Hot Wheels

How car rental service Zipcar zapped busy signals with a web-enabled phone system

Car rental service Zipcar has been seeing the sort of growth most CEOs only dream of: Now operating in seven East Coast cities, revenues at the Cambridge (Mass.) company zoomed to $7 million in 2004 from $2 million in 2002. But last year big growth turned into big headaches. Customers using the company's telephone reservation system started to experience delays, even when they were requesting basic information about the service. Rather than simply add more telephone operators, CEO Scott Griffith thought it made more sense to tie the phones to the Web in an automated system that could recognize customers and pull up their account information immediately. Already, he credits the higher level of customer service provided by the Web-enabled phone system for $3.5 million in sales.

Even before the launch of the new phone system, 28-employee Zipcar was automating much more aggressively than its competitors. Upon joining Zipcar, drivers receive a so-called Zipcard. Whenever they need a car, they make a phone or Web reservation for a car that is parked nearby. That process activates their Zipcard, which unlocks the car door. Customers return the cars, with a full tank of gas, to the same location, and their credit cards are charged. There's no rental office to go to or line to wait on.

But there was a wait for some customers -- on the phone. In September, Griffith and his three-person tech team started working on a phone system linked to the company's back-office database and its Web site. "Anytime there starts to be more human use and we think it can be automated, we go and attack that problem," says Griffith. "Our challenge was integrating everything." Zipcar spent $1,500 on a new server. Staff developers spent eight weeks building the system, relying heavily on open-source tools.

Now, when a member calls to make or change a reservation, the system uses caller ID to instantly connect to the member database and make the changes without having to rely on an operator. Members can also leave voice messages that are automatically attached to e-mails and sent to the appropriate staffer. So if a driver calls after hours and leaves a message that a wiper blade needs to be replaced, the message will be sent to the local fleet manager, who can pick it up on a phone or BlackBerry (RIMM ) and respond. In an emergency, of course, drivers are immediately connected to a live operator. Griffith expects the system to help Zipcar meet its ambitious growth plans, which include expansion into Los Angeles, Seattle, and Vancouver -- all without having to resort to a single car-rental desk.

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