Even before the launch of the new phone system, 28-employee Zipcar was automating much more aggressively than its competitors. Upon joining Zipcar, drivers receive a so-called Zipcard. Whenever they need a car, they make a phone or Web reservation for a car that is parked nearby. That process activates their Zipcard, which unlocks the car door. Customers return the cars, with a full tank of gas, to the same location, and their credit cards are charged. There's no rental office to go to or line to wait on.
But there was a wait for some customers -- on the phone. In September, Griffith and his three-person tech team started working on a phone system linked to the company's back-office database and its Web site. "Anytime there starts to be more human use and we think it can be automated, we go and attack that problem," says Griffith. "Our challenge was integrating everything." Zipcar spent $1,500 on a new server. Staff developers spent eight weeks building the system, relying heavily on open-source tools.
Now, when a member calls to make or change a reservation, the system uses caller ID to instantly connect to the member database and make the changes without having to rely on an operator. Members can also leave voice messages that are automatically attached to e-mails and sent to the appropriate staffer. So if a driver calls after hours and leaves a message that a wiper blade needs to be replaced, the message will be sent to the local fleet manager, who can pick it up on a phone or BlackBerry () and respond. In an emergency, of course, drivers are immediately connected to a live operator. Griffith expects the system to help Zipcar meet its ambitious growth plans, which include expansion into Los Angeles, Seattle, and Vancouver -- all without having to resort to a single car-rental desk.