Unscrewing the car rental business

Ever since the VRM conversation began with the Identity conversation, we’ve looked to the car rental business as one that desperately needs unscrewing.

This has come home to me in the last few weeks, while I’ve been on the road with the family, renting a bunch of cars. Three experiences stand out.

First was when I brought my rental Chevy Cobalt back to Budget at SFO (San Francisco’s airport). I had just filled the tank. The indicator on the dashboard, however, said slightly less than full. I showed my receipt to the woman who took in the car. She said “You only bought 1.35 gallons of gas, but drove 65 miles.” She said nothing more, and printed out a receipt from her hand-held device (what do you call that thing?), with a “fuel charge” of $9.50. By my math, the car got 48 miles to the gallon for the little I drove it: from San Jose to San Francisco and then to the airport — all highway driving. How far off from reality could that be for a car that small and weak? But never mind the math. This was clearly a screw-you. To this woman I was a cheat, clearly. And I was being punished for that. Never mind that I’m a Budget FastBreak member and rent from them a great deal. Rules are rules.

The next unpleasantness happened in Cambridge, Mass, where our rented Buick from Alamo was a victim in a 5-car accident in which an out-of-control car actually took off the corner of a cop car before jamming into the side of ours. Nobody was hurt, and the whole thing was almost comically weird. But at the end of the incident our car could not be driven and had to be towed somewhere. I called Alamo’s roadside assistance number, where the woman on the phone told me that she couldn’t help me at all unless I had a police report. The police on the scene told me that wouldn’t be ready until the next day. When I relayed that information to the roadside assistance woman, she said she was sorry, but couldn’t help me without the report. She also told me I wasn’t allowed to have the car towed back to the Alamo agency at Logan Airport until the police report was ready. The only choice then was to let the police have it towed to an impoundment yard, where I would have to pay to spring it at some later time. We reached an impasse there, at the end of which I asked if she could be of any further help to me, and she said no. So I hung up — or thought I hung up — after which I said to my wife, “Well, Alamo can go to hell.” Then the voice in my bluetooth headset said “Pardon me, sir?” Turns out I hadn’t actually hung up. The Treo does that, sometimes. You press “hang up” and it doesn’t. I said, “I didn’t know you were still on.” “I’m trying to help you, sir,” she said. “I thought we had agreed that you couldn’t do that without a police report,” I said. Then she explained that she has this routine that she has to go through in dealing with customers, and that the police report thing was pro forma. But in fact she could at least help me by giving me a claim number. Why she couldn’t do that earlier she wouldn’t explain, and I didn’t press her on it. With the help of the claim number, we were able to get a replacement car after we towed it back to the agency, and payed the tow fee, of over $100. But the runaround was no fun.

The third unfun experience came yesterday with Enterprise, from which we were renting a rather nice Toyota Corolla that we picked up at the airport in Baltimore. Turns out it had extremely squeaky brakes, however, so we brought it in to the nearest Enterprise location. There they swapped it for a Suzuki Reno. Now, we had already upgraded from a “compact” to an “intermediate” at the airport so we could get a car with room for a family’s full set of bags in the trunk. The Suzuki barely has a trunk, and is hardly in the same class as the Corolla in other respects. The guy at the agency said the Suzuki and the Corola are both “considered intermediate” in size; but let’s face it: they’re not equivalent, much less “similar” (which is the weasel word the car agencies use to swap you from what you thought you rented). I would have preferred it if the guy had just said “Hey, we’re sorry, but this is all we’ve got.” I could have accepted that. But instead he tried to convince us that a clearly inferior car was “equivalent”.

In all three cases the agencies took a “those are the rules” approach to customer relations. And, for all the gloss of fake-friendly greetings at the counter, it’s clear that underneath these car agencies are as customer-hostile as ever.

So let’s tell them what the rules are, instead. Once we can do that, I’ll know VRM has succeeded.

50 Comments

  1. What if comments just like yours could be tagged to appear along with the corporate site in question? The technology to do it is out there, it’s just unevenly distributed (to paraphrase William Gibson)

    The bit to connect your comments and everyone else is to move away from the notion that a URL has to map directly to a given resource on a given server, and move to a notion that a URL is really just a unique database key.

    The “owner” of the server obviously has full control of things in a Web 1.0 world, but if we ever truly get past this… it’ll just be the one of many resources available.

    We’ll eventually get used to thinking of a web page as a foundation for commentary and other information. The business of having to figure out clever names to criticize corporations would be traded off for having to subscribe to a consumer protection comment server, or starting one up!

    I hope this view of VRM has some common ground with yours, Doc. I’d like to talk about it at length.

    –Mike–

    Cell: (219) 801-9272

  2. i think the crux of the problem is that people always assume that the company has the final word on everything, and they are required to jump through whatever hoops the company has told them to.

    if they’ve got stupid policies, it’s not really your fault. lady wants to add $9.40 onto your bill for extra gas? go ahead – you’re not paying. they can take you to court for $9.40 if they think they can show you’ve actually violated your agreement. if they put it on your credit record without any sort of judgement against you, is that not libel?

    alamo won’t get you a tow truck to take the smashed car back to their rental place? you’ve called them. you’ve offered to stay there with the car until the tow truck comes, they’re telling you that it’s their policy to have the car towed away by the police – fine. they can go get the car from the police lot when it’s convenient for them, and you can take the mbta and get on with your life.

    any organization is always going to have systematic ways of bullying you, but it is only by treating them to be authoritative that they become so

  3. Regardless of what type of business it is, as soon as I start getting that type of resistance, I ask for the supervisor. I apologize knowing that it isn’t the agents fault, and then go to the supervisor. I’ve had a series of problems with my Dell laptop over the past month. Three repairs. The first took two weeks, even after the parts were in town after four days. In each case the problem is with the company that Dell subcontracts their local service to. So, I’ve learned to make an issue of their service, and follow up with an email to the service rep asking that he or she pass it along to their supervisor. The last problem, last week, took me talking to three managers before I could get any satisfaction, and then the repair was a day later than it should.
    I hope you are really successful with this VRM project. It’s needed.

  4. Mike, that is a good idea, and I would like to talk about it.

    Mind, you’re right that we give these outfits all the power they have. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and what we’re dealing with here is a form of corruption which should be under our control.

    And Ed, you’re right too. As it happended, in each case I wasn’t in the mood or the position to “escalate” the issue at hand.

    Yet, even if there are better ways of dealing with these systems, the best way in the long run is to create a system that is external to theirs, and requires THEM to do the adapting.

  5. I once got busy in a Burger King bathroom.

    And I like to poop on cats.

  6. Doc:

    Public transit, particularly in Boston and Washington, works well, unlike california.

    My car driving experience in Boston mirrors yours –

    1) Tediously taking a shuttle bus to Budget from the subway

    2) Waiting in line for an hour because my Budget express thing didn’t work, only to have to take a more expensive car than I wanted, trying to remember if my credit card covered the insurance then deciding to save the 24 bucks a day the insurance cost, then seeing damage on the car that hadn’t been mentioned that I decided to ignore because I was in a hurry to get out the door.

    3) Having to put up with an intern at Budget give me long, conflicting and incorrect instructions for getting myself back to Andrew station where my hotel was.

    4) Driving around lost in boston for 2 hours based on those instructions, AND having cingular’s 411 having their directions feature be down (and charging me for the priveledge AND 411 not recognising my hotel’s name or address despite me escalating to an operator – (stupidly, I had written down their fax number, not their real number)

    5) Driving underneath your hotel TWICE while looking for my own which turned out to be 20 minutes in the other direction.

    6) Finally finding a coffee shop where I could get firm directions that charged for internet access.

    7) Driving for another 20 minutes back to my original hotel, then spending another 40 minutes somewhat lost getting to my new hotel, which turned out to be a mile’s walk from a regular train to Boston.

    8) Collapsing for the evening.

    9) Getting up way too early for a wonderful breakfast with you and jan and parking for something like 14 bucks in one place, then over 40 in another for another meeting…

    10) Taking 20 minutes out of my life to get a grip on the subway system and the train system, getting maps etc.

    11) More driving stuff I can’t remember, but it was expensive, painful, stressful, and tedious.

    12) Driving back through reversed rush hour traffic to the airport, with the last half in bumper to bumper traffic and having to drive through the airport twice looking for the rental car place.

    Total cost, for less than 2 days of car transport in Boston, hours of headache and delay, and parking, probably well in excess of 300 dollars, and a nagging worry I’ll be billed huge amounts for the pre-existing damage to the car.

    The train and subway experience in Boston couldn’t have been more different than the driving experience.

    1) I got a 7 day subway pass, 15 dollars. Daily r/t tickets on the train were 9 dollars, though I didn’t go to boston every day. I had a nice, pleasant 1 mile walk in the morning to the train, read some fishwrap, had a chance to focus on my day.

    2) The subway went everywhere I needed it to, (although I didn’t figure out many things in advance and did lots of walking instead). Copley station, in particular, took me right to the public library, and I currently forget the exit to MIT but it was on the red line….

    3) I missed one train by a minute, so rather than waiting another hour, I got a 40 dollar cab ride.

    4) Total travel cost of 7 days traveling in Boston on public transit came to 91 dollars. It was low stress, didn’t take any more time than driving, I got a lot done while traveling, and I don’t have nagging doubts about the damage to my “train”.

    Side note. If I have a dream to come out of this: I really wish google maps would give you public transit directions.

    Lastly…

    I just got to DC from boston after a wonderful experience on amtrak’s acela express. Unlike flying, I arrived with all my batteries fully charged, not just mentally, but my laptop, cameras, and recorder are all revved up and ready to go!

  7. Wow, Mike, what an ordeal.

    All that is why I try to avoid renting cars, even when I have to.

    FWIW, Budget’s FastBreak/RapidRez thing has been broken for years. At least half the time I’m not on the FastBreak/RapidRez list, even when the confirmation says I’m on it. That’s why I always try to print out the reservation.

    Boston is hell for drivers in any case. It is the worst city I’ve seen for GPS guidance as well. Still, GPS has saved my ass in Boston many times.

    Good idea for Google Maps to do public transit. Or for anybody to support it.

  8. Good Luck with trying to unscrew the car rental business, Doc.
    Being a Fast Break Member and 3 bucks will give you a fat wallet with another plastic card and a coffee.

    Walk-ins are a pain in the ass and there is no money there. Yes I know about the charges for using the visors more than once, insurance riders, and the rest of the nonsense. Part of the problem you experience in getting service is that the rep. gets only one byte of the apple with your rental. So it is in their best interest to get you out the door in the closest POS on the lot. He get’s his spiff and he is done.

    The majority of the car rental biz goes to insurance companies. This is better money for the rental guys, cause they can double dip in the case of the original rental, which regardless of the negotiated price with an insurance company, and what your policy covers, there will be overages which come out of your pocket, or the other guys insurance company. The other way they make money is in turnaround.

    I used to be in the body shop business and when you brought your car into the shop, we would make the call to get you into a rental. The stuff that rental companies would give you to make them the first call would make a drug rep blush.

    The bodyshop and the insurance company has come to an agreement that it will take say, 10 days to repair your car. The rental company knows that this 10 day figure is pretty solid, but the rental rep begins calling the body shop on day 3 or 4 to see where their rental is. This of course pisses the bodyshop off as somebody has to answer the phone, and explain to stupid, that the car is not done, and they will be the second to know.

    In smaller shops this cascades down in not being able to answer the phone for new business, ordering parts to like work on the car they are calling about, pickup and delivery of other work, Doesn’t matter, Next day, same call.
    The reason that you are not getting service is because the reps, are on the phone trying to turn that car around. He gets a spiff for turnaround.

    Rentals companies are concerned with turning the car around for the shortest amount of time, they can bill for the next day. What you want is at the bottom of the list, regardless of the plastic club you belong to. What they want is to get you into the nearest unit to the door, in the fastest possible time, knowing full well, that whatever your reasons for renting a car, you have no time and will compromise to get on with your life.

    The other thing they do is to rotate that car to it’s limits(usually around 30,000) in the shortest possible time, so they can sell it during the current model year, maximizing their return. Which is substantial, because you get a much better price when you buy a thousand cars at a clip.

    That buzzing you hear at the rental counter are the shears they will be using on you.

    Here is a tech tip for anybody renting a car. Get that digital camera out and photograph the car during the walk around. Take photos when you check it in as well. Front sides, rear, interior, note any damage from paint scratches to chips in the windshield.

  9. Hey Alan,

    Great to see you back, and in fine form. Excellent background there. Car rental indeed seems a fine business for unscrewing. I want to go after that like a dentist goes after caries.

  10. Whilst waiting to collect an Avis car here in Cambridge UK . I overheard the guy explaining to the previous customer the £150 ($350USD) charge for a replacement key and that the customer would have to call their other office to query it.
    Boy did I hang on to my key tightly when I had collected my car.

    I have an embargo against Budget since my court case with them which I won only to be told by their manager afterwards that he would ‘get me’ . net loss to budget of a few thousand pounds over the years.

    Main problem I feel, is that they all tend to be franchise operations,so you might think you are dealing with a global brand but in fact you are dealing with a small guy who is trying to make a profit after his franchise fees.

  11. We operate a UK based car rental web site we have great rates for USA but guess What we can not sel them to holders of a USA licence seems unfair dont you think

  12. Eamonn,

    Why is that? I’ve hired cars in the UK in the past. Are there some that are licensed only for domestic customers while others are not?

  13. Doc

    Sorry I will try and clarify further.

    Our UK customers love to travel to USA in particular Florida and we have great car rental rates for Florida and the rest of USA. However our contracts with the Car Rental Companies state we are unable to sell car rental within USA to citizens of the USA ( ie holders of a USA licence).

  14. Ass! Cock!

    I like to poop on cats!

    Cock! Ass!

    Did you lick my cat’s ass?!!?

    Ass! Cock!

    It’s not going to lick itself!

  15. Every time I try to rent a car I have to deal with some of the rudest sales people. They try to pressure you into their insurance and use scare tactics. This is especially troubling when your flight gets in at midnight.

  16. My experience with car rentals is pretty good. I just reserve it online usually with Budget or Avis. My only issue is “sometimes” they run out of my car and want me to uprgad for free. I say, no I want the car wit better mileage and the bigger size car does not give me that. Then they always try to sell you their supplemental insurance which I don’t need since i am a safe driver. speaking of which maybe I should try and get some car insurance quotes or is Triple A the best hands down. So far yes, they are for me at least.
    Yeah service is lakcing in a lot of places nowadays.. Arizona service by real estat eprofessionals was the worst I had in my life from the appraiser and escrow folks..uhgggh

  17. We have had good-luck in Orlando, Miami, Ft Lauderdale with rental car agencies at airports. Many of the best discount rental car deal we obtained was from Budget. We also have had decent rental through Avis and Enterprise. Our Thrifty rentals in West Palm Beach and the Florida Keys were not so good. Our friends visiting called it Florida car hire and the are from the UK. They also used Budget for their transportation needs. They seemed happy.

  18. We rented with hertz for a family trip to Disneyland. We should have shopped around more. But overall, we we felt good about about our minivan rental from hertz. May budget would be a good choice next time.

  19. For people who are travelling to India and require a car rental service in India, you can try our car rental services. We are an online travel agency providing cars on rental basis all over India.

    Our website is http://www.sanvertravels.com and we promise you to offer the best of our services but don’t forget to visit our testimonials page.

    One thing more we charge for safety and reliability.

    You can contact us on the following numbers.
    Phone (India): +91-22-40032144
    Phone (US): (646) 736 7546
    Phone (UK): (20) 8133 6894
    So next time when you plan your trip think of Sanver Travels.

    Regards,

    M/S Sanver Travels,
    http://www.sanvertravels.com

  20. We offer Car Hire Services from New Delhi, Mumbai, Pune,Jaipur, Agra, Bangalore,Hyderabad, Udaipur, Ahmedabad, Amritsar, Aurangabad, Bikaner Chennai, Cochin (Kochi), Goa ( Panjim ), Jaisalmer, Jodhapur, Nagpur, Jamnagar, Shirdi, Udaipur, Jabalpur also Airport Transfer Service from Domestic & International Airports to Local Star Hotels, local destinations and to other destinations in India.

    Horizon Rent A Car – Div. Of (Horizon Services India) . Tour Operators and Travel Agents based in Aurangabad provides Car Rental services in India on Competitive Prices. We to offers best hotel deals & customized and Tailor made Package tours in India. Package tour are available with/without cars .We also provide Air Ticket /Bus Ticket Reservation , Airport /Station transfers, Sightseeing tours to travel in India.

    HORIZON TRAVEL SERVICES
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    Tel.: +91240-2340438,6451599
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  21. Try to use the Car Sharing Compnies linke zipcar

  22. If companies start measuring what type of revenues from returning customers they are losing due to non-existence service, they will then start to train quality customer service into their frontline staff.

    One of the key things i have learnt about service industries are that customers form their opinions about companies that their deal with by a single touchpoint i.e. the service personnel. It does not matter whether the company is a trillion dollar company..when we get lousy service, it is worthless to us..

  23. There’s no way that your Cobalt got 48mpg…

  24. Why is that? I’ve hired cars in the UK in the past. Are there some that are licensed only for domestic customers while others are not?

  25. oto kiralama provides information about car rentals in Turkey

  26. Sorry to hear about all these car rental horror stories. I own a small car rental business out of Oakland, CA. I think the car rental business needs to be scaled out to the smaller, long end of the tail, businesses. Customers think that they are getting the best deal going to enterprise or avis and they will get faster service. In majority of the cases, this is a complete myth. Most of the rental car companies are somewhere far away from the airport and you have to take the shuttle. Furthermore, these rental car companies are more expensive than small companies. I wont even go to the customer service part of the problem.
    I think if the customers are just a bit aggressive on searching for smaller rental agencies, not only the customers get best prices, they receive better customer service. I even go out of my way to pick up each one of my customers personally to get them to the store.
    - Web advertisement is some part of the solution but the ad budget of these big companies supersede smaller businesses.
    Email me at pacificcar@gmail.com, if anyone is interested in chatting about this in detail

  27. florida auto transport service rocks!!!

  28. With more than 300 Thrifty car rental locations throughout the United States, finding great rates on great car rentals is easy. Visit Thrifty.com to reserve the rental car you want today.
    Good Luck with trying to unscrew the car rental business, Doc.

  29. ahh what its a business

  30. We offer excellent chauffeur driven car service in and around Delhi/NCR.
    You will be surprised to get high standards of quality including time management, safety and luxury at par or better than offered by most reputed brands.
    Pl visit our website for full info and reservation.

    http://www.t4tours.com

  31. Consider also independent rental agencies.
    Independent agencies need for repeat business and word of mouth advertising which is that they will often take more time to personalize your service by explaining your surroundings, commonly taken routes, peculiar traffic laws, and/or popular tourist attractions. They will also generally take more time to explain the finer points of your car hire agreement.
    Finally, independent agencies often offer better rates than big names. Consumer Reports’ Greg Daugherty recommends avoiding car rental chains in favor of independent agencies in his list of Tips for Finding a Deal on Rental Car.

  32. I drove into work one morning, 15 miles through a blizzard type snowfall, wind howling through the crack in the window of the rental car I wouldn’t rent the night before because the window didn’t work correctly. I arrived at the counter after trudging through 14 inch deep snow and unlocked the office for the counter agent. To my surprise, a flight had arrived from Houston and a customer stood at the counter (6:30 AM).

    A bit disgruntled because the counter was not already open and the counter agent wasn’t quite prepared to rent him his automobile (had to turn on the PC), the customer complained all through the rental process while the girl tried her best to make him happy and get him on his way.

    At 6:39 he walked outside, past a service agent coming into the terminal building. She had just cleaned off all the car windshields that were in the ready spaces. Her cheeks were red, her coat and boots covered with snow. At 6:46 the customer reappeared at the counter and SLAMMED the keys down on the counter and screamed at the counter agent “THERE IS SNOW ON MY CAR!” He was in a rage!

    I came flying out of the back office just to be held back by the very amiable service agent who quietly said to the customer “I’ll go out and clean it for you, Sir. If you’ll just follow me.” She smiled at the customer, left the counter, and took him by the arm and led him back out into the, ‘yes’, blizzard type snowfall.

    Though I have never condoned and never will condone poor customer service, I do know there are often two sides to a story. Travelers, especially at airports, are more often angry at the airlines for a late departures, or lost luggage, than they are at the counter agents of car rental companies. But the agents usually take the blunt of their anger in various ways.

    Do the car rental companies need to improve their customer service? Yes, of course. There is no question that customers deserve the best of services when spending their money for a product. However, I also believe that it is a two way street and the respect customers expect from service providers should be mutually given.

    ***stomps the snow off his boots and goes back into the office

  33. I like Enterprise rent-A-car, because they pick you up and drop you off at the location of your choice. I believe customer service is going to be a huge asset as this financial crises progresses. People will be looking for discount rental car rates and top-notch service. Just thought I would throw in my 2 cents.

  34. Hi there,
    The car hire bussiness is still developing, so we must overpass the crisiss.
    Nick

  35. I agree with the author above concerning discount access to rates for car hire in Hawaii and specifically Kauai. I like to rent vehicles from Thrifty Car Rental since they are located on the edge of the airport property and thus do not need to pay the airport concession fees that the other agencies charge. This fact can save you over 20.00 per week. My family and I usually get a Jeep Wrangler or an economy automobile. The shuttles at the Lihue airport (LIH) come be frequently and are not a hassle. Much Aloha.

  36. J. Saginaw…I can’t begin to tell you that is exactly how I feel. Owning my own car rental business has been both a blessing and a curse. Blessing because I have the privilege of somewhat controlling my own future, and a curse because often I am the first person people talk to after they get off a delayed flight, after an accident, before a business trip, after a business trip, are short on money but want to travel. We get customers who think that if they have $50 in cash they can rent our $20,000 vehicles with no deposit, and no insurance for themselves. Sometimes I just scratch my head.

    Most often though we have wonderful customers who appreciate that we often go above and beyond the call of service to make sure they can get on with their lives. Come to think it, owning this business has been 90% blessing and only 10% curse. Good luck folks.

  37. Wow. Nice Information You Got here!! i have been seaching for Cheap auto insurance Quote over the internet from last couple of days. I hope you will elaborate more on this topic, it would be nice!! Thanks!

  38. Don’t buy gas. Stop in the nearest gas station and buy a 6 pack of beer. Claim that you bought gas, show the receipt and have the automatic charge deducted. Remember to finish the beer before security or else they will.

  39. My family and I recently returned from visiting relatives in Orlando, FL. After purchasing tickets for the flight I decided to start researching on the Internet for a discount car rental agency. I was amazed at the wide range of cars and especially the difference in cost at the various companies. The same vehicle can range from $25.00 per day to $90.00 per day. I don’t always believe the cheapest deals are the best and decided to go with a business called, Car Rental Florida. They offered one of the lowest rates available for a late model auto with AC and free mileage. The ride was excellent and clean. I have already recommended this company to others who have Florida in their travel plans.

  40. We tried everything to get a rental car in Hawaii. Most of the large agencies were already booked for the holiday weekend. Out of desperation, we asked a concierge at our hotel. Derek from the Marriot claimed he knew of the perfect place, a website he had come across a few months ago. I visited their website  hawaii-car-rental.com) on the computer in the lobby. Sure enough, they claimed to have some cars and the rates were fantastic. I received a quote and happily accepted it. They were able to get me a car from Enterprise, even though I could not rent one directly from them. If I could have, it would have cost me 30% on top of the great rate I got. The car rental was perfect and I have since used this service on one other occasion.

  41. Could you please remove comment #5? It holds no relevance to the original topic and quite frankly doesn’t belong on a blog such as this.

  42. Great Post! I thingmo web design is complete if it doesn’t have clear naviation, readability of text and forms to contact

  43. Great Post! Greetings from Kassel Germany.

  44. Actually, you might as well just not bother and take a bus.

  45. And…I agree with the cat comments – get them off!

  46. we loved going through your article, you have a great delivery style! I have forwarded a link to my bro, and shall surely be back for update.

  47. Yea, It can be a bit crazy at times.

  48. 48MPG from a Cobalt? is that imperial gallons or american gallons?

  49. Yeah I have experience bad customer service from car rental places as well.

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