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Close Encounters

Car rental company Europcar hopes that is the case. The company acknowledges that one of its greatest challenges is getting close to and then staying close to its customers.

General manger of operations Eoin Macneill has a wide range of customer interfaces to manage already. The company has an online site, booths at airports, major city rental offices and a call centre all relatively easy to navigate. Many car rental Web sites make you feel like you are clearing hurdles before being allowed to hire a car. Europcar's site feels more like being offered choices. Similarly when customers telephone into the call centre, after a couple of automated queries calls are rapidly directed to a human operator.

The back-end systems that support these front ends "remember" clients' details not just the details of people locked into particular rental programs. They appear more robust than those in the Little Britain bank and seem bent on keeping rather than losing customers.

Europcar, which is now embarking on a major push into Asia, is currently refreshing its systems in order to build on that base, creating an online reward program for both its customers and the travel agents that sell its services. The company is also working with Unisys to look at its customer demographics. "We are looking at where they live, where they rent cars, and so on. It allows us to more intelligently interact with our customers," Macneill says. "It's also useful for predictive modelling."

When Macneill better understands his customers he will be able to decide where to put new billboards or advertisements.

CIO Scott Allen joined the company in August 2004 after working as a consultant. He is firmly convinced that getting the customer interaction right is not just about having back-end data crunching systems but also the right look and feel. "That's incredibly important. In the past there had been a Europcar banner but not much more."

A seamless interaction was key. "It shouldn't matter which channel they contact, they should receive a similar reception and step through a very similar process, and you get that from a collection of CRM, Web front ends and store front systems," Allen says. Besides creating a strong booking experience, Allen wants to complement that with a complaints system, closing the feedback loop. Without that, it is not possible to view a true picture of a customer, he believes.

Allen believes that in this multi-interface environment the onus is on CIOs to really try to understand what the marketing people and general managers want to achieve. In return they should be prepared to learn from CIOs how new technology can be used to update processes.

"Today we do a lot of cardboard point of sale marketing, so I'm thinking: Well, how can I deliver that through the Web? How do I deliver that message from the call centre? You may end up with LCD panels on the walls of the sales offices. So if new offers are sent out by headquarters they can be displayed immediately.

"This is a very volatile environment, it's very easy for rates to change and we need to compete. You need a very dynamic point of sale," Allen says. "I see my role as providing the mechanism to get that out in the marketplace." He has a proposal in with his management team at present to develop a concept store of the future that will allow him and the marketing people to test his prototypes.

Besides acting as a vehicle for better marketing, Allen sees the information systems as a good way of imposing control and order on the Europcar franchise network. "We don't make the IT infrastructure optional. It brings us an element of control. I don't like using the word, but we do dictate the process."

In Europe the parent company has become the number one car rental company, Allen says. "The company saw customer service as their number one priority and technology as the key facilitator. It's a fairly strong example that their investment in technology is what has put them at number one."

In other words, Europcar recognized that to win they needed to be part of a world where "the computer says yes".

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