Robert Zahn


AAA Ohio Auto Club


Jason Skidmore



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CIO for AAA Ohio Auto Club, Robert Zahn, discusses corporate technology strategies and technology solution center optimization.

Hello, and welcome to the ComSpark podcast, where you will get to meet today's technology thought leaders. To learn more, visit

JS: All right. Hello, we're here today with Robert Zahn, who is the Chief Information Officer at AAA for Ohio Auto Club, which is an organization based in Columbus, Ohio with about 650 employees. My name is Jason Skidmore. I'm the CEO of Vernovis and I'll be your guest moderator today. So, Robert, thanks so much for joining me.

RZ: Oh, my pleasure. I was happy to participate.

JS:  Yeah, well, good. Well, let's jump in here. I'm curious to pick your brain a little bit. So, I guess I'll start with, you know, you have a very unique organization compared to many with what you guys do. So, how do you measure the success of your IT organization?

RZ: Yeah, that's a very good question. Most of our AAA members would hardly a know that we have a number of business strategies, so, uh, contained around all the business lines that we have. We're not just emergency road service, we have insurance that we supply for members, we have actual garages that we do. We have discounts and rewards. We helped members with travel, so there's all sorts of business lines that we have to help the members in almost anything they might need to do with travel. And so, with measuring the success of our IT organization, a long time ago I helped develop four key corporate technology strategy, strategies. We review them every three years and each year there are key performance indicators that reflect back to the core strategies. So of the four, I'll just kind of go through them a little bit.

The first one is to align IT projects and processes with the business line strategies. A lot of people have projects, but we try to make sure that the projects align with whatever key strategy it is that the business line is supporting for the given year. And so, we try to make up the money line up with the projects, the project, and the people line up with that. AAA has multiple business lines, so there's always a challenge of prioritizing those. And so, we work with the business lines with those requirements in, in, where on the calendar those fit to make sure that they're ready for the next business area. So, when we review our projects and processes, we do try to schedule them based on the busy season. So, travel is a lot more busy in the summer, either when it's really cold outside and batteries are failing or when the temperatures get to 90 and 100, batteries fail then as well. So that's, that's how we try to help prioritize those.

Our second strategic goal is to improve IT processes to enhance reliability, quality and performance. We continuously review our change management process and how we deliver equipment and applications to our internal customers. We survey our customers and then collaborate with my peers to find new ways to improve our IT processes. And then of course, as you know, technology changes every year, right? There's either a new technology or there's something disruptive happening that we need to adjust to and change what we're doing.

So, the third strategic goal is to reduce the cost of IT operations. So every time we renew a contract or buy equipment, we try to reduce the cost because we want to redirect the savings from our technology, from our IT department back into future innovations for the company. I remind my team that when our members come to AAA, they're not buying IT products, right? We're not Google, we're not Microsoft. That's not what our focus is. Our focus is really the members and the services that we can provide to them to make their lives better or easier. So our members want technology that helps them utilize our services. That is how we need to spend our money. So, we try to do things that help the member get to us quicker, more efficient and feedback back on the service for them that we did. So.

And then the last strategy is really the one that everybody in the it community loves, security. I'm just not sure it'll ever go away. Each year brings new challenges and new technology in which to protect our systems or in which were threatened by. And so as we try to become more mobile, as things get to the cloud, as we look at scalability, you know, there's always things we need to do to try and again make our member data safe and protected so that, that one is just an ever evolving one that you just always have to keep up with.

JS: Absolutely. Well, I really appreciate those comments, particularly in light of the fact that I think you've kind of showcased what the challenges of being an IT leader are today. You know, you're aligning with the business strategy, improving your own processes, making sure you stay on top of security and then in the midst of all that reducing costs. So, pretty impressive to be able to pull all of that off. So, uh, congrats. And then, you know, another thing you reflected on, which will lead to my next question here, is technology changes so quickly. Right? So tell me a little bit about your opinion on maybe what's the most exciting disruptive technology that's beginning to impact our work, our lives. However you may look at it.

RZ: Yeah, yeah. One of the ones that I think, and actually two of them that I'll put in combination here that I'm most excited by are artificial intelligence and robotics. So we already have given voice to artificial intelligence, right? There's a number of different products out there that now you can talk to. You can ask questions and those AIs are connected to vast amounts of data that they have available to themselves. So we can ask them a question, they'll answer us. You can even order a AAA tow truck to your home through any number of these devices as well. So, this technology continues to grow.

I think here in a few years, it's going to start getting exponential and how quick and how soon everybody has to get on this. So, give you a couple examples of where I think this might be going. Imagine even technology within your car. Everybody knows everything's more circuit board, everything, you know, we got, you know, you can connect your phone to the car, but imagine when your car lets you know when you need the oil change already scheduled it for you, and then places that appointment on your calendar for you, just that combination of technology or the car even let you know that it's doing it right.

Again, with that putting voice to the robotics, into the artificial intelligence. There's already plenty of people working on the fact that when you drive home, your car might be able to open your garage door for you automatically. Once you get within a couple hundred feet, it'll adjust your home lighting, outdoor, indoor for you, the temperature of your home, and turn on your favorite station so that when you walk in, you're all ready. And gosh, if you got your coffee brewer connected too, can we get your first pot of coffee ready for you. So, just the excitement for artificial intelligence and robotics. I think that combination events she's going to lead us to where a lot of sci-fi movies have told us in the past where it's either robotic butlers or robots that help us do our jobs. You know, I know sometimes it can be a little bit of angst with that if robots are going to replace this. But, you know, I think there's a lot of ability for robotics to help us with our jobs and the smarter those robotics get with AI being built into them. I, again, I just, you know, as much as we've seen in 40, 50 years of change and with technology, I just can't even imagine what the next 50 years is going to be with that.

JS: Yeah, absolutely. That's a recurring theme, not only the next 50 years, but what occurred in the last 50 could occur in the next 10. Right? I mean, it's just accelerating at such a rate now. So, that leads me to the next question – while we talk about all these great forward-looking sci-fi type things as you referred to it about technology, we still have to make sure that the end user is being serviced, right? We have to make sure that that customer-centric approach is still in place. So, how do you approach this within your organization – that end user support through the service desk?

RZ: Yeah, AAA has a very unique help desk. It’s technology based. When I first started there, they didn't have a help desk, they had one individual and people would call her extension and when she was there she'd pick up, when she wasn't, she was usually out somewhere at headquarters fixing a problem. So, they leave a message and so we got some software installed back then It's worked for us for a number of years. We are looking at upgrading that to get a little more sophisticated with our needs. But with the software we have, we've done a lot of things so that there's one number for everybody internal to the company to call whether that's, you know, actually something for technology, whether that's something with our marketing department. So all of our core HQ offices are branch of that help desk. They have a couple different subject matter experts that the tickets go to and then they deal with the request, but there's just one number for everybody in our company to call.

And we did that a long time ago, because as you can imagine, we have 45 locations across the state of Ohio. And then our headquarters, you know, at any one point, different people from any of these locations can be calling HQ, could be calling HR for this or accounting for that. Maybe the same people from different stores are calling for the same thing. So we tried to make it focused into one number and one help desk, which reports to me. And so we call it our technology solution center. We don't call it a help desk because it's not just there to help. We actually are involved in trying to provide solutions. And so, in addition to just the technology piece I mentioned, they also handle 50 percent of the calls from our travel agents. So almost every one of our help desk individuals and they are all ladies and they all work from home remotely, which is another benefit for them. Almost every one of them has been a past travel agent in one of our store locations or at headquarters. And then we have another individual who specialized in membership and that she moved from the membership department to our help desk to help with membership questions that we get from internal customers. And stuff like that.

So, I get a lot of you know, comparisons with other technologies and other companies and their help desks. Ours is very much different in the fact that we still have to service a lot of that travel agent, you know, that if you need a Euro Rail ticket, most travel agents don't run into that on a day to day basis. And so they're there to kind of help them with those things that need to be done for our members. So, and you know, they helped them, you know, the associates book a lot of packages for the members for things that they don't need to. So, we have four methods by which our internal customers can get to our help desk. We have, you know, the traditional phone, but we also have chat, we have email and internet tickets for kind of lower priority tickets-You need a toner or something like that- or if you need something a few weeks out, email and internet are the best ways to do that.

With all of those avenues to contact us, we do have service level agreements. You know, we have a low, medium, high and critical that we keep with all the business lines and all the business lines are aware of the durations around these timelines, but this year in 2018, I'm happy to say that we're resolving 98 percent of our tickets within the service level agreement period. So, that really says a lot to the help desk ladies that worked there and then even our second tier of staff application services and IT operations that help with a lot of that. And then occasionally, when vendors need to get involved as well. And then also our technology solution center resolves 72 percent of phone calls and chats within first contact. So their first contact resolution for phone call and chat, which are the priorities. Seventy two percent of that is resolved within the first contact. And again, kind of like a part upfront with our, you know, trying to do continuous process improvements with the help desk. We are always looking for ways that they can either be allowed to make the change or they have the information to provide the answer directly back to the member, so it's, you know, not that they have to wait for the next phone call. Right where I was trying to work on that first contact resolution.

JS: Wow. What a unique creative way of going about that. You can see the DNA of a service organization built into how you set that up. It's pretty impressive. Thank you for sharing about that.

RZ: No, no, thank you. Rather proud of them.

JS: Yeah, absolutely. Well, Robert, thanks so much for your time today. It was a pleasure to get to sit down and learn a little bit more about you and the organization and I hope we'll get to speak to you again here in the near future.

RZ: Yup. No, thank you very much. I'm very happy to have been here today.

JS: Okay, great. Well, once again, this is Jason Skidmore. I'm here with Robert Zahn. To learn more about us, visit Goodbye. And until next time, thank you.

To learn more about sponsorship opportunities for 2019, contact Michelle Ziegler at