How important is customer service today?

In an industry quickly becoming commoditized, the difference between smaller franchisees and independents from the majors is customer service. An owned and operated location affords frontline staff the flexibility to go out of their way to help the customer and be better positioned for a “high-touch” transaction.

The philosophy that “customer service is the new marketing” is also relevant to the local operator, especially in an era of nonexistent advertising budgets. From sending birthday cards to frequent renters to printing out MapQuest directions, here are some low- or no-cost ways to build relationships and gain repeat customers.

Arthur Vercollone, Verc Rentals (Weymouth, Mass.)

• We print up wall calendars with classic cars on them and give them to the body shops and mechanics. There’s space to write on them, which helps the shop guys keep track of stuff. They cost us 70 cents each and it really helps market our business.

Jack Vercollone, Verc Rentals (Plymouth, Mass.)

• We run new cars now. It improves our image, and customers are happier in the car. Our numbers were dropping as a used car company. It costs a little more on interest and depreciation but significantly less on maintenance. When we were running used cars we had to be significantly cheaper than the name brand competition — now we can be in the same price range, or a little lower.

Wendy Livy, U-Save Auto Rental (Ames, Iowa)

• We’re also a used car dealership. When we sell a car in the winter, we give customers an ice scraper with the U-Save Auto Rental logo on it. It costs us 52 cents.

• We have a frequent renter card that gives a free rental after 10 rentals.

• We send all of our frequent renters a birthday card.

• If we see that a customer’s license is coming up for renewal soon, we’ll mention that to them.

Bill Landstra, Rent-a-Wreck (San Leandro, Calif.)

• There is such phoniness to customer service these days: “Your call is important to us; press one or press two.” My angle is being a human being instead of a clerk. I know how to listen and make decisions based on who I’m talking to. We’re not corporate. If you ask me something that takes a little more effort, I can do it because I’m not locked behind the counter. You’re dealing with a human being who owns the business. I’ve actually said, “Thanks for feeding my kids,” and it makes them grin.

Kevin Damrell, Budget Rent A Car (Richland, Wash.)

• Greet customers the second they walk through the door, even before the door closes behind them. Make them think they’re the first thing on your mind.

• There are little extras we do with truck rentals, such as telling them to wait a minute to let the glow plugs warm up on the diesel trucks. We’ll help them adjust the mirrors and generally make sure they are comfortable before they drive off.

• We have to work harder on communicating our policy of hourly late charges. If we did a better job up front, it would head off complaints down the road.

[PAGEBREAK] Dan Collins, Payless Car Rental (Kansas City, Mo.)

• I always thank the military for their service, including spouses and veterans.

• Leisure rentals may have dropped, but people still travel for weddings and funerals. If they offer that they’re in Kansas City for a funeral, I’ll say, “I’m sorry for your bereavement.”

• This time of year, the windshield washer fluid will freeze over, which makes them think that there isn’t any fluid in there. I’ll tell them up front that we’ve tested it and filled it, and it may freeze up on you. Windshield wipers will freeze up and stop working too. We warm them up with our gloved hands to get them working properly. We’ll tell the customer to do the same.

• When lines form, I’ll get out from behind the counter to greet them.

• Wherever they are in the rental process, I’ll always communicate with the customer that “I’m here to help you.”

Joe Lauer, San Clemente Auto Rental (San Clemente, Calif.)

• The biggest thing is patience with the customer. If they’re having a bad day, we respond in a quiet, understanding, listening voice to slow down their anxiety a little bit. If you come across as stressed as they are, you’re not helping the situation.

Nick Mariano, Priceless Rent-A-Car (Yorkville, N.Y.)

• Customer service is not complicated. Treat them like human beings, and how you would want to be treated. Our business is warranty and insurance replacement. The dealership is rarely done with the paperwork for the warranty when we show up to drop off the rental. Even if a dealer told us they’d bring the customer over, I wouldn’t allow them to. We always come and get them.

• The customer is usually not too happy their car broke down. For the dealer’s sake, we’ll try to cool off the customer. The dealers have recognized this and appreciate it.

Dale Duff, Hertz (Whitefish, Mont.)

• We’re next to a ski resort in Whitefish, and we’re a small, intimate community. People look forward to coming here, which makes our job easier. We make sure to meet and greet them with a buoyant spirit.

• In the winter season, we’ll have the car running and warmed up when they walk out to it.

• We have the same customers who come back year after year, and we have long-time staff that greets them year after year. We’re the right size for that intimate service relationship.

Paul Dumont, Horizon Rent a Car (North Hollywood, Calif.)

• The shuttle ride to the repair shop is an excellent time to market to a potential leisure renter. When I was a shuttle driver, I’d talk about renting a convertible during good weather or a 10-passenger van for a sports team. The same works for car sales.

• We’ve comped rentals to body shop and service repair owners.

• When a car is returned, the inclination is to get it washed right away. But if a customer has stuff in the car and needs a ride to the repair shop, we’ll deliver them in the same car so they don’t have to transfer everything to another shuttle car.

Tim McCoy, Sunshine Rent A Car (Palm Beach, Fla.)

• I’ll have the trunk open on their rental when they arrive.

• I ask them if they’ve come down here to do a little “defrosting” and get people to talk about themselves.

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Customer Service: This is How it’s Done

Sharon Faulkner is a Dollar and Thrifty licensee operating out of Albany, N.Y. A longtime board member of the American Car Rental Association and its predecessor, Faulkner has been instrumental in representing auto rental industry concerns legislatively, including vicarious liability reform and resolving New York’s CDW issue.

Here Faulkner provides some of her customer service wisdom collected throughout her many years in the industry. “I know, all this sounds like a lot,” she writes. “But to keep your customer coming back, a lot is always better than just good enough.”

• We always review all the reservations for the day to see if any of the customers have rented from us previously. If they have, we greet them with: “So we last saw you on such-and-such a date, and you rented a midsize. I see you booked a compact today—will that be comfortable for you or would you prefer the midsize?” It gives us a chance to let them know we remember them (even when we may not actually recognize them) and it also gives us the opportunity to upsell. We always run tight utilization, so knowing how many re-rents we have also helps us know who is more likely to show up and not be part of our 25 percent no-show factor.

• We always have their car warmed up if it’s cold, and we always have their vehicle cooled down if it’s hot. We have it pulled up with the trunk lid up and have the shuttle driver put their luggage in the trunk for them. We always leave the trunk lid open so they can check to see that all of their luggage is there.

• We offer prepaid fuel 20 cents cheaper than the pump price, knowing that it is difficult to return with a completely empty tank.

• We greet each customer by name (the shuttle driver lets us know who he is bringing over from the airport).

• We meet each customer outside when they are returning and give them a receipt without requiring that they come back inside the office before going back to the airport.

• For customers who have been renting from us month after month, we make sure their contracts are always done and their car is clean and ready to go. They always come back because they never wait in a line for any reason.

• We order free tourist maps from all the connecting states to New York and give them to any customer who asks for directions to those states. We have detailed maps of the local area with complete instructions of where to return the car that includes the exact address for their GPS with our local phone number. We also print MapQuest or Google directions for anyone who needs them because there are still people who don’t want to try a GPS.

• We have the customer service representative’s first name on the rental agreement for the opening and closing of the contract for the customer’s convenience if they have a question.

• We print the weather report each morning and post it on our rental counters so people can plan their trip and sometimes upgrade into an SUV or larger car during inclement weather. • We contacted the local hotels close to our office and arranged a discounted rate for any customer who books a room using our name as a referral. We don’t get any “kickback”; we just want our customers to benefit from the association. We have their brochures available in the lobby.

• We also contacted locally owned restaurants that supplied us with copies of menus and/or discount coupons so we can refer our customers to unique places rather than the same restaurants they see wherever they travel. It’s a small touch that is really appreciated.

• We also have a vending machine that has soft drinks and snacks for their trip at a lower price. We don’t take a percentage; we just want the customer serviced.

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