Any Answer Can Be Found in Data

David Crowther and his team spend a lot of time digging through more than 15 terabytes of data collected by Avis Budget as its customers journey through the rental process. Crowther’s team uses the data to make informed decisions for the future.

David Crowther, Avis Budget
David Crowther, Avis Budget

Crowther is the senior vice president for global financial planning and customer care at the major car rental company, where he knows the key to success is about more than money. That’s why he always has one eye on the company’s books and another on reviews from happy and unhappy drivers.

“We send out surveys to get a sense of how agents are doing in terms of making folks happy, but also what type of customer is calling in,” Crowther explains. “Is it a highly profitable customer that happened to have a bad experience or a customer that complains after every rental? There are financial implications around all of that—never mind just the cost of the call. There is cost to whatever you do, whether you provide them a coupon for a future rental or if you make an adjustment to their bill.”

Crowther’s team is always looking at balancing the customer loyalty versus the profit and loss, he says. “It’s a gray area, but there are ways to balance what is best for the customer and for the company,” Crowther adds. He looks at reservations to make sure Avis Budget is operating as efficiently as possible, draws up financial outlook plans for the upcoming months and years, and travels to the company’s call centers from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Barcelona, Spain, to check in on employees who have face, or voice, time with the customers.

“Most folks don’t think about it. They show up at the airport and their car is there, but all the things that go on behind the scenes for their car to be there when they have a reservation—the finance team has a hand in all of that,” Crowther says. “How efficient are we being as we wash and clean that car? How efficient are we when we move it to the location it is needed? How good are we at generating the reservations that become the rentals whether that is online or through a third party?”

Before coming to Avis Budget, Crowther was the sole financial officer at a startup, and spent a few years at Ernst and Young, as well as in financial and strategic planning in the airline industry.

“Seventy-five percent or so of our business occurs at the airport, so there is room for some crossover understanding within the transportation industry,” Crowther says.

One difference, though, is how quickly the numbers can change. Unlike airline tickets that are often purchased months in advance, travelers, for business or pleasure, might not book their car rental until a week or two before the trip, which can make it difficult to forecast revenue trends from far in advance.

“It makes it interesting,” Crowther says.

Jumping from different parts of the financial world throughout his career has given Crowther better perspective. “I have had a more varied career than a lot of folks,” he says. “The upside is that it’s given me the ability to look at things not just from the straight financial point of view, but the bigger picture.”

That skill has been helpful in his many roles at Avis Budget over the years, from being a department director to chief financial officer of the North American division to running the company’s operations in Canada.

Through it all though, his favorite work includes data mining, analyzing the piles of information that come from customer bookings, payments, and satisfaction.

“We can look at how far in advance people make reservations,” Crowther says. “How are they booking those reservations? How are different marketing campaigns doing? How are different cars perceived?”

The answers to those questions often lead to short- and long-term changes in the way Avis Budget does business. For example, if the data suggest customers are unhappy with a certain car, Crowther’s team can collaborate with the fleet department to figure out the issue and move the vehicle to a different car class where it will be a better fit with customer expectations.

Data like this has helped Avis Budget create a customer profitability tool to find new segments for their business and ways to tell who are the most profitable customers. “We’ve added millions to our revenues by targeting those segments,” Crowther says.

The department also used that same data to launch a new customer loyalty program recently. “To me, that’s the fun stuff, digging in and finding better ways to operate the company that hopefully save you money or provide a better product to the customer,” Crowther says. “You get to be creative to a certain degree. You really get to think about the business and see if we are doing it the right way.”