• February 2, 2004
  • By David Myron, Editorial Director, CRM and Speech Technology magazines and SmartCustomerService.com

A Leap of Faith

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If you believe in an unproven technology, would you take a leap of faith and implement it? If you're wrong, it could cost you your job; if you're successful you could become a company legend. That's what John Dvornik, executive director of customer sales and service at Dollar Rent A Car, was wrestling with four years ago. Dollar had already invested in ways to improve booking capabilities for its reservation agents, such as installing a workforce management system to better manage workgroups, and workforce optimization efforts to improve call resolution times. But that wasn't enough. Dollar's top brass wanted more productivity and efficiency enhancements. Coincidentally, at that time ScanSoft had approached Dollar executives with a way to automate routine customer calls with a speech recognition solution. "At that point we were a little reluctant, because no one in the car rental industry made the jump to interactive speech technology," Dvornik says. What made matters more difficult was that at the time speech recognition solutions were so new that even outside of the car rental industry there were no customer references available, according to Marie Ruzzo, a ScanSoft spokeswoman. Although some at Dollar saw the promise of voice solutions, there were several large obstacles to overcome: Senior management had ROI concerns, telephone support agents feared for their jobs, and customers had to understand and be comfortable with the new solution. After almost two years of deliberation Dollar executives finally approved the decision to go with ScanSoft. "Because speech technology was so new, there was really no one we could go to school on," Dvornik says. "So we wanted to be absolutely sure we were going to get the intended results. We made our decision based on faith, trust, experience, and hard work." That leap of faith paid off. The company started its limited-deployment pilot program in November 2000. It didn't take long before Dollar executives saw the value of automated speech solutions, and in April 2001 the company launched SARA, Dollar's first fully operational speech activated reservations agent solution, based on ScanSoft's SpeechWorks 6.5. Customers can reserve a car online through Expedia, Travelocity, or Dollar's Web site and call SARA to confirm the reservation. The voice solution can identify customer itineraries anywhere in the world, cancel existing reservations, and repeat the information to customers for confirmation. "We made the decision to introduce SARA as part of our sales force, not as a replacement. SARA took non-- revenue generating calls, so reservation agents could take more sale-oriented calls. Once the agents saw that they absolutely approved of it, hands down," Dvornik says. SARA's success convinced Dollar executives to bring home a sister in January 2003, providing voice solutions for Dollar Rent A Car's parent company, Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group. Instead of merely speaking locations back to customers, Dee, the latest voice solution, interacts with customers using ScanSoft's speech recognition solution to determine where and when customers want to rent and return their car. It then populates agents' screens with this information and passes the call to a live reservation agent to make individual recommendations, such as car type. Dee answers 100 percent of customer calls on the first ring. Although it adds 15 to 20 seconds to a call--it speaks slower than a live agent and also verifies customer information for accuracy--78 percent of Dollar's customers say Dee handles calls as fast as or faster than a live agent. "So right then we knew customers were receptive to this," Dvornik says. SARA and Dee enable reservation agents to focus more of their time on sales calls. The voice solutions have already handled more than 8 million calls and not one reservation agent was laid off or forced to reduce work hours as a result. The voice solutions did, however, mitigate Dollar's need for additional reservation agents. The company would not share specific revenue numbers realized by the voice solutions, but Dvornik says the revenue recognized by allocating more of agents' time to selling has funded other projects within the company. The Payoff Speech recognition technology has allowed Dollar Rent A Car to:
  • answer 100 percent of customer calls on the first ring;
  • free up reservation agents to spend more time selling;
  • mitigate the need for additional agents.
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