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At the Forefront of Customer Engagement: Carol Jones, Director of Insights & Intelligence at National Car Rental

Jen Reddy, SVP of Global Marketing at Communispace sits down with Communispace client Carol Jones, Director of Insights & Intelligence at National Car Rental to learn about what drives customer engagement
at NCR.

Hi Carol. Welcome to Verbatim!!! We love when our clients have a voice on our little blog. Thank you.

Jen, thanks for inviting me to share a bit about our National Car Rental community, the Emerald Exchange.

As you know, I think what you are doing at National Car Rental is pretty amazing and I want to share it with our readers. But before we get into the nitty gritty, I want to talk about customer engagement. It’s definitely a trendy topic and one we know a lot about at Cspace. I recently read a global IBM survey recently found that 88% of CEOs believe that getting closer to the customer is the top business strategy over the next 5 years. What are your thoughts on that stat? Does it ring true for your organization?

At the center of our company’s success is our focus on customer service and our commitment to exceed customer expectations. Perhaps it’s best explained by one of our founding values that we strongly adhere to: ‘Great things happen when we listen – to our customers and to each other.’ So you can see that listening to our customers has been a cornerstone of our culture for over 55 years. It’s just that it’s taken different forms over the years. Before the Internet, we listened to our customers face to face. In fact, that’s where many of our current operating practices originated. One great example is Pick-up. Picking up customers at their home or business and bringing them to our local office to rent a car is an idea that came out of our field organization directly from a stated customer need. So in today’s digital age when direct communication with customers on a mass scale is so easy, we absolutely embrace customer opinion and rely heavily on it for many of our decisions. In fact, since we launched the Emerald Exchange two years ago, we’ve created such interest within the organization that now senior management will ask us, “What did the community say?” before moving forward with an idea or initiative.

You have a community of Emerald Club members with whom you have an ongoing dialogue. The topics you cover are pretty vast! Can you explain how you tap into these members to help solve problems or inform strategies… big and small?

You’re right, we do ask our members for their opinions on a wide range of topics. We’ve asked our members to evaluate advertising – ours as well as competitors’. We’ve made decisions about the Emerald Club, National’s loyalty program, and deployed program enhancements based on their feedback. We’ve given community members assignments to evaluate specific airport locations, certain makes/models of vehicles and even our airport signage program. In many cases, we’ve asked them to be our eyes and ears in addition to asking for their opinions and recommendations. In a sense, they’re an extension of our small Insights team here at Corporate. We’ve even invited some of our community members to participate in chats with some of our OEM business partners. That’s been a great way in which we’ve brought value to some very important and valued corporate relationships. And many times, we don’t even have to ask for their opinion. Every week, they raise their own topics of interest unprompted and tell us what’s on their mind—everything from telling us that they’d like more vehicles to be equipped with satellite radio to telling us about a great employee who made their day.

If you had to explain what a typical 90 day period looked like in your Emerald Exchange community, how would you describe it? How is it different than other methods you currently use or have used in the past?

We talk to our community members weekly so having sufficient and meaningful content is critical. We’ve established a process whereby we meet monthly with the brand team to discuss the issues they’re facing and what types of insights they need to help make decisions or to help clarify the issues. We also receive inquiries from outside Marketing from those who lead various business segments within the company and want to tap into our membership. Sometimes we have a topic that requires multiple activities and can span several months. All this gets scheduled so we have content at least a month if not longer ahead of time. But the schedule is very flexible. As hot topics come up (and they always do), we’re able to move things around and get quick feedback on urgent issues. Compared to just three years ago when market research was limited to ‘rear view window’ type research and studies that took a lot of time and money to deploy, we’ve proven that with the Emerald Exchange community, we can get results back quickly and be back out the following week to learn more about an issue we’ve only just discovered. Using traditional research methodologies would have taken double or triple the amount of time. It’s also important to note the relationships we’ve developed with our community. The fact that we’re asking their opinion and acting on what they’ve told us has created fierce loyalty among our community members.

Over the years I have asked our clients about the relationships they form with members and how they can say things that surprise them. Has that happened to you? Have you ever had a response from a member that has changed the way you approach a challenge or make a decision?

Just when you think you know exactly what the community is going to say, they surprise us by telling us the unexpected. They’re just like family members; they’re brutally honest, sometimes painfully so. Last year, we were rolling out a new benefit for the Emerald Club and we wanted to make sure the customer communication piece was clear. We gave the community a special preview of the communication piece before it launched and to our surprise, they found it fairly confusing. Fortunately, the fix was simple. We just needed to add a little more detail and include a few additional pieces of information. But this check with the community saved us a major problem had we allowed the original communication to be sent out to all our loyalty club members. Another example has been exploring our community members’ use of and perspectives on social media. We’re still talking to them about their preferences but ultimately our social media approach and strategy will be influenced by our community members’ feedback.

What advice would you give to other brand marketers who are looking at 2013 and beyond and wondering how to move their business? Smarter? Easier?

I go back to the management philosophy that our founder Jack Taylor instilled when he started this company in 1957. “Take care of your customers and employees first and profits will follow.” You can’t take care of your customers unless you know what they’re thinking. So for the past 56 years, we’ve been asking them in one form or another. And today, we’re the largest rental car company in North America. It can’t be merely coincidence.

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