Technology and Towing? Why Not?
In 2002, my team and I set out to identify the next industry that would benefit from technology to improve business and customer efficiency. We found that parking and towing had adopted basic technology, but the industries had yet to fully capitalize on the opportunities to improve the way business is done.
We found that municipal towing had not seen innovation in years and the processes used were drastically outdated. The majority of towing operators did not use computers effectively or invest in anything beyond tow truck equipment.
We knew this industry needed a transformation and decided to bring this old world business into the 21st century.
Building a Business to Scale
We first began in San Francisco seven years ago. The city and county’s towing process was plagued with problems typical in the industry such as long tow wait times, vehicle damage, property loss, low levels of reporting and accountability, unmanageable paper files, and plenty of unhappy customers.We developed a solution to address these problems using a combination of people, processes and technology:
• People – attract and retain an experienced management team and create a culture of accountability, teamwork and innovation
• Processes – build scalable procedures, train staff, test for procedure adherence, and implement supporting controls
• Technology – invest in a component-based architecture that integrates leading off-the-shelf solutions and, when necessary, proprietary custom-built applications.
A capable management team with deep domain expertise is a key factor in building a successful business. Transforming an old world service requires leaders willing to invest in business infrastructure, retrain a workforce resistant to change, and view the business from the perspective of the customer. A municipal towing company will never create a brand image as positive as Coca Cola, but with effort one can make the customer experience far better than current expectations.
By partnering with Nextel, Cisco and other technology service providers, we created a proprietary GPS-based tracking technology and record keeping platform that replaced the long chain of phone calls and radio dispatches and paper trails. This investment paid for itself not only in increased efficiencies, but provided tools to provide better service as well.
The model we now use is reminiscent of other industries that have transitioned to more efficient technology processes. For instance, the dispatch function finds the closest tow truck in the area similar to when a customer requests a Taxi cab. When the tow is en route from request to tow location, the system database is automatically updated. It is FedEx tracking meets Hertz Gold Service for municipal towing.
San Francisco, our flagship city, saw a drastic improvement when AutoReturn implemented its dispatch process. The city experienced a 32% improvement in tow response times using the same local tow operators. Customer complaints reduced from 10–20 per month to less than one per month, and police officers spent significantly less time towing and more time protecting the city.
However, as in any business, there are certain challenges that companies will face when rolling out new capabilities:
It is important to organize thorough training for all user constituents when introducing change. Many blue collar workers do not use computers regularly and may need additional training to become familiar with new tools. When streamlining a process that involves multiple parties to accomplish one goal, all participants must understand their roles so that the total system functions properly.
Just like customers have been communicating with businesses in person and over the phone for decades, many customers today expect to be able to interact with companies online, and will become frustrated if online resources do not exist.
When the right mix of people, processes and technology come together, one of the most important results is improved customer service. Our 24 x 7 call center processes over 10,000 calls each month and if we didn’t have capable representatives with the proper training and right tools, costs and customer complaints would increase.
Cost Recovery Benefits
The demand on time and resources required to transition to more automated processes can seem daunting and costly, but the end result will reduce costs in the future. In San Francisco, more efficient processes decreased the administrative burden on the city, while increasing accountability and control; customers reported greater satisfaction; and improved response times meant more police were back on the streets protecting the public. Overall, automating the towing process has shown immense cost recovery for the City.
Where do we go from here?
In the past decade, we’ve seen the industry embrace change. Not only has the towing segment evolved, but we’ve also seen innovations in the way we pay for public parking, license plate recognition at traffic intersections, expansion of GPS tracking and video surveillance. This is only the beginning.
Parking and transportation logistics will continue to experience the necessary changes to comply with the needs of cities and customers. By continuously capitalizing on evolving technologies and best practices, the industry can and will take service and efficiency to the next level.
John Wicker is the CEO of Autoreturn – www.autoreturn.com