Why Did Customer Satisfaction Drop in the Latest J.D. Power Survey?

At the 2013 Auto Rental Summit, Rick Garlick of J.D. Power and Associates (left) presented National Car Rental with the top prize from its 2013 North American Rental Car Satisfaction Study. Alan Levine of Enterprise Holdings (right) accepted the award.
At the 2013 Auto Rental Summit, Rick Garlick of J.D. Power and Associates (left) presented National Car Rental with the top prize from its 2013 North American Rental Car Satisfaction Study. Alan Levine of Enterprise Holdings (right) accepted the award.

According to recent J.D. Power North America Rental Car Satisfaction Studies, the domestic car rental industry has experienced an upward trend in rental car satisfaction since 2009 — until 2014.

In the 2014 survey, customers’ overall satisfaction with their rental car experience averaged 774 on a 1,000-point scale, a one-point drop from 2013 when satisfaction reached its peak since the study’s current methodology was adopted in 2006. What might account for the drop?

The study measures overall customer satisfaction with rental cars at airport locations by examining six factors (in order of importance): cost and fees, pick-up process, return process, rental car, shuttle bus/van and reservation process.

Decline Causalities

This year’s study highlights the fact that the price of a rental car had increased by an average of $5 per day from 2013. More troubling for rental companies, wait times are longer across the board compared with 2013, and timeliness of service has a direct correlation to satisfaction.

On average, customers wait 43.4 minutes in total for vehicle pickup and returns and shuttle bus/van rides, an increase of about three minutes over 2013.

In light of these concerns, beneath the headline of a drop in satisfaction, a few survey insights show a more complete picture, says Rick Garlick, global travel and hospitality practice lead at J.D. Power. “Despite the fact of longer wait times and higher costs, two of which are significant drivers of satisfaction — satisfaction has leveled off; it hasn’t taken a huge hit,” Garlick says.

The cost and fees category went down four points, shuttle bus and van five points. While these are directional declines, they’re not significant drops, Garlick says. Both the reservation and rental car categories showed gains, by six points and two points respectively.

“There is a better experience that people are getting that is offset and countered by the impact of increases in cost and fees and wait times,” Garlick says. “Satisfaction is really the same despite some challenging conditions for the customer.”

The higher number of recalls in 2014 may have had an effect on both wait times and higher prices. (Indeed, our monthly rate survey with data from Rate-Highway showed a spike in rates in July, when recalls hit a peak.) Both Hertz and Avis Budget Group have made public statements regarding how the grounding of recalled vehicles has led to a shortage of cars on rental lots. This would affect car pickup wait times, according to Garlick.

Garlick also points to satisfaction among business travelers, which has actually increased by one point — a good sign in that satisfaction among business customers has traditionally lagged behind that of leisure/personal customers. The gap in satisfaction between business and leisure customers has closed to a mere two points in this survey, compared to a 21-point gap in 2010. This gap contraction is driven in part by shorter wait times for business customers, an average of four minutes less than leisure customers.

"On average, customers wait 43.4 minutes in total for vehicle pickup and returns and shuttle bus/van rides, an increase of about three minutes over 2013."

Garlick contends that car rental companies’ initiatives to improve procedures to speed up the business travelers’ experience, such as counter bypass programs, are having a positive effect.

No Commodity

Garlick also points out survey data that discredits the notion that car rental is a commoditized industry driven by price, particularly for business travelers.

Some 36% of business customers say they “definitely will” rent from the same brand again, while 32% “definitely will” recommend the rental car brand. (Loyalty and advocacy drops into the 26%-27% range for leisure customers.)

Only 15% of business customers make their choice on price alone, while 10% indicate they don’t consider price at all.

Not surprisingly, overall satisfaction among the 19% of customers who select their rental car brand primarily for a lower price is markedly lower than those who choose their brand based on features and benefits. The satisfaction levels of low-price shoppers is consistently lower in every J.D. Power study, says Garlick.

Garlick also refers to an 80-point difference between the highest and lowest scoring car rental companies. “If [car rental] was just a commodity, you would not see that type of variability in the scores,” he says.

In an interesting side note, overall satisfaction is highest among Gen Y customers, or those born between 1977 and 1994, driven specifically by high satisfaction among Gen Y business customers.

It’s hard to pinpoint the drivers of increased satisfaction in Gen Y. Regardless, “The conventional wisdom that millennials are less happy, more difficult and can’t be satisfied is debunked by this data,” Garlick says.

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