Many independent car rental agencies don't fully appreciate the opportunities that exist on the Internet. They view the Internet as simply a provider of reservations, with car rental services as a commodity. Though this is the case with global distribution system-powered Web sites like Expedia and Travelocity, it’s not the case with a rental company Web site.
In fact, the Internet offers a wealth of opportunities to increase productivity, improve brand image and recognition, and nurture customer loyalty and advocacy. The Internet can help create new business streams and cross-industry partnerships, and allow independents to compete head-to-head with the major national brands -- all while increasing reservations.
Many independents have an inadequate Web presence at best. In some cases, what's posted online actually hurts their business. They’ve lost opportunities because they don't fully understand what it means to do business on the Internet -- and don't recognize all the realities and challenges that exist.
Most independent car rental companies have simply created an order-taking system. They've presumed that all they need to do is post their basic contact, vehicle and rate information, and the customer will somehow feel compelled to make a reservation. This strategy fails to recognize the dynamics of how consumers use the Internet.
[PAGEBREAK] Why Doing Business on the Web Is Different
Doing business online is all about trust. As an online car rental agency, you’re asking consumers to trust their transportation requirements with an unseen (they’ve never been to your place of business), unknown (they've never talked to you before) business entity. It takes a giant leap of faith to fill in the reservation form, travel on an airplane from their hometown to your city, walk up to the counter and trust that the car they requested will be available at the expected rate.
The old adage that trust greases the wheels of commerce is even truer when you conduct business on the Internet. To reach this required comfort level, consumers now demand more information about the services they're researching online. This information is "perfect" when it addresses all the questions, concerns and perceived problems a consumer may have with an online reservation.
In other words, consumers are looking for their information -- information relevant to their particular needs. If your site doesn't provide this, they will continue searching until they find a site that does. That's when they’re more likely to interact with a site and make a reservation.
Of course, different consumers have different expectations. But it's safe to say that savvy consumers won't trust their transportation needs for an important business trip — or well deserved vacation -- to a company that fails to make the rental process simple and straightforward.
Simply posting locations, rates and vehicle information is both naïve and insensitive to customer needs. If a rental company can’t be bothered to anticipate a potential customer’s basic concerns, then how can that business expect the customer to trust it to follow through?
If a rental company can't be creative in demonstrating why a consumer should do business with it, then why should that consumer bother using its services? How much information a company reveals shows how sincere it is about valuing the customer's business.
Consumers have no cost for their research online so it’s quite likely that before they view your information, they’ve researched many of your competitors. Your content must answer the fundamental question of how your business is uniquely equipped to create the very best car rental experience.
In the real world, consumers are unlikely to go elsewhere once they've arrived at a rental counter. On the Internet, a few simple clicks of the mouse will take them to a competitor’s site. If your competitor's site can make the consumer feel comfortable and compelled to act, with a few more clicks you’ve lost hundreds of dollars of revenue. [PAGEBREAK]
What Web Visitors Want
According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which produces reports that explore the impact of the Internet on society, more than 68 million people go online every day. A total of 8% of these people look for travel-related information. That translates to 5.4 million people every day.
These Internet visitors can be categorized into several groups:
• Wanderers -- people who casually surf the Internet and are open to information that piques their interest.
• Seekers -- people looking for something specific. These people are more likely to go deeper into a site because they have a pre-established research goal.
• Action-Takers — people who know the exact task they want to complete on your site. These may be people who have decided to buy. They want quick, easy access.
Visitors to your site are looking for answers to the following fundamental questions:
• What vehicles are available for rent and how do they address my unique requirements?
• Are the rates charged for this vehicle appropriate and competitively priced?
• What is the availability of these vehicles and will my reservation be honored?
• What are the exact detailed procedures or requirements for reserving a vehicle with your company?
• What are all of the options available for damage waivers, supplemental insurance coverage and additional equipment?
• What will my experience be like when I go to pick up or drop off the vehicle? For example, will the facility be clean? Will the counter staff be professional and helpful?
• What makes your company more likely to provide a superior car rental reservation experience?
• Why should I trust your company to fulfill all of its promises and reserve with you?
• What do your past customers say about you?
• What other travel-related information, such as accommodations, air travel, local restaurant and event information, can you provide me?
• Do you offer an easy-to-use, real-time rate search and reservations system?
• Will the process of booking with your company be easy to understand and flexible enough for my needs?
• If I choose to do business with your company, will you guarantee my satisfaction?
It's a myth that consumers solely look for the lowest rates. Yes, price plays a role in the final decision. But trust, convenience and anticipation of a positive rental experience are what drive consumers to book online.
Most rental businesses carry the same types of cars, and the difference in rates is minimal. How a business differentiates itself becomes the most important aspect of its Internet presence.
[PAGEBREAK] What A Website Should Do
A Web site can be designed to turn Web visitors into rental customers. An effective site should contain detailed information about the company with emphasis on superior service, policies, unique value proposition, vehicles, community and industry involvement, and past customer experiences.
No one likes to be sold, but everyone loves to buy. An effective Web site builds rapport through a design that’s professional and current. It follows the standard guidelines of usability (see useit.com), and doesn't get in the way of the main message that sets the company apart from its competitors. You can establish rapport through the tone and language used in the copy, the use of testimonials, and photos of management and counter staff. Also important are photos of the rental location.
Users will always react to content first. If it's not relevant, then they don't care about any other aspect of the design. But a site’s overall visual design, including layout, typography, font size and color schemes, is extremely important. These factors contribute to the site's look-and-feel and to the customer's overall first impression.
To get consumers' attention, you need a distinct message about your company's unique value proposition. This should include a tag line that explicitly summarizes what your company does best. Are your rates the lowest guaranteed in New York City? Do you promise a no-hassle car rental experience or total pricing? What do customers "hear" when they arrive at your site?
Use graphics only to show real content, such as cars, staff and procedures. Don't rely on graphics for window dressing. Splashy Flash animations should be avoided at all cost, unless they demonstrate a process of some sort. Gratuitous eye candy is a complete waste of space. People don't visit your site to be entertained. They are there to solve a problem.
Next, the site must offer various logical paths, based on the level of contact the visitor has previously had with the site. If it's the consumer's first visit, he or she will most likely want to learn about the company and its history, locations, vehicles and policies. The visitor may not be interested in getting a rate quote right away. Potential customers may want to know how close the rental location is to the airport or major highways. They may want to read about your policies to ensure that you offer cash rentals or rent to customers under 25, for example.
They may also want to know what previous customers say about their rental experience and what travel industry partnerships the company has with hotels and restaurants.
Remember, persuading Web visitors to make a reservation involves using the site to interact with them to build rapport. They willingly make an investment of their time. You must convince them it will be well worth the time and effort. Your content must be thorough. Of course, your site should also pay special attention to the rates and reservation experience. Too many sites overlook the fact that all efforts in design and persuasion are aimed at getting the consumer to interact with the site. If a rate search or reservation process is not easy to use, intuitive and flexible, then all the efforts are in vain.
Customers don't want to go through the whole pre-qualifying process only to be offered a phone number. Once trust is established, the main goal of the consumer is to reserve the selected vehicle. This is where you can close the deal. If it's a pleasure to interact with your reservation system and consumers understand what they’re doing at all stages of the process, they will feel satisfied with their reservation experience. If not, then the process will be over before it begins.
[PAGEBREAK] Convincing Customers to Return
Web visitors rarely make a reservation the first time they visit a site. In fact, some customers may come back four to seven times before deciding to interact. The goal is to create compelling reasons for them to return.
Give consumers reasons to come back to your site. Obviously, the rapport you establish is important, but there are more concrete methods to ensure this happens. You may offer a rate-quote saving system, for example. Then, even if they don't make a reservation today, your backend system will store selected information in a cookie and it will be available at a later time.
You may offer a newsletter that informs consumers about upcoming promotions and specials. Your site may include scripts that allow users to easily bookmark your site for a future visit. A tell-a-friend script can also allow them to instantly e-mail a friend about your site.
Emphasize that your site offers value to users, and your services differ from those of your competitors. This helps persuade visitors to surf deeper into your site and keep returning.
[PAGEBREAK] Ask Customers for Feedback
Communication on your site should be a two-way street. In your confirmation e-mails, you should ask for and collect testimonials. You should invite as much feedback as possible. Invite users to rate their experience. Ask them what you can do to improve the process. E-mail customers a link to a special form on your site that asks critical questions about their rental experience. This collects invaluable information for your operation and its success.
You should also get customers' permission to continue to market to them. Generate return business by staying in touch using updates and special offers.
Web visitors want to know what your affiliations are. Is your company a member of the Better Business Bureau? Does the company belong to any industry or community organizations? Post all appropriate affiliation links or create a profile page expressing your commitment to the community. List quality resources for your visitors. Consumers want to know what kind of reputation you have. The more information you post, the more confident they'll feel.
Your Web site can also help establish your business in the local online community. If you offer travel-related information and list other services your potential customer may be interested in, the visitor will see you as a valuable member of the greater travel community. By offering reviews of other travel-related services, you give value to your visitors who may also want to know where to stay, eat and be entertained in your city.
Independent car rental companies can't afford to view their own Web site as an order-taking system. Consumers have strict requirements for what they want to know about a company before they will consider doing business with it.
You need to acknowledge that your business is unknown to most Web visitors, and establish trust and credibility with a broad base of information. Then, you better your chances for generating online customers.
Paul Allison is Internet sales and marketing manager at Car Rental Express (www.carrentalexpress.net), a British Columbia-based company that specializes in providing Web services for independent car rental operators. Car Rental Express also operates a consumer car rental site (www.carrentalexpress.com) that books reservations with independent car rental companies.