Mobility: designing your customer experience for the Next Normal

The mobility sector is truly on the move around the world with major shifts in societal and consumer behaviour. We recently talked with Christophe Carrère, Group Customer Engagement Director of Europcar Mobility Group, about these new trends; here, in this second part of this interview, he tells us how Europcar is adapting its CX and business approaches to adapt to the New Normal. The lessons apply far beyond the mobility sector.

Christophe, in our first interview, you told us about the differences between different generations and geographies in relation to the Next Normal. In the light of that, what is your customer engagement approach on shared vehicle ownership solutions?

What we are doing today is proposing flexible offers to customers. They may be willing to try replacing their car for, say one month or two months, whereas in the past car rental companies have offered them only six months or one year. On our side, we’re offering them much greater flexibility – they could start with a one-month rental, then renew it at a lower price, and so on. 

It’s really a way to engage the customer with the new model. They see the price decreasing and find that the model fits their needs, and this will tip the market towards this type of solution in the future.

Will these new trends require new business models and partnerships to emerge?

Yes, they are changing how we manage our operations in the field and how we work with car manufacturers.

For some years already, we have initiated a program to revamp customers’ experience at our rental  stations through various initiatives: online registration to speed up the administrative steps for car collection, queueing management systems to prioritize repeat customers and loyalty program members, connected boxes to collect car keys, to name a few.

One thing we intend to do on our customer journey is to ease access to the car, with a more autonomous experience available for customers, so they could use their mobile device to open the car, collect the keys from inside the car, and simply drive off. We are already proposing that experience with our Ubeeqo brand in city locations, but over the next few years, we aim to expand that on a much bigger scale. We’ll have more and more presence across cities, but not linked to physical rental stations, and customers will have much more autonomy.

As you can imagine, another important aspect lies in the upcoming ‘connected cars’ revolution and the new uses behind that. We are permanently discussing this with car manufacturers, technology suppliers, and telecommunications companies. Of course, this requires us to have a much greater ‘remote’ understanding of what happens with the car. For instance, understanding whether the customer is facing an accident situation and needs assistance, when a vehicle requires a maintenance activity, to avoid any misunderstanding about the car’s refueling needs and so on. As our rentals will tend to last longer, connectivity will be key for all of that. It means developing new partnerships with manufacturers on connected cars, and also adapting our operations in the field in order to be able to serve the customer accordingly.

Will you require new infrastructure to do that?

We see our future through the revamp and adjustment of our network “capillarity”, if you know what I mean by that. It’s like the capillaries in your circulatory system - it’s about being present in the right places, adapting our network and type of presence depending on customer needs. 

That doesn’t mean having rental stations everywhere, it’s more about our infrastructure being flexible, developing different platforms at different locations, and building the right model to address customer needs - B2B, B2C, trucks, cars, short duration, long duration etc. Flexibility is the key word for us these days.

You’ve talked about connected cars and that takes us into a huge topic in customer experience: digital transformation. What is your view or vision on that?

At Europcar Mobility Group we have a number of different brands. For example, we have Goldcar which is our entry-level leisure brand. We have our core brand, Europcar, offering short-term vehicle rental, for B2B and B2C segments. We have Ubeeqo, our car sharing brand which I already mentioned, with a strong digital focus. We have local brands, such as Buchbinder, which is one of the largest vehicle providers in Germany. And with each of these brands we have different use cases, and multiple points of contact with the customer. These could be physical or digital, but each of these points of contact is what we call a “moment of truth”.

Now, the issue we face at the moment with digitization is that it’s coming to the point where we have to find the right balance of human interactions to properly support their needs. In other words, the brand tends to be less represented by people whereas we want  to promote loyalty. And that’s a big shift, or challenge, in our relationship with our customer.

We would therefore like to offer what we call an “à la carte customer experience”, where every customer can choose what they want. One customer may want to be autonomous, serve themselves, not meet anyone, pick up the vehicle quickly and go. But another customer may want to meet someone in person, be shown how to operate the car, engage on the specificities of the model or rental arrangement, and so on. That’s the challenge we face today, that even with the individual brands, the customers are not expecting the same things, and we must be able to administer to every customer’s needs. 

This means that, on the one hand, we are moving on with digitization and automation, with apps, with allowing the customer to be autonomous, to avoid having to go to the desk. But in parallel, we still need to have qualified teams in our call centres and the field who can understand and serve the customers.

And there’s another challenge with meeting every customer’s need and digitization which is that we are present in more or less 140 countries. We’re present in about 20 with our own staff and financials, and in the others we have franchises. There’s a major challenge to manage the customer experience across all these countries – standardizing and harmonizing it worldwide and driving the franchises to move in the same direction at the same speed.

That challenge of balancing automation versus human contact is a major challenge in many sectors, not just in mobility. Are there any other CX challenges especially or specifically relevant to mobility?

On customer experience, there’s a challenge for our sector on balancing customers’ wish for speed and convenience and their parallel wish for reassurance that everything’s going to be fine with the vehicle. We have to understand and meet the customers’ parallel needs and expectations.

Most customers are accustomed to digitized customer journeys now. They have Amazon and other e-commerce, where they can place an order and be confident that if they don’t like it, they can get a refund. They have Uber or Netflix where everything is done simply at the click of an app. And, as a result, customers replicate their expectations onto other industries and start to expect the same simplicity and quick mobile experience from everywhere.

We are looking to provide that with our own digital CX but the point is that those other industries are not putting a vehicle worth €20,000, or €30,000 or €40,000 into the hands of the customer. In addition, we may also have the issue of the customer’s traffic fines or accidents or damage to the vehicle. It’s not the same as watching a movie on Netflix or hailing a ride or getting a package delivered from Amazon. It’s much more complex. 

How do you handle that complexity?

I said before that we’re moving from a product-oriented industry to a more customer-oriented industry, and that’s really a cultural change. And in terms of customer experience, we are actually looking at two cultural shifts.

First, we have the customer experience in the field – what we call stations management, the aspects related to waiting time, the administrative paperwork they have to fill in at the station, the checks, the credit card details. We want to change all of that to a quicker, simpler process.

Secondly, we have the less tangible element, the human element – offering them an experience where they don’t have any worries about how anything will work, reassuring them, making them   comfortable that they can drive the car without any problems. 

At the same time, we have to build in those other trends and influences, such as the shift to cleaner vehicles, connected vehicles, and customer behaviour and attitudes to mobility as we start to emerge from the pandemic. Our challenge is to find the right balance to answer all those needs at the same time. Over the next three to four years, we will be able to provide the customer with a very different experience from what we have now today – and the challenge is to tackle this over the next 18-24 months.

Are you making more use of AI and predictive analytics in the customer experience?

Today, our use of AI and data really focuses on customer purchasing habits – what they have purchased during the past three or four rentals, so that we can propose the right product when they come to rent their next vehicle or send them offers in future. It’s about creating a relationship with the customer.

But I think the future will bring new interactions based on using data, particularly in relation to connected cars and being able to assist the customer during their rental experience. For example, they may tend to listen to a certain radio station when they’re driving, and with a connected car, they could perhaps find the radio automatically tuned to that station when they get in the car. 

A lot of things like that are possible with a connected car, and we will work with car manufacturers to use that connectivity and data to propose new customer experiences for drivers. 

Data, AI, connected cars, cleaner vehicles, patterns on car ownership - you have mentioned so many big trends here. Does this mean that change is happening faster than ever?

On many of these issues, we have already known about, expected and prepared for them for a few years now. The point is that they now have to become a reality. 

The speed of delivering change has certainly been a major topic during the Covid-19 pandemic. On the one hand, it has accelerated some consumer behavior changes, such as the switch to digital. On the other hand, Covid-19 has impacted businesses’ ability to deliver things. For example, in the vehicle rental sector, with customers anxious to avoid any contact with the virus, sanitization has been a top priority for us. We changed our processes, we had them certified by an independent company and so on, to protect and reassure our employees and customers. Because that has been our top priority throughout, it has perhaps slowed down the speed of some other aspects of change – the switch to lower-emissions travel, for example. 

But to answer that question more generally, and less Covid-specifically, change is really an everlasting story in the mobility sector. There are always newcomers trying to disrupt our marketplace, and it pushes us to rethink the model and rethink the future each time. In customer experience, change is a constant, and we are always working on that.

Thank you so much, Christophe, for your expert insights into the Next Normal. There are certainly valuable lessons here for the mobility sector, but for other sectors too, and we are grateful to you for those. We look forward to seeing these trends evolve over the coming years - including no longer having to re-tune the radio station in our connected rental or shared car!

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