Your company has most likely received an e-mail or phone call - or several - from Christopher Elliott.
He is a journalist and consumer advocate for travel-related matters. He is National Geographic Traveler's ombudsman, a nationally syndicated columnist through Tribune Media Services and a columnist for MSNBC.com and The Washington Post. He has been featured as a travel expert on numerous television and radio networks.
Though car rental represents less than 10 percent of his coverage, Elliott has heard and acted on thousands of consumer complaints related to car rental companies. Here are his views on the car rental industry and how he believes it can improve.
ARN: How would you best describe what you do?
Elliott: I'm an advocate for travelers. My formal title is ombudsman, which is a Swedish word for "agent" - someone who is an intermediary between the public and the travel industry. I prefer the term reader advocate, because everyone seems to understand that. Basically, I'm here to help your customers.
ARN: How did you get into the area of consumer advocacy?
I was an editor for a travel trade publication back in the mid-90s, and I had an opportunity to see the way the business worked from the inside out. When customers began reaching out to me for help, I started posting their questions and my answers online. And then I started advocating for them. Next thing I knew, I had a syndicated column, a blog and an appointment as ombudsman for a national magazine.
ARN: How many customer service queries or complaints regarding car rental do you receive on a weekly basis? Do you respond to every complaint you receive? What percentage do you publish?
Elliott: I don't really track it in a scientific way, but if I had to guess, I'd say I get between 10 and 20 car rental requests in an average week. I try to respond to every one. I publish maybe one in 100 cases.
ARN: Where do you see the car rental industry failing in its customer service efforts?
Elliott: Let me start by saying I think the car rental industry does very well by its customers, especially when compared with other industry segments such as airlines and cruises. Most of the complaints I get are related to damage claims and surprise fees. So in those two areas, I think there's room for improvement.
ARN: In what areas does the car rental industry do well when it comes to customer service?
Elliott: That's a hard question to answer apart from my own experience, because I only deal with complaints. But generally speaking, I think the car rental industry delivers a reliable product at an affordable price.
ARN: In your estimation, how does the car rental industry stand in its customer service efforts compared to other industries?
Elliott: I think it's holding its own.
ARN: What are the generators for the majority of these complaints - is it due to the failure of a system or process, a lack of communication of rules and regulations, a personnel issue, an entrenched industry culture, or other?
Elliott: That's a tough one. With some companies, I really feel as if there's a corporate culture that tries to monetize damages - real or imagined - at the expense of customers and insurance companies, and at the expense of customer satisfaction. With others, there's a sense that it's perfectly acceptable to quote a low base price, minus taxes and fees and other mandatory surcharges, since the company doesn't get to keep those extra fees.
When you look at it from the industry's perspective, both of these practices make a lot of sense. But if you stop for a moment to see things from the consumer's point of view, you realize how wrongheaded they are.
ARN: What is the most frequent type of complaint you receive regarding car rental?
Elliott: These days I deal mostly with bogus damage complaints. You know, someone returns a car and an associate finds a scratch or dent under the bumper, almost as if they knew it was there. It's usually nonsense.
ARN: Do you feel your intervention as a consumer advocate and the threat of exposing the customer's complaint is a driving force in the car rental company's motivation to respond?
Elliott: That's one way of looking at it. Another way is that car rental companies care about their customers and are grateful when someone points out a way to improve service. Call me idealistic, but I think that car rental companies and I are on the same side: the customers'. We both want what's best for them.
ARN: What are your thoughts on car rental taxation and fees?
Elliott: I stand with the industry on this one. I don't believe in taxation without representation. The stadium fees have got to end. I believe a vast majority of the travelers whose interests I represent feel the same way.
ARN: Have you experienced any differences in service between the larger rental agencies and mom-and-pop outfits?
Elliott: Not really. I've seen good and bad companies on both sides.
ARN: How can rental operators help customers understand the additional taxes and fees (some of which they can't control, such as state-mandated fees) they are required to pay?
Elliott: Full disclosure is important. Don't wait until the end to tell a customer how much the car will cost. Don't reduce the all-in price to a barely-legible type size on your site. Be up front. Your customers will thank you for it. I think customers understand that there are taxes, and I also think they would support the car rental industry's efforts to limit the amount of car rental taxes that are imposed on them. This is an issue that really needs to be addressed in Washington.
ARN: If and when no-show fees are implemented, how do you think they will affect the rental customer?
Elliott: I think consumers would probably resist a no-show fee. Specifically, they would take their business to a company that didn't charge one. Look, travelers have fee fatigue, and don't you think car rental companies already have enough fees?