No one, as far as I can tell, likes the customer experience much when they rent cars. Between the waiting around at the end of a travel day when you're already tired and the relentless upselling, I have to figure that renting a car must be among the most consistently unpleasant sales transaction categories. So with such a low bar to clear, it should be hard to stand out for doing poorly. And yet, last week the Hertz at Chicago O'Hare Airport managed to botch my experience so completely that doing the opposite of what I found could serve as a lesson for anyone in the business of customer service, winery or not.
I was in town for the successful Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance Grand Tour visit, but I visit Chicago at least once a year anyway. I typically book my rental cars through Hotwire, since the rates are enough less than what you get by going direct to a rental car company's site, and I don't particularly care which rental company I patronize. I was pleased when I got Hertz -- it's a rarity, in my experience, to get a category leader, rather than one of the budget rental agencies. When I left, nearly an hour later, I was determined never to do business with them again. How not to go similarly wrong, in nine simple steps:
- Staff adequately. First sign I was in for trouble: when I arrived, the rental agency had only one person behind the counter. Even worse, he was tied up with an obviously-bewildered customer who spoke only broken English, to whom he was loudly trying to sell a higher class of car than had originally been reserved. Between the language barrier and the obvious confusion of the customer as to what he was getting, it was fully 15 minutes before he even acknowledged the rest of us in line. That the acknowledgement he gave was a mumbled "be right back" after he walked away from the counter, leaving it unmanned for another 10 minutes, rubbed salt into the wound. It should be obvious that you don't want to make your customers wait to transact with you, and no business that didn't have a captive audience at the end of a one-way shuttle ride would be so blatant about it. That said, I still see many wineries lose sales because people don't want to wait while other customers check out, and tasting rooms staffed with their average traffic in mind, rather than their peak traffic. Yes, staffing for your peak times will mean you're overstaffed much of the time, but consider the alternative: when the greatest number of your customers are around, you're taking the worst care of them.
- Use smart technology. With our lone customer service rep off the floor, a few of us decided that we might have better luck using the bank of automated check-in kiosks next to the counter. Two of the four were out of service. The other two presented a blank screen, an old-fashioned phone handset, and a message instructing us to pick up the phone to complete our check-in. I've used automated rental-car check-in machines at other companies, and it is possible to have customers swipe their drivers' licenses and credit cards, select their desired insurance coverage, sign on-screen, and be sent on their way with their contract (keys in the car). But no: these screens required that we be connected via video-link with a customer-service representative before we could proceed. Think about this from the perspective of your business. What does the technology you choose say about you? Does it help your customers get what they want from you, or stand in their way? Are you keeping up with your competitors? Are you sure? (The only way that this makes any sense to me is that full automation was seen by Hertz as a missed upselling opportunity. But wow, what an aggravation.)
- Set expectations and then exceed them. When I picked up the receiver at my kiosk, an electronic message came up on the screen indicating a projected wait of 2 minutes. OK, reasonable enough. At the end of the countdown, a new message appeared, that it was taking longer than expected and suggested another 2-minute wait. This message returned four times, producing what felt, at that point, like the longest 10 minutes of my life. I had just decided to head back to the airport and find another company when my customer service rep appeared on screen. Proper expectation-setting can do wonders for you. Disney parks are great examples of this: their wait times are always posted clearly, and you always wait a little less long than they predict. And just knowing reasonably well what to expect does wonders for your satisfaction (it is because unpredictable waits greatly raise stress levels that highway signs post expected commute times). In your business, are you setting reasonable expectations? And are you then overdelivering? You should be.
- Empower your customer service people. My video-linked customer service rep, when she came on, was nice enough. But after walking me through my reservation and having me (finally) swipe my license and credit card, she asked me, a little diffidently, if a Ford Focus was all right with me. I had pre-paid for a standard car, and I asked her if that was a standard car at Hertz. She said it wasn't, but that she didn't have any standard cars. I suggested to her that it was customary to put a customer in a larger car when the reserved size wasn't available. She replied that she didn't have the authority to give a courtesy upgrade. I resisted the temptation to ask her if she had the authority for the courtesy downgrade. Think about this from the perspective of your business. Your managers are probably not the people you have as your primary points of contact with your customers. Do the people you have in those positions have the authority to make your customers happy? If not, why not? Are your managers always available (hers, she reported, didn't pick up on any of the three phone numbers she had)? At best, it's inefficient. More likely, customers are leaving unhappy and you are demoralizing your staff.
- Make sure your systems are up to date. Eventually, it became clear that the problem was compounded by the fact that my rep didn't know what cars were on the lot and what weren't. She asked me if there was anyone free at the office who could get on the phone with her to let her know about recent returns (there wasn't or else I wouldn't have called her). She told me that she sees the inventory for only 2 of their 5 lots, and not for recent returns. How about in your business? Are your systems real-time? Do you know where all your inventory is? Does the person who picks up your phone, and the one at your front desk?
- Make (all) your customers feel welcome. The three lots that my rep couldn't see, she said, were the lots where the Hertz #1 Club Gold members' cars were parked. We had been bused past these cars, where members' names were on a big board, directing them to a specific pre-reserved space. Now I understand loyalty programs. You want to make sure that your best customers feel appreciated. But I have to think that there's a way to show that appreciation without making the non-members feel quite so much like you couldn't care less about them. In the winery world, the equivalent would be focusing on your wine club members to the exclusion of the other customers. As most customers don't start out as members, this has always struck me as short-sighted. Sure, I was jealous of the #1 Club Gold customers, but did I want to become one? No. I wanted to leave and give my business to a competitor. And particularly in this age of user-reviews and social media, remember that a dissatisfied customer tells many times more people than a satisfied one. A look at the scathing reviews of the location on Yelp indicates why, perhaps, they had cars left over to rent on Hotwire. The take-home: do everything you can to avoid creating dissatisfied customers.
- Own up when something goes wrong. This goes back to the pre-paid reservation for the standard car. Do I have anything against a Ford Focus? No. I've rented one many times. Do I have an issue with the company taking a reservation that they couldn't fill? Somewhat. (Cue the classic Seinfeld scene below.) But what really bothered me was the total lack of recognition that this was their responsibility. My video agent excused their lack of the car class I'd reserved because "sometimes people don't return their cars when they say they're going to". Um... OK. I know that happens sometimes. But when it does, you have both the obligation and the opportunity to make a reasonable accommodation for the customer. Instead, she asked me, as if looking for sympathy for her plight, if I had experience in customer service.
- Don't chisel. The hard-sell for upgrades and overpriced insurance is pretty much standard practice in the rental car world. Still, the experience is never a pleasant one. And it was performed with such grim determination that I have to believe that she was being graded on the percentage of customers to whom she could sell extras. After asking whether I wanted "full coverage or just coverage on the vehicle" (in itself a pushy sales trick, which I declined), typically a rental agent will let it go. Instead, I was asked if I was sure, and when I said yes, I was read a statement from Hertz's attorneys as to my liability. Does that last grasping attempt at the upsell succeed often enough to offset the unpleasant memory for the unwilling customer? It seems short-sighted to me even in for a car rental. If a customer in a more discretionary transaction (think: encouraging someone to sign up for a wine club) were pushed the same way, I have to believe it would backfire. How you incentivize your staff does have an impact on the customer experience.
- Be careful who you partner with. I didn't choose to do business with Hertz. I chose to do business with Hotwire. It's a service I use fairly often, and while I understand I'm giving up some control, I have usually been happy with the results. Will I use Hotwire again when I go back to O'Hare? I doubt it. Similarly, be careful putting your reputation in the hands of a partner over whom you have no control. If you're a winery, and a hotel offers to give you a special rate that you can share with your customers, you should know that the hotel is going to offer a good experience before you promote it. If you're going to agree to do a wine dinner, you should be confident in the quality and the experience of the restaurant with whom you're partnering. If you outsource your shipping, no one cares that it wasn't you who made a mistake when the bottle broke before delivery. It all reflects on you.
None of this is rocket science. It's common sense to listen to your customers, to do what you can to move them efficiently through their transactions, to try to give them what they are expecting or more, and to have them leave happy with their experiences. But if a company worth nearly $10 billion can fail so spectacularly, it's evidently not universal.
Here's a hint: if, upon leaving you, the first thing a customer wants to do is to write a 2000-word blog post about their terrible experience, you might want to reevaluate your practices.