When the economy goes sour, businesses begin trimming expenses and cutting perks. Perks like corporate travel - and rental cars. Beginning in January 2001, Oklahoma-based Dollar Rent A Car Systems invested $US200,000 in a new application that would allow the company to take reservations directly from airline Web sites and from PDAs. The company worked with Dallas-based Southwest Airlines to develop an application based on a technology called Simple Object Application Protocol, or SOAP. The application would let Dollar customers reserve Dollar cars on Southwest's Web site without requiring heroic integration efforts or asking Southwest to adopt any new technology of its own. Dollar launched the program with Southwest Airlines in May after having initiated its first wireless reservations process, also based on SOAP, in February. Since then, the company has seen a small sales increase from wireless reservations. But Larry Zucker, Dollar's executive director of application development, believes the Southwest deal will ultimately bring up to $US10 million in new revenue to the company because in one click it transforms Southwest customers into Dollar customers. Since 1994, Dollar has had five programmers and programmer analysts on its 130-person IT staff who do nothing but look for innovative ways to use and develop technology. Those programmers build prototypes of innovative applications - a recent example is an XML interface to be used as a common protocol to link the disparate data formats used by tour operators - and pass those prototypes on to Dollar's IT developers, who build them in to workable systems. Zucker says he has had to sacrifice hiring employees for other IT duties such as service and support in order to maintain his innovation team. Again, as is the case with his peers at 3M, FedEx and TruServ, Zucker has upper management support for placing innovation over service on his daily to-do list. When Zucker looks at today's gloomy economic weather, he sees an opportunity to get a jump on his competition. "Dollar has been very committed to making sure that we not just keep up with what's been going on in the industry, but that we try to get ahead," he says. "If we fall behind, we get left in the dust."
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