Customer experience

A customer’s plea to the car rental sector

I’m going to tell this story via personal anecdote; it’s the only way.

When we conduct research, we have to be neutral.  It’s a given.  At Truth, we lead numerous segmentation studies – we don’t need to be reminded that whatever we sitting in our office think people need is not what Qing in Shanghai wants or Geoff in Boston seeks. 

But every now and again, you experience something as a consumer that is so clearly a broken product or service that it’s impossible not to believe that there’s a fundamental challenge to address.  Particularly so when the issue appears to be fairly endemic to the sector in question.

Such was the case when we rented a car during a short trip to visit family recently.  At Truth, we work extensively in the travel sector, so I had a sense of what sort of hurdles I might expect.  In the end, the process of parking at the airport and getting through Heathrow was remarkably smooth and even pleasant (a miracle with two small children).

Then we arrived at our destination.  There was no record of the fact we had hired car seats - but no matter.  A staff member went off to get them for us.  This agreeable lady, let’s call her Claire, gave us the seats and explained she wasn’t in a position to help us install them as she couldn’t assume the legal responsibility.

And here is where the experience irredeemably broke down.  The baby seat came with extensive and complex instructions.  We couldn’t figure it out easily or with confidence, through countless attempts.  At one point Claire, hovering nearby apologetically, suggested we try Youtube.  Another staff member was called over and confirmed ‘off the record’ that he was sure we had done it correctly.  Yet when I pushed the car seat gently it tipped over fully onto its side.

By this time the toddler was exhausted and the baby was getting tetchy.

After further attempts to check the installation, we started to investigate Plan B options.  It transpired there were no other car seat options available, and after dashing to another hire company I learned they all rent their seats from the same provider, so switching wouldn’t help.

Eventually we hit upon the idea that the baby might just be big enough for the next seat up.  A quick estimate of his weight using Google enabled us to decide this was worth the gamble.  And the next seat size up was more stable, albeit suboptimal in other ways.

Finally, after various other processes, we were off.  And en route discovered that the toddler’s seat didn’t appear to be all that safe after all, as he slumped forward onto his lap, asleep and not that well restrained, every time the car braked.  And so during our holiday we abandoned the car seats we had hired at considerable expense (costing significantly more the car itself) and cobbled together more secure options from family and friends.  At quite some inconvenience to all concerned.

Is there much worse in a customer experience? 

The fact that what we ordered was not recorded.

That there were no trained staff who were cleared to help with the complex installation. 

And that we had to rely on Youtube and Google to guide us.

Let alone that it took over an hour to finally reach a solution we were moderately reassured by, with no problem-solving support from the car hire company.  Empathy - yes, practical help – no.

That these car seats cost significantly more than the care hire itself.

Ultimately, the fact that we felt in a position where we felt our children’s safety might be compromised.

On our return to the car rental company at the end of the trip I explained our problem.  With no fuss and extensive apologies, the cost of the seats was removed from our bill. 

But a good service ethos, with well-trained and pleasant staff, is stymied when the system has something intrinsically flawed in it.

In this case, the staff we dealt with both at the start and end of our trip suggested that it would be much better if their company offered seats with ISOFIX bases.  Secure and simple.  And familiar to many parents.  But not widespread in the sector, it appears.

As it stands, this experience was so bad I’m risking dropping out of the car hire sector completely, with resulting limitations on the kinds of holidays we could take.  And is there a much worse outcome for a company – let alone a sector – to lose a customer potentially for years?  And for that customer to talk about the experience on social media?  Let alone to submit a complaint. 

When we run customer journey mapping exercises, we mustn’t ever overlook the fact that a significant pain point – even if not experienced often or by many people – can have a greater effect on the brand’s reputation (and right to claim its positioning) than the more prosaic highs and lows in the common experience.  Or indeed that great service – which the brand in question trumpets as part of its DNA – can be for naught if the system doesn’t allow it truly to deliver.