The firm has embarked upon a digital transformation in order to face increasing competition from private-hire firms.
ComfortDelGro taxis increase use of tech in the face of competition ComfortDelGro has embraced new technologies in order to keep abreast of competition from private-hire firms PHOTO: ST FILE

If you lose something in a ComfortDelGro cab, a robot will now help you hunt it down. Previously, all such cases - averaging 300 a day, where commuters leave things behind in a cab - were handled through the phone or e-mail, a time-consuming process.

But now, a chatbot in the ComfortDelGro taxi app will attend to you - without you having to be put on hold, or wait for e-mails to be responded to.

The chatbot is part of new initiatives to help the taxi group remain competitive. In a recent exclusive interview with The Straits Times, ComfortDelGro Taxi Chief Executive Ang Wei Neng revealed that the company had embarked on a digital transformation, to go head to head with disruptors such as Grab and Gojek.

Asked why ComfortDelGro was doing this six years after the taxi industry was disrupted, Mr. Ang said he was appointed to head the taxi business only in May 2017. "This is a new ball game for me. It took me a while to find my feet," said the former Head of Bus Operations at subsidiary SBS Transit, "I also wanted to find out more about how other companies did it before I embarked on this journey."

Mr. Ang said he visited several multinational companies and took a data science for leaders programme at the University of California, Berkeley, before launching the programme, which currently involves more than 50 employees and tens of millions in investment.

A whole floor of ComfortDelGro Taxi's headquarters building in Sin Ming Drive has been revamped to house 'customer agile squads' - teams which look at ways to enhance the taxi-booking app for both commuters and taxi drivers.

There are currently four squads of six to eight people each. They rely on data analytics - where millions of cab transactions are captured and analysed - to help them decide when and to whom to roll out customer-retaining offers.

ComfortDelGro has also set up technology centres in Yangon and Chennai to access a wider pool of technology resources. These overseas teams meet the local squads via tele-conferencing.

Elsewhere on the floor, test studios record live interviews with sample commuters to gauge the user experience of each app function.

This digital transformation started last September, and ComfortDelGro plans to roll it out companywide, with the next step involving all staff. It said it will be investing more but would not say how much because of competitive reasons.

Mr. Ang said that unlike most disruptors, ComfortDelGro will remain a brick-and-mortar firm, but "we will be one which is tech-enabled".

Asked if ComfortDelGro might be too late in the game now that Grab and Gojek have already established a foothold in Singapore, Mr. Ang cited the case of the mobile phone industry, where being first does not always guarantee success. "I don't aim to be iPhone X," he said. "I just need something to be fundamentally competitive, with some unique features."

One unique feature is the option for commuters to pay for street-hailed cabs via the phone app. Introduced two years ago, it was enhanced recently to be faster and more user-friendly. It is still believed to be the only one of its kind in the world.

Mr. Ang said the street-hail payment mode is vital, as the majority of ComfortDelGro taxi rides are still street hails.

The firm's phone app is gaining traction, with half of those who use it opting for the four-month-old ComfortRide plan, which allows commuters to book rides from the company's fleet of 12,000 cabs and eventually, private-hire cars.

ComfortRide states the cost of a ride upfront, which will fluctuate according to demand - just like private-hire firms. But ComfortDelGro has not extended the service to private-hire cars yet, presumably because of concerns that it will impact the earnings of taxi drivers.