CIO interview: Neal Sunners, Avis Budget Group

Tom Allen
Sunners joined Avis in late 2013 as International CIO, and recently took on the role of SVP of Innovation

Sunners joined Avis in late 2013 as International CIO, and recently took on the role of SVP of Innovation

How Avis is using digital to lower 'peak stress' for customers

In the face of digital disruption to the travel industry, the car rental market has remained disappointingly static. You collect and pay for your car, you drive it and later return it - hoping that you haven't picked up any new dents on the way.

Those bookends of interaction with the rental company are where customers experience peak stress, says Neal Sunners of rental giant Avis. As senior vice president for innovation and emerging technologies, he is in charge of finding new ways to use digital in the rental journey, with the result that Avis customers can now both collect and return a car without talking to anyone.

We looked at these peaks of stress and determined areas where we should use digital as a means of stress reduction

"There have been many driving forces that have served as a catalyst for innovation in the mobility services industry: the Uber or Lyft effect… the move to the sharing economy and the impact of millenials - and then there's connected cities and connected homes… All of these serve as drivers for innovation that Avis has determined our response to, which fuels and drives our strategies," Sunners said.

‘The Uber effect' - transport without having to interact with another person - prompted Avis to develop its first mobile offering, Pronto, in 2016: a tablet app that Avis staff could use to process customers, without them having to queue at a counter.

"As we deployed the tablet [app], we saw a reduction in the stress. That was an early pilot of what became our digital transformation. It wasn't driven solely by Uber, it was a known issue that we had; but the urgency of smoothing out these stress peaks was exacerbated when we started to consider the general disruption of the industry."

Avis relied on its partner, Mindtree, to help build Pronto and bring the executive team on board, using what Sunners calls "a pretty slick working prototype." The success of the app then fuelled the development of another product called MDMS, or Management and Damage Maintenance System.

As Pronto assists with the collection process, MDMS is there to speed up returns. It acts as a digital record of the car, with photographs and customer signatures acknowledging any new damage. Sunners says that its implementation has reduced disputes, as well as customer pain and stress.

"The whole [digital transformation] process has been aimed at the big pain points… Customers now, within 20 minutes of their plane landing at the airport, receive a text message with a link to the app, and it gives them a selection of vehicles to take for this rental. They can exchange, they can upgrade, they can add products - they can do all of that on the smartphone app. When they get to the rental place, they simply get in their chosen car and drive it off. They don't have to see anybody or talk to anybody… It's all about removing friction."

Sunners sums up the benefits of the company's transformation with the following mantra: "Happy colleagues, happy customers; happy customers, return business; return business, increased revenues; increased revenues, happy shareholders."

Bringing together old and new

The core of Avis' backend IT is its legacy mainframe, but over time the company has added "lots" of components outside it, including the new fleet management and fleet optimisation systems. Sunners explains that the company needed a way to integrate all of these into a platform that was accessible by partners and by colleagues.

"Earlier this year we started the project that is known internally as Tempest, to essentially build a mobility services platform for Avis Budget Group. Its first customer base are our own products, but it's been written in a way so that we can now offer services to partners via that platform; services that today they cannot easily acquire."

Mindtree acted as the development partner on Tempest, which is an API platform, to take Avis from "a somewhat closed legacy architecture approach of the past, to a platform-based organisation where anything could be developed and designed to be exposed as an API for our partners to use… I call it ‘Our gateway to mobility'."



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