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.

1 Comment

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

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