"Present the right info and you'll get buy-in from the top..."
Chris Parker is head of European customer insight at Avis. Ruth Mortimer speaks to him about how data is used to inform board-level decisions and the brand’s forthcoming Preferred loyalty scheme
Marketing Week (MW) How easy is it to sell the message that data drives the busienss to the top level of Avis management?
Chris Parker (CP): Our senior teams are very data-driven, so I feel they understand that very well. I’ve always found that when you speak to senior people within Avis, they make decisions based on a clear understanding of the data you are providing, whether it be general corporate reporting or a business case for a new proposition.
Everything we now do uses data and the most important thing for me is to be able to leverage the information we have to pesent it in a very simple format that can make a quick impact with our senior management teams.
If we present the right information, we do get buy-in from the top. This applies to everything. Whether you present the case for social media, a loyalty programme or investing in customer insight to the company, all these things are possible if you can use data to make a strong business case investment.
CP: My role is quite diverse at the moment. I cover two areas. The first is that I have ownership of the customer insight projects within the business, which is fairly new. We have always segmented our customer base, but it is only really in the past 18 months that we have done more detailed segmentation analysis and research, then joined those two things up. That gives the company a far more rounded view of our customer base.
Another part of the same role is carrying out the set-up and analytics for our database and I manage the person who executes our web analytics. I guess that with nine years spent in the company, I should be one of the experts at using data to drive our operations.
The second part of my job is more project management based. Avis is in the process of developing a new product based around its Preferred customer offering. That is a speed-of-service proposition where the customer is served faster as the result of being ‘Preferred’. This is being developed into a loyalty-based product that will launch in 2012. I’m overseeing the IT development for this and managing an agency to help the scheme come together.
That is taking up far more of my time than I ever envisaged - for the past six months, the project management has been most of what I’ve done and the customer insight part has probably been downplayed accordingly.
“In 2012, we want to make sure we put insight at the core of designing strategy”
MW: Can you explain how your Preferred service is developing into a loyalty programme?
CP: The Preferred brand is very well recognised already in the car hire industry. But until now, it has been a speed-of-service proposition. A customer gives us the information we need to serve them at our counters more quickly. Once we have their details, we don’t need to ask for their name, address, driving licence details, payment information and so on, as we already hold that on file.
Preferred customers get an exclusive queue in major airports and their vehicles will be parked in the first bays as they walk out the door. So if you turn up at Heathrow, you join a separate queue and if you aren’t served within our promised three minutes, you get a voucher.
But I’m involved in a wider team that is developing the proposition for 2012. We are yet to launch it, but it will be a rewards-based loyalty scheme. In Europe, we are already running individual country loyalty schemes but they are largely paid-for initiatives: you pay upfront to get additional rewards. Those schemes will probably continue to exist in some markets, but Preferred will be there too.
MW: The US division of Avis has just bought the European arm for £635m. Will this have an impact on how you can use data?
CP: I think the business will initially operate very much as it has done in the past. It’s a credit to the Avis Europe business that our sister North American company decided to go ahead with the purchase. It’s a credit to the European business that we have operated well during the past two years in a recession and kept a handle on costs, so it all seems like a very positive thing.
America and Europe will work on projects together and share expertise from both markets. I think that will be very important for the loyalty programme in years to come. But for the time being, we will be concentrating on the European customer base [rather than the global one].
MW: You mention sharing expertise - how dies this occue with Avis?
CP: We are only in the first couple of years of the customer insight programme, but we have done two things. The first is providing education on insight to the wider Avis business. We have presented insights from our customer programme to the different local markets and given those areas data tools so they can use that information.
The second area is leveraging the information in our business case work. When we are designing new business cases that directly affect customer propositions, we look at using insight to inform those cases. As we enter 2012, we think the customer insight work we have done will help us target the right people and allow us to make our communications more relevant for them. We want to be able to offer those customers what they desire, rather than what we want to sell them.
MW: Is this your biggest challenge for 2012?
CP: I would say my biggest challenge over the next 12 months will be finalising the delivery of the very complex IT solution that is necessary to run our Preferred loyalty scheme. I will have to balance that with driving through the customer insight approach for the business. In 2012, we want to make sure we put insight at the core of designing strategy and planning for the future.
MW: What about integrating social data?
CP: We’re talking about social data internally. We are taking that very seriously. We see it as one of the key areas where we need to be involved to open up a conversation with the customer, monitor what is being said about us, respond to comments and make sure we take every opportunity as a business to respond to consumer needs.
These days, social media is used for customer service as well as building a brand and promoting other parts of our business, so we take it all very seriously. We have been running a social media campaign based around the Avis ‘Art Car’ design competition.
MW: how can you measure the impact of social media?
CP: We look at Facebook ‘likes’ or how much something is shared. On Facebook, where we have been running a competition called Art Car, people design artwork for a car and it is displayed on the site. Others can then vote for the ones they like best and ask to drive them through Facebook too. We also test bookings and discounts through Facebook. It’s all a case of measuring and seeing what works.
MW: How would you sum up why data is so important for every business today?
CP: Without technology and data tools, it would be hard for brands to function. I find that in business these days, there is so much pressure to keep tight controls on recruitment, but it’s vital to have enough analysts. The money you spend initially on analysing data will provide huge rewards when you drive a strategy through the business.
“It’s important to understand the practical application of the areas you work in. So I’ve done some work with IBM on modelling tools recently, which has really helped me understand predictive analytics. I had known the theory in these areas, but it’s been really valuable to get the hands-on experience.”
Chris Parker sets out the three most crucial skills any digital marketer needs to possess
1 You need to have a passion for data. It isn’t everyone that likes to sit down and look at spreadsheets or run data through systems. That job isn’t for everyone. You need a very inquisitive mind to search out solutions in data for any business problems.
2 You need to have the ability to find a story in data. If you look at campaign analysis, telling the story on that occasion is about saying what worked or might not have worked. It’s important to understand where the surprises are.
3 Make sure you keep abreast of what is going on within your wider business. Although you may be working on a particular data project, you need to be able to put your work in context by keeping up to date with what else is occurring within the company.