If independent car rental operators continue to ignore the critical importance of having a professional Web site, they could squander their greatest opportunity to ensure competitiveness for the future.

The Internet can provide operators new reservations from previously unreachable markets. The Web also can give operators direct access to customers to develop a lasting and continuous dialogue. Moreover, a Web site gives a company complete control of the brand message. By taking control of their online presence and using the unique features of Web communications, operators can help ensure a bright future. The can grow their customer base and improve their brand’s value.

If you asked independents what their Web site does for their business, most would say it provides online reservations. Most wouldn’t tell you anything more than that because that’s all they expect. Because of this limited perspective, many operators have actually reduced their chances of remaining competitive and prospering over the long term. They don’t fully understand what a Web site can do for their business.

The Internet has given rise to a number of ways for operators to acquire online reservations. These include the global distribution systems through sites like Orbitz, alternative brand-sharing sites like www.foxrentacar.com, and consumer comparison sites like www.carrentalexpress.com. These online models supply significant streams of reservations to the independent car rental operator with varying degrees of risks and reward. The mistake that most independents make is that they become over-dependent on these channels for their online presence. Operators can actually set themselves up for failure on the Internet if they fail to base these legitimate revenue stream initiatives around a strong proprietary Web site and marketing strategy.

Use Your Brand’s Web Site to Create Customers
First and foremost, it’s important to understand that the Internet is a unique communications medium. It’s unlike other communication formats such as broadcast radio, television, newspapers and Yellow Pages advertising — they only distribute information from the publisher to the consumer. The Internet can distribute information, collect it and allow consumers to publish in response to this information — all at the same time. Compared to other media channels, the Internet is more like face-to-face communication. This characteristic, combined with an audience of over 750 million people online, creates a formidable communications medium in which to conduct business.

One of the world’s leading authorities on business management, Peter F. Drucker, once said, “The purpose of a business is to create a customer.” Many car rental operators assume that getting a new rental booking is like creating a customer. But quality customers offer more than that. They are loyal and want to do business with you again and again. They will recommend your company to friends and offer constructive feedback to help improve your services.

Whether operators want to believe it or not, Web visitors researching the Web are intent on finding a company they can feel confident doing business with. Yes, they’re looking for a good vehicle, fair price and agreeable terms. But more importantly, they want to trust the company they choose to purchase these services from. A savvy car rental operator understands this and makes every effort to address these issues and connect with the visitor.

Nationally syndicated columnist and sales trainer Jeffrey Gitomer has written a book titled, “Customer Satisfaction Is Worthless, Customer Loyalty Is Priceless.” The book is based on the premise that making sales and satisfying customers with your service isn’t enough. You need consumers to make an emotional connection with your brand. Otherwise, they have no reason to recommend your business to friends and family, and they’re still open to trying your competitors. If you fail to connect, you fail to reap the lasting benefits of a loyal customer.

Many companies create loyal customer bases by offering valuable consumer experiences in the offline world. But Internet customers are more desirable because of their choice to use e-mail and your Web site. They come into the relationship fully accepting of the idea that you’ll continue to communicate with them in the future. This enables you to service and nurture the value of the business/consumer relationship and realize the true long-term value of that customer. Independents who believe that accepting reservations is the sole goal of an Internet presence may be limiting their own prospects for growth. [PAGEBREAK] Control and Promote Your Brand’s Message
Your Web site gives you the opportunity to both control and promote your brand’s message. You can create and present effective marketing collateral that will help convince consumers that your company is legitimate and worthy of their business.

When you’re an independent in a market with nationally known brands you need all the competitive advantage you can get. With your Web site you have the means to differentiate yourself from your competition. You can carve out a portion of the market by expressing why your company is best equipped to respond to the car rental needs of potential customers.

What are you doing in the offline world to capture business? Try to articulate that on the Web site. Are you the most flexible with payment options and special requests? Are you servicing a specific segment of the market, such as long-term rentals, more aggressively than your competitors? Are you known for delivering when other companies cannot?

Your Web site needs to reflect the personality of your company. There are reasons you got into this business initially. Somewhere along the line you believed you had a better way. Sometime in the past you decided you had something more to offer car rental consumers. Tap into that, get the message out and watch your business prosper.

On systems like a GDS and an alternative brand site you are essentially reduced to promoting the vehicle, availability and rate. If you compete against a well known brand and the same vehicle model is available on the same dates at approximately the same rate, who has a better chance at getting the business? The well branded company will get the business, especially in systems that offer consumers only the most basic information and treat the reservation as a commodity.

But you can cultivate your brand by presenting valuable information about your company, your services and the cities you do business in. Then you’ve created brand equity and, when the decision boils down to vehicles and rates, you’ll have a much better chance at obtaining the business. Until you have this brand equity, you can’t realistically expect any level of success on the GDS. In fact, many independents will admit to being under-whelmed by their success on these systems.

Alternative branding sites bring you business because you’re essentially an agent supplier of the better known, well respected brand. The customer’s decision to rent is based on the reputation of the main company, not yours. You’ve essentially supplied the reservation on behalf of the larger brand. This can be a good source of sales but will have less of an impact on the long-term success of your business if you neglect your own company’s online presence. A renter’s first connection and lasting impression may be that they’ve rented from the main brand company — not your company. You don’t benefit beyond the initial reservation.

Independent car rental agencies will have various degrees of brand awareness and, in turn, brand equity built up with consumers depending on size, years in business and the amount of money they’ve spent on marketing online and offline. By investing in a professionally designed site and marketing program, you can quickly and economically elevate your brand no matter its current status.

There is also the risk that the business coming from these third-party sources can be cut off at someone else’s whim. If you’re relying on these sources exclusively, your company is vulnerable to any policy changes that could drastically reduce your revenue potential. The best defense is a good offense. This includes a high level of diversified online marketing tactics anchored by a strong Internet e-commerce site.

Stay Connected With Your Customers
Every customer you secure through your Web site should be worth approximately three to five times the initial value for the lifetime of that customer. If you commit to developing an ongoing relationship with the client using e-mail and your Web site — and find creative ways to communicate with the customer in the future — there are at least three ways to achieve these numbers.

Many of your customers will require a car rental again in the near future for the same reason they rented from you in the first place. Maybe their company headquarters is in your city and they regularly attend meetings there, or maybe they have family members they visit in your city. If you can get their permission to e-mail them in the future, you’ll have a chance to earn their business again. The cycle may be annual or bi-yearly or even longer. But if they need to rent again and you just recently sent an e-mail, you will likely get their business. The e-mail must be relevant to their needs and can be as simple as a friendly reminder of your company’s sincere appreciation for their business and desire to serve them again in the future.

Every one of your customers has an extensive social network. You can generate new business by enabling these customers to easily and seamlessly make referrals. People love to recommend companies they’ve had good experiences with.

In the thank-you e-mail you send when your customers return their rental, ask them to recommend you to two friends. You can do this using a simple script commonly available on the Internet. If you’re not sending out thank-you e-mails, you’re missing a tremendous opportunity to create good will with your customers.

If your customers are willing to tell their friends about you directly, perhaps they’re willing to post positive feedback on your Web site that can be read by other potential customers. Again, this can be done with a simple script or with e-mail. The result can be powerful content that will resonate with potential customers and create substantial new business. [PAGEBREAK] Identify Your Customers
Your Web site should provide a detailed look into the demographic makeup of your online customers and allow you to more effectively target your audience. By analyzing your sales data you should be able to calculate such demographic information as:

  • percentage of males
  • percentage of females
  • average age
  • geographical region
  • country, city and state
  • percentage of first-time renters
  • how many times they rent per year
  • average rental length
  • average distance traveled
  • average amount spent on rental
  • most requested vehicle.


    This information is invaluable because it allows you to refine both your content and marketing efforts. It can help you achieve higher rates of converting traffic into reservations simply because you know who you’re addressing with your Web site content.

    This will help you derive valuable information about customer requirements and target your marketing appropriately. For instance, if your Web site content addressed issues involved in renting a passenger van for church group outings, you could get a sense of how popular that use of the vehicles would be and then use that information to target specific churches and organizations.

    A potential Web visitor is motivated by a number of different factors. A good site can differentiate these by offering appropriate content. Customers might have specific policy or vehicle requirements, or they might be looking for the most flexible payment method. If your Web site seems to address a wide range of questions and situations, you’ll be seen as valuable.

    Reduce Sales and Support Costs
    Time is money, and your Web site can reduce the amount of time your staff spends on the phone or at the counter. You can accomplish this by taking careful consideration of the most common questions and scenarios your staff encounters before, during and after a reservation. Posting this information on your Web site in an easy-to-understand, creative manner will benefit your company. Web visitors will be able to educate themselves regarding the more mundane aspects of the rental process. Your Web site should feature as much rental sales and support information as possible.

    Your Web site should also be promoted on your telephone answering system and all offline advertising and promotional materials. In this way, your Web site acts as a virtual agent, qualifying and persuading potential customers. When they actually connect with you in the real world they then have a sense of who you are and an idea of how they will be treated.

    Support Your Yellow Pages Advertising
    Your ad should promote your Web site as well as your business. Most operators spend thousands of dollars per month on their Yellow Pages advertising but almost nothing on their own Web site. But more and more consumers visit a company’s Web site before they consider calling. Buyers are hunting for information that can assist them in making a purchase. Your Yellow Pages ads will be even more effective if you encourage consumers to visit your Web site and the content addresses their questions and concerns.

    A professional Web site business should be an essential part of an independent car rental agency’s operation. It should be seen as a fully functioning extension of your business — open 24/7, creating and supporting customers by communicating your unique business value.

    You can extend your reach on the Internet by getting involved with as many business-generating models as possible — but only after you’ve firmly established your business within a professionally designed, marketed and managed e-commerce Web site.

    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.