Live kiosks a high-tech win at Hertz

One big drawback with kiosks is that they don't always do a good job walking customers though complex tasks - and some even manage to make simple tasks frustratingly complex. The risk is that any labor saving benefits to the business from installing kiosks will be more than offset by irritated customers and lost sales.

The Hertz Company took a hybrid approach, offering a human-augmented self-service kiosk design, ExpressRent, that delights customers by combining do-it-yourself online screens with a video link to a live call center representative who walks the customer through the process. The system, which went live in the fall of 2011 almost didn't get off the ground (see the details in this this week's Computerworld cover story, Ready, Set, Compete).  But the new system both improves agent productivity and allows Hertz to have a presense in locations where it was never economical to have an agent before.

"It became a game changer for the business," says CIO Joseph Eckroth.

Getting the technology to work presented a challenge. The first iteration, a traditional kiosk, required the user to move through too many steps. The process of renting a car isn't as straightforward as, say, reserving an airline seat: You need to show a license, there are waivers to sign and so on. "We got it down to 12 screens, which was still a ton."

And the workflow was arduous, Ekroth says. For example, the ability to upsell by selling extra services, as Hertz does at the counter, needs a lot of explanation that wasn't intuitive as the user proceeded through the car rental process.

Then Eckroth's team came across the idea of adding live video, and ExpressRent was born. "We could simplify the process because the agent pushes the screens out to you. It is a kiosk with a safety net, and the customer satisfaction rate has been high because it's more intimate," Eckroth says.

Intially the idea was to install the kiosks primarily in off-airport locations where it wasn't cost effective to have full-time staff, says Rob Moore, staff vice president and chief technology officer. "But when we moved it to one on-airport rental car location  it took off like wildfire," says Moore. Not only could Hertz extend its hours of operation at those locations, but having kiosks available helped the business deal with the surges of passengers that come in when many flights arrive at once. "If you staff for those surges it's very expensive because you have downtime," he says.

"We can put this into a hotel, a body shop -- we even put it into a parking garage in New York," Eckroth says.

One could say that Hertz has outsourced some of its the labor need in its branches -- to its own centralized call center, enabling full-time employees to pinch hit when extra help is needed during airport surges.

But there's another surge with which Eckroth's team now has to contend: Keeping the rollout into lots of new locations moving. "The demand for this right now is outpacing our ability to keep up," he says.

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