Putting Customers in the Driver’s Seat
A Q&A with John Peebles, Vice President, Online Marketing for Avis Budget Group.
It seems like it should be a simple decision — you just need a car for a few days for a business trip, or maybe a week for a vacation. But do you log on to a brand-name car rental site, or go through the online travel agency you used for your airline tickets? And do you want full-size, compact, economy — and what do those designations mean? Benchmark sat down recently with John Peebles, vice president of online marketing for Avis Budget Group, Inc., to get the inside story on Budget.com, the top-rated rental car site, to find out how they’ve built an outstanding user experience for car rental shoppers.
Benchmark: In the most recent Keynote Customer Experience study for rental cars, Budget came out ahead of all the other car rental companies (though not the online travel agencies) in almost every user experience index — overall customer experience, brand impact, customer satisfaction. Last year, you were fourth and fifth in a lot of categories. What changes have you made to your site in the past year that helped you to boost your score?
John Peebles: We have made a lot of changes to the site to improve the customer experience. We have invested a lot in customer service content and how that content is found, as well as the booking process. We have been testing and tweaking the site over and over again, including 2,000 different home pages in the past year.
Benchmark: Two thousand, literally?
John Peebles: Quite literally. We have been using a multi-variable testing tool to get the combination of the right message with the right language on the button with the right color of the button. If you add up all those permutations and combinations it literally was over 2,000.
Benchmark: One area where your process is clearly working is customer service, a critical success driver in the online rental car market. What’s your secret?
John Peebles: We put the current system in place more than a year ago, which gives the customer the ability to type in a question and get the answer they want back. By increasing the size of the search box we actually helped encourage more people to ask questions. It is important to make sure our customers have a comfortable outlet to ask questions and know they can receive an accurate answer.
Benchmark: So just making that box bigger had an impact?
John Peebles: Most of customer queries come through doing a search or asking a question in that box. We wanted to make it as easy as possible for customers to search and receive an answer.
We use a tool on the back end that understands enough of the context of a question to be able to give an accurate answer. When a customer types a question, they will receive three possible answers that relate the most to the question asked. In addition to answers, photos and links are provided as well.
Benchmark: You mentioned language on the buttons as something you tested in those 2,000 permutations. Tell us a bit more about that.
John Peebles: The language on buttons is one of the most important things that helps customers move through the process in a cleaner fashion. We tried multiple colors and sayings on the home page and found what worked best and what did not. For example, we had “Find the Best Rate” as a great way to continue from the home page. It was nice, precise and clear, but it didn’t work. “Continue” worked much better.
Benchmark: How do you go about making sure you know what consumers want on an ongoing basis?
John Peebles: We implemented two feedback mechanisms on the site over the past year to stay in constant communication with our customers and their needs. The first was the search box for questions, and the second is the plus sign in the bottom corner of every page. The plus sign is a survey tool that allows a customer, in any context, to provide their feedback.
We have found that many people take the time to give really good feedback, which helps us prioritize what bugs to fix. Our methodology before was simply to have a list of things we had to fix, and you made some sort of value judgment. Now we are consumer driven and we prioritize our work based on what makes the customers’ lives easier.
Benchmark: If you could step back just for another second to the word choices again — you mentioned that “Continue” worked better than “Find a Great Deal.” Was there some sort of pattern that you noticed in the types of words that worked better? Was it always better to be more direct and straightforward?
John Peebles: Yes. The ironic thing is that the less we promote things, the higher the conversion rate on the site. So in current versions of the site that will be coming out soon, based on this research the home page is getting cleaner and cleaner all the time. The fewer things you throw at a consumer, the higher the conversion rate.
Benchmark: But you’ve still got the free coffee or whatever the promotion is, and you have to get the word out about it.
John Peebles: One of the things we want to be able to do better and keep improving on is the ability to message in the proper context. We will continue to educate our customers on the great promotions we have, we are just looking at the different avenues and outlets that will work best.
Benchmark: You also said that you had made some changes to the reservation process. What’s new there?
John Peebles: On the second page of the reservation process we’ve made it easy for customers to see different rates. We found that people were having difficulty when rate shopping at Budget.com. So what we can do now is shop up to three different rates on one page in different tabs along the top, so they’re just shown as plain simple HTML links. So if I put in a discount code, I can then switch over and see what the regular Budget.com rates would be without having to go back to the home page and do another shop.
Benchmark: That seems like a much more sensible, easier way to shop.
John Peebles: Right. So now I can do a lot of shopping on the site without leaving the page. From a user perspective, that was one of the big usability issues that customers were having with ours or any car rental Web site.
Benchmark: In the Keynote studies your FAQs were cited by the testees as an important component of your customer support. They were liked by a lot of people. Do you still have a regular FAQ on the site, or is it all in the search query responses?
John Peebles: For different consumers and different contexts sometimes you do want to browse and other times you just want to ask the question. So we have search options, as well as Common Questions in the “Customer Care,” section.
Benchmark: Another thing that was interesting in the Keynote study was that you had the biggest leap in positive brand perception of all the sites studied, post-experience. In other words, they measured brand perception before anybody visited the site, then they sent them out to visit the site and measured it again afterwards. And yours more than doubled, which was pretty striking. You’re doing something on the site that’s actually moving that needle in a really significant way.
John Peebles: I love seeing that. Of course, my pet theory on it would be, you know, go back to Marshall McLuhan — online, the user experience is the brand. There is no difference online, so if you’re doing a better job than the next site, that’s naturally going to happen.
We can tell you that in our space, in all the other research that we do internally, it’s a function of where you spend in advertising. There’s a direct correlation between brand perception in the marketplace and how much television advertising a brand does. So for example, Budget pales in comparison to Avis and some of our competitors, but it always does much better than some of the other value brands.
Benchmark: You figure that’s a direct correlation to the spend?
John Peebles: There seems to be that correlation — you could rank them and they would correlate exactly the same way.
Benchmark: So it’s probably more of a question of awareness than anything.
John Peebles: Yes and that feeds brand perception.
Benchmark: Yes. OK, so are there any other changes or updates to Budget.com that are particularly exciting for you?
John Peebles: We added our where2® GPS units to the site this year, which from our perspective has been a huge revenue generator and is very popular with consumers. One of the things we want to improve on is personalization and customer profiling to be able to deliver the right content to the right person at the right time, and stay out of their way the rest of the time. That’s the long-range goal.
Benchmark: What else do you see in the future? What big trends do you see in the industry overall? Where do you think things are going?
John Peebles: Mobile reservations are rapidly increasing. Although a small percentage, we have completed thousands rentals without mainstream promotion. We are expanding our promotion through mobile search, and it continues to grow every month.
Benchmark: Do you think that’s because more and more people have smart phones in their hands?
John Peebles: Yes. One of the reasons we got the justification to build our mobile engine was because we saw in our web logs that people were visiting our sites with mobile browsers.
Benchmark: That’s a major deal for serious business travelers.
John Peebles: The big long-term thing, of course, is to put every car on the Internet. That’s what will really change the business.
Benchmark: So when I make a reservation I’m reserving a specific vehicle?
John Peebles: Those are the issues we’re thinking through now. But again, if you look at what technology does, it separates; it removes constraints of time and space. So if we do a really good job of that, our cars should be more dispersed. There’s no reason to have a location — every car is a location and every car is rentable and every car knows exactly how much gas you used and every car knows if it’s been in an accident, etc.
That’s where the industry is going long-term. Car-sharing companies have done that on a relatively small scale so far, but I think they’re proving that kind of thing can happen.
It makes a lot of sense for car rentals to be decentralized. It creates a lot of new opportunities — a lot of growth opportunity.
Benchmark: We’ll keep our eye on that, and on Budget. Thanks for your time!
About John Peebles
John Peebles is vice president, online marketing for Avis Budget Group, one of the world’s largest vehicle rental companies. He was named to this position in December 2002 and oversees the avis.com, budget.com and budgettruck.com web sites, as well as relationships with GDS partners.
Previously, Peebles was vice president, client services for LockStream, a digital rights management software firm. He has also worked for US Interactive where he devised Internet strategy and websites for RCA, Network Solutions and the U.S. Senate.
Peebles is a graduate of the University of Virginia and was a Peace Corps volunteer in Togo, West Africa.