Imagine a customer walks up to a hotel concierge and asks where he can rent a car for the day. The front-desk clerk immediately calls your car rental agency to see if there are any vehicles available, but you haven't yet opened for the day. The clerk tells the customer to stop back down at the desk in an hour. The customer never returns, having made arrangements with another car rental company or changed his plans altogether.

That's a lost rental opportunity for you. However, this scenario doesn't have to repeat itself. The next time it happens the hotel clerk won't need to call your agency but can head straight to the computer. The clerk can log-in to a Web-based system, view - in real time - which vehicles are available from your lot and book the reservation for the customer immediately. Once the reservation is booked, you'll be notified via e-mail or text message, allowing you to take the appropriate action.

Toronto-based software provider Rent Centric has created a Web-based referral system as an alternative to the traditional word-of-mouth method used by rental operators. This electronic version offers speed, convenience and a guaranteed reservation, three factors in neighborhood rentals that are often more important to customers than the price of the rental vehicle.

The solution, called the "Partner and Distribution Channel Interface," allows independent operators to offer their rental services via local businesses - hotels, body repair shops, or anywhere someone wants to rent a car - by giving them access to real-time rental rates, inventory and contracts. "[Local businesses] are able to see, instantly, what availability there is without picking up a phone and making it seem like they are a third-party company," says Alex Aryafar, Rent Centric's chief technical officer. More importantly, the solution gives non-rental businesses the authority to complete rental transactions for customers in a matter of minutes.

Delivering for Van À Louer

Ahmed Gohar, owner of Sherbrooke, Canada-based Van À Louer, understands firsthand how quick service can trump price. He says the Rent Centric solution helps him overtake his competition by putting him in a position to offer rentals immediately. "It's not even competing with the price anymore; it's competing with service. You're just closer to the customer when he needs [a vehicle]," he says.

Gohar says the Rent Centric software program has helped him manage his growing business, which he started in 2009 with two vehicles and now, has 35. Van À Louer, which means, "van for rent" in French, caters to tourists from France who rent minivans and take summer road trips through the Quebec province, to Niagara Falls or the neighboring United States. The company offers delivery and pickup service of its rental vehicles.

Gohar has recruited local tow-truck companies and small hotels in downtown Montreal to be a part of his electronic referral network. He says the software program allows his third-party partners to complete rental transactions without a hitch. "They are able to book a van in our system ...We just get a notification that we have a delivery of a van at this time, on this date and that's it," he says.


Creating a Seamless Partnership

Gohar's positive experience with Rent Centric's electronic referral system illustrates how a rental operator can seamlessly manage his or her referral partnerships. The rental operator acts as an "administrator" in the system and can customize rates and rental packages, as well as rights and privileges for each of his or her partners.

Third-party partners, or "referral agents," are given a unique URL, username and password that provide them access to the customized system through any Web browser. Through the Rent Centric-based interface, partners can handle the entire rental process for customers. They can see which vehicles are available, add new customers to the system, view previous customers' rental history, print rental contracts and process credit cards.

Referral agents also can track the commission fees they have earned through the referral process. In effect, referral partners become extensions of the rental operation's frontline team.

Once reservations are made through the Rent Centric system, the rental operator is immediately notified via text message or e-mail. "You are not going to be looking at your system 24/7, but your system will reach out to you because it is already SMS-integrated," says Michael Youssef, a Rent Centric executive. 

He adds that the Rent Centric system, which allows an unlimited number of referral agents, is ideal for an operator who uses a per-vehicle-pricing business model and wants to grow his or her inventory. The company does not charge a separate fee for each referral agent added to an operator's network, allowing it to be as varied and extensive as the operator chooses. "If they have a thousand users, it is not going to cost them a dollar more," says Youssef. "The [system] is cost effective for us, cost effective for our customers and it allows them to grow."

In addition, the system also keeps each referral agent's contact information, so an operator does not have to worry about keeping business cards or phone numbers.

Growing Go Cars

Nathan Withrington, president of San Francisco-based Go Car Tours, describes his business as "not a typical car rental company," but a hybrid of traditional bus tours and car rental services. Go Car provides GPS-guided high-end go-carts to tourists in San Francisco, San Diego and Miami as well as major cities in Spain. Visitors can customize their narrated tours based on points of interest, duration and language.

Since Go Car is a tourist-based business, Withrington relies on partnerships with local hotels, attractions and other businesses to draw customers. "We pay to be on the maps that the concierge hands out," he says.

Prior to using Rent Centric's Web-based platform, Withrington received reservations and referrals from hotels through a "cumbersome" process, involving the exchange of paperwork and cash deposits at concierge counters. The process wasn't foolproof and sometimes paperwork would get lost in transit, making it difficult for him to track which hotels made reservations or referrals. In addition, high-end hotels would get nervous that the cash transactions between visitors and the concierge desks projected the wrong image, Withrington says.

The Rent Centric system helped him eliminate both problems by tracking referrals and providing a seamless Web-based solution for third-party businesses to book reservations. The process saves Go Cars' and its third-party partners' time and allows them to meet customers' needs immediately.

Most importantly, the solution helps Withrington evaluate his partners and track their referral volume. "The Rent Centric platform allows us to manage relationships with concierges and track sales from various sales channels," he says. "This allows you to build relationships with individual concierges and hotels, see which ones are performing and which ones aren't performing."

The Rent Centric solution puts operators, such as Withrington, in control of their referral network and gives them the opportunity to grow their customer base, generate more rental revenue and stay one step ahead of their competition. "We have given [operators] a better tool, a better value proposition and a way to compete with larger competitors. Now it is up to them to go out and form those relationships," Rent Centric's Youssef says. 


Rent Centric's Electronic Referral System in Six Steps

Rent Centric's "Partner and Distribution Channel Interface" gives third-party businesses access to an operator's inventory and rates. They can also add new customers to the system, view previous customers' rental history, print rental contracts and process credit cards.

● Login to your Web-based Rent Centric "administrator" account from any Web-enabled device and create new "distributor" profiles.

● Configure "New Rental Rate Profiles and Commissions Schedules" to closely match the expected maximum potential earnings of the referral agent/vendor based on type of business operation and customer.

● Provide each referral agent with a login link, user name and password. The Web-based link is accessible from any Web-enabled device.

● Train referral agent on how to login, create reservations and contracts, process charges, and report business volume and commissions to you. Total training time required is less than 20 minutes.

● Use the Rent Centric administration interface to manage your distribution business, online reservations and operations activity.

● Receive notifications of business events via e-mail and text message when you are away from your computer, to know immediately when service action is required.