out around blockchain could also be useful in other areas of the business, such as logistics. As with the firm’s approach in the mobility space, Sunners is looking for blockchain learnings in parallel industries.   

Managing innovation 

According to Sunners, the foundation of innovation is the flawless execution of service offerings today, while determining and shaping the future. 

“We have taken some of our best talent, partnered with existing and new suppliers to consider how we will operate in the future and, through rapid experimentation involving our customers, we are describing the solutions we need to build to support that future,” he says. 

“However, we must not create a gap between the execution today and the search for tomorrow’s solutions. So there is a lot of trying, a lot of bridging back. Technology groups are very involved in both the day-to-day execution and the delivery of the future.” 

As well as creating a supplier and startup ecosystem that is conducive to innovation, Avis also does a lot of individual, independent resourcing outside the mainstream, for very niche skills.

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However, Sunners says the company’s main development suppliers are “incredibly invested” in the innovation space and carry out intensive work on proof of concepts or pilots on their own initiative to demonstrate “the value of the partnership”.

“I think we have developed a really healthy relationship in which our partners are invested in our future, rather than just waiting for the next purchase order,” he says. “So they are helping us to define that future in a very positive and a very invested way, which really helps us.”

Within the next 12 months, Sunners expects the API platform to be “almost in production, if not already in production” and that new technology partnerships will have been announced. But the main goal is to position Avis as a key player in the broader mobility space in 2018, he says. 

“I believe we will provide the highest levels of customer self-service through our solutions and the broadest range of products to our customers,” says Sunners. 

“Hopefully, that can be reflected in our stock price. Our stock price went up 15% when we announced our partnership with Google. We feel like we’ve got several more announcements and I would think we would have a very healthy stock growth under that.”

Prioritisation will be the main challenge in delivering these objectives, as well as making good use of suppliers to maximise bandwidths, says Sunners. 

“Prioritisation and focusing on the right ones is a constant debate here,” he says. “It’s a broad organisation debate and we sit as a management team to decide what it is that’s important to us and what the focus is. 

“We are now seen as a business function that specialises in delivery of technology and the priority of our deliveries is set by the broader organisation.”

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