nick burton belron1

The Drive with Belron accelerator has supported a variety of startups since it launched in 2015, but this year's cohort was united by the same technology focus.

All three startups are using AI to help Belron's vehicle glass repair business. 

Soft Edge created a mobile app that can detect hail damage through AI image analysis; Bonobos to understand recordings of customer phone calls, and RightIndem to help Belron's insurance partners make instant decisions on customer claims.

"We didn't pick these ones because of the AI," Belron Chief Information and Digital Officer Nick Burton tells CIO UK. "We picked them because of the solution. It just so happened that machine learning of some sorts is key to what they do."

Belron and innovation specialists L Marks have committed to invest a total of £200,00 in the trio, whose solutions add another element to Belron's experiments with AI. 

The company has also introduced an AI-powered interactive voice response system that allows customers to independently make appointment changes and a visual recognition tool that lets them diagnose vehicle damage from photos.

"We thought that was a fairly obvious way in which the approach could help us be more efficient and benefit the customer experience," says Burton.

"We started taking it more seriously a year ago because we were really encouraged with the results that we were seeing. That's when we recruited the first AI person in my team. We've now got an AI solutions manager who really understands the different platforms who works with the countries to help them shape how they're going to try and solve the given business problem using AI.

"It's not always the most obvious way but it's the way that works."

Connecting data

Not all of Burton's efforts focus on AI. His team also worked with Tealium to produce a Universal Data Hub, which joins up customer data from different channels.

This means that if a customer makes an online booking and then phones the call centre for reassurance and finally visits a branch to ask questions in person, all of the interactions can be tied together.

"We see the whole path and can analyse what they searched for, what they read and so on along that journey, which also makes it easier for us to personalise the experience," says Burton.

"Once we've got the data joined up - which we now do in a number of countries - it's really opening our eyes to lots of different more granular ways that we can do things, like retargeting or tabling different types of communications.

"For example, normally when a customer books a job we send them a confirmation email. This allows us to create many different versions of that and tailor the messaging much more precisely to the journey they've had to get to that point.

"It's quite a comprehensive technology. One of the things it can power is self-service portals. It can be used to make that much more frictionless, so we don't need to give people logons and so on that they have to remember, get another password. We can actually send them a link so we know using the Data Hub who they are because we've interacted with them in the past."

Belron staff are also benefiting from digital. They are now equipped with a mobile app that uses QR codes to manage products such as windscreen wipers in engineers' vans and choose which items are selected for online sales, and another app for technicians that helps them manage their jobs.

"It's a bit like WhatsApp for technicians," explains Burton. "It understands the job they're working on and it helps them with the technical assistance they need. It's aware of who else is online right now and who else is skilled at working with which vehicles.

"Rather than having a friends list of people you are mates with, it brings up a list of technicians who are available now who can give advice on the vehicle that you're working on.

"Then you can have a video chat or text or whatever works in the situation that you're in, and the information gets captured in the soft skills knowledge base so you can also search for video clips if people are not available."

Industry changes

Vehicle windscreens have changed a lot since Burton joined Belron in 2001. Most new cars now have dash cams that record footage, measure impacts and providing collision warnings, and often they're mounted on the windscreen. When Belron technicians replace a windscreen they have to remove the dash cams and precisely reattach them to the replacement.

"We've invested in a significant amount of tools and technology so that our technicians are able to do that recalibration," says Burton.

"A proportion can be done with a mobile in the field, some more advanced vehicles need to come into one of our calibration centres where we do a laser alignment to a board with a pattern then run through the calibration routines that are built in the vehicle."

There have also been big changes to Burton's role at the company.

He initially joined Belron as a Global Software Architect, and then climbed up the ranks to the position of Chief Information Officer, where he took charge of an IT strategy that covers more than 10 major brands under the Belron umbrella, which operate in 35 countries on six continents. This role was then extended by the addition of Digital to the job title.

"They definitely go hand in hand," says Burton. "From a digital point of view I have to layer in the thought leadership and that kind of thinking around what digitalisation is going to mean from a people point of view and from a customer point of view, and make sure that the underpinning IT part of the business is prepared to address those types of changes.

"For me it was a fairly natural addition but it probably depends on what your company does and how you're structured."