High-Tech or High Touch?

I experienced a particularly aggravating rental experience at an airport recently. I was the only customer in line waiting to pick up my car, and there was only one desk agent behind the counter serving the only other customer. I waited, and waited, and waited. No one acknowledged my unreasonable wait time, and the attendant acted put upon when I finally got up to the counter 10 minutes later.

Okay, I’ve vented; now on to the topic at hand—technology. With all the technology in business these days, can you be high-tech and still be “high touch?”

Technology has revolutionized the car rental industry. Think about where we’d be without rate management systems, handheld check-in devices and the ability to buy an auction car with a mouse click. No one is pining for the olden days of transcribing a reservation over the phone onto a handwritten contract.

For the small operator, technology has leveled the playing field. CarTrawler, a European GDS-type company focused strictly on car rental, is connecting RACs with new renters using a business model that works for the majors as well as mom and pops. And without car rental management systems from the likes of TSD and Bluebird, the independent operator wouldn’t be in business today.

However, for those who can remember (and don’t let nostalgia cloud your judgment): Is the customer rental experience better today than it was 30 years ago?

Things were slower, yet we knew no better, so we accepted it. In some senses, the decidedly low-tech operations of the day forced greater interaction with the customer.

Remember that all technology is processed through human interaction. You could have the latest technology to estimate the damaged vehicle on site, but if you don’t have a check-in agent with the communication skills to approach the customer about it, then the technology is wasted.

GPS tracking devices under the hood can locate your car and save your $20,000 asset. But you’ll rarely recover the lost rental revenue from the deadbeat customer—the frontline rep that is well trained to say no at the counter can prevent the fraud before the car leaves the lot. Key return kiosks are great to speed the return process, but shouldn’t replace the team member who says “Hi! How was everything with your rental?” and reviews the charges with the renter to avoid an overbilling surprise later.

Technology can be used to track the customer’s experience, but it can’t create a repeat customer. Automated surveys will mean little if those metrics are not acted on by your employees.

So where does that leave us? Is this stand of mine ironic, especially in this issue, our annual Technology Handbook?

My point is that when implementing new technology, factor all the costs upfront: what is a realistic assessment of how much training is needed, and the cost to train new employees down the line? What are the costs of upgrades, and how often can you expect them? What is the cost of extended service contracts? Finally, how precisely can you measure how the technology will improve productivity and increase profits?

In regards to my rental incident, the light-staffed rental counter was no doubt a sign of the times. However, a simple bit of human interaction (“I’m sorry for the wait and I’ll be right with you”) would’ve gone a long way towards erasing a bad experience, something no amount of technology could have.

Today, companies are making hard choices with their discretionary spending. Sometimes the choice is between raises and better training of employees or cutting staff and implementing a system to enhance productivity. I say default to the former. Be obsessed with “high touch.” This is especially true for the local operator, whose business model is not one that competes with the majors’ weekend specials and the anonymous Priceline booking.

High touch is your word, your unique selling point. Don’t forget it.


Chris Brown is executive editor of Auto Rental News. He can be reached at chris.brown@bobit.com.


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