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Avis Installs a Smarter Voice-Response System

Avis Budget Group wants to get customers from Point A to Point B faster and more efficiently, even before they've rented a car. The $5.9 billion car-rental company installed interactive voice-response technology to help customers navigate its reservation system.

Self-service is often faster than dealing with an agent, and customers like speed, says Avis CIO Gerard Insall. And if Avis saves money in the process, all the better. The company lost $29 million last year and has started several IT projects intended to reduce costs and increase customer loyalty. But Avis didn't want any part of automated phone systems if customers would be left unhappy.

Early automated systems frustrated people with endless loops of not-quite-right answers and layers of confusing menu options. Some still do. But newer technology integrates fine-tuned questions with historical customer information, and companies hope it will produce happier customers, says Shep Hyken, a customer service expert and founder of the consultancy Shepard Presentations. Companies must learn to do automated systems well to compete effectively, Hyken says.

Customers expect to interact with companies by pushing buttons, engaging in chat and sending questions into the digital ether, he says. They also want to know that live agents are ready to help. The key for CIOs is to use technology and processes that instill consumer confidence, not resentment.

Avis started small, targeting the 17 percent of its incoming calls that involve simple transactions, such as canceling or confirming a reservation, extending a rental or getting a copy of a receipt. What differentiates Avis' system, Insall says, is that it learns.

Avis chose Px Speech software from a company called 24/7. As Px Speech handles calls over time, it recognizes incoming phone numbers and matches them to information in Avis' databases to anticipate what the customer wants.

For example, if someone called to reserve a car, then calls again toward the end of her reservation period, the system will greet her by name, ask her to confirm her name and prioritize the automated questions so that the options to extend a rental or request roadside help are more likely to come up early, Insall explains. "It's not always perfect, but a fair percentage of the time it improves the experience and there's less time required for the call."

The company recently decided to expand the system to callers seeking a new reservation. Now customers are asked for five pieces of information, including pick-up location and the date and estimated time of pick-up and drop-off. That saves 20 to 30 seconds during each call, leaving human agents more time to make the rest of those revenue-generating interactions more pleasant, Insall says.

"A lot of people may do interactive voice response solely to save money," he says, "but our business case was to provide a better customer experience."

Read more about customer relationship management (crm) in CIO's Customer Relationship Management (CRM) Drilldown.

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