They are out there. Their voices and frustrations can be heard from your firsthand conversations with them. You have responded to countless e-mails and voicemails from them. You have read their Internet postings. You are aware of their frustrations through your team's perspective. You are measured on them, your compensation is tied into their feedback and they can drastically impact your operation. Who are they? They are angry customers.

Angry customers are becoming more of a daily reality within the car and truck rental industry.

Tighter fleets, lower staffing levels, older vehicles and rental facility construction-all compounded by higher car rental excise taxes-have created an environment of customer hostility and apprehension. Unfortunately, those operational challenges are out of the control of the average management team.

However, understanding some basic truths about angry customers and how to respond to them accordingly can be controlled by any management team. This knowledge will enhance your competitive advantage and will positively impact your bottom line.

1. They are not mad at you, they are mad at a situation.

Many frontline associates and managers take a customer's apprehension personally and feel that the customer's angst is aimed at them. When this happens it makes it very difficult for your frontline team to properly handle the customer's situation. It is critical that when frontline team members encounter an angry customer they ask themselves how they would respond in a similar situation if the roles were reversed.

Identify the most common situations that cause customer service levels to drop and prepare your team for them. In most cases these are: vehicle availability issues, long customer waits at the counter, changes in customer payment and qualification policies as well as vehicle cleanliness and mechanical issues. Providing your frontline team with additional management support at the counter will help your team stay positive and focused on the individual customer's needs.

Suggested technique: Don't allow your team to openly discuss negative customer situations in public areas such as the break room, behind the counters or in common areas of the operation. It is critical that they have an avenue to vent with their respective supervisor or manager but not with their peer group. Remind your team that in most cases angry customers do not return home or go about their busy travel day talking about the individual car rental associate, so they should not overly vent about the angry customers.

2. It is not always about money.

In many cases an inexperienced manager will automatically provide a discount to an upset customer without really knowing what his concern truly is or what he specifically wants. It is critical that frontline associates and managers take the time to listen to their customer before a discount is presented. The majority of customers want to be simply heard before they are "handled."

Suggested technique: When a service situation arises, coach your team to listen to the customer's concern and then respond with the question, "Mr. Smith, what will we have to do to ensure that you will be our customer again?" In many cases the customer will make a request that will cost the operator much less than an automatic discount.


3. It takes a team to properly handle angry customers, not just the nearest manager.

The rental experience for a customer does not begin as he presents a driver's license and credit card-it begins the moment he books the reservation, via an 800 number or the Internet, and ends as he gets off the airport shuttle to catch his return flight.

In an off-airport setting it begins with the phone call from the local body shop, local hotel, or transfer from the adjuster. Once a greater awareness about the length of the customer's experience is established, team members are more urgent about all of the little details that go into providing an efficient and comfortable shuttle ride, a pleasant counter experience, a professional vehicle inspection, a well-maintained and safe vehicle and a fast and friendly checkout process.

It is important to view your outside service team, your frontline associate team and your frontline management team as a group that is set in place to support a customer that has an issue.

Suggested technique: Establish a "S.T.E.P." program (Service Through Empowered Professionals) that clearly communicates what each team member is empowered with to make a customer satisfied. It also stresses the importance of moving the customer immediately to the first available frontline manager or supervisor if the customer's initial concerns are not addressed, or need further clarification. The most critical part of the "S.T.E.P." program is that the associate with the first point of contact with the customer personally escorts the customer to the frontline manager and introduces the two.

4. Not Every Customer Is An Angry Customer.

Believe it or not, not all flights are delayed, not all bags are lost, it doesn't rain every day-and certainly not all customers are angry. Frontline associates need to put this in perspective and focus on it. Unfortunately, they have a hard time doing this because they are so close to the experience and customer's angst. Every time one of your frontline associates openly complains about a customer or a situation, listen to the concern, make note of it and ask the associate if he or she has more happy customers or more upset ones.

For each angry and upset customer, a strong frontline associate will have thousands of great customers who will return to your brand. If your operation has frontline associates who swear that all customers are problematic and angry, it may be the case that your associates may be problematic-or angry themselves.

Suggested technique: Increase your team's empathy by asking them to create a timeline on how much effort and time it takes to get to their rental counter from the onset of the customer's travel day. Incorporate travel times to the customer's "home" airport, parking, pre-flight security, deplaning, baggage and busing to the car rental facility. Then ask them to add an eight hour work day to it!


5. To err is human, to recover is divine.

Every service-based business makes mistakes, even at great service brands like the Ritz-Carlton, Singapore Airlines, and Nordstrom. Believe it or not, they happen on a daily basis. It is how those companies respond to the mistakes that makes them great providers and endears them to their very loyal customer base.

Suggested technique: Conduct a monthly team meeting to review the location's top five complaints and the specific hours, shifts and days they are occurring. Similar to how law enforcement agencies analyze how crime peaks during certain times of the day, it is critical that the entire team understands when complaints are most likely to arise. Ensure that the frontline team understands why these service issues arise and how to explain them to the customer. Involving as many associates as possible in this monthly meeting will break down the "us versus them" and "it's management's fault" attitude.

Whether a service situation arose from overbooking, long line waits, mechanical issues, lower staffing or rate issues, it is critical that the management and frontline teams make the situation urgent enough to resolve it at the location level. Once a complaint escalates past the specific counter or location level the operator will spend twice as much time resolving it and a considerable amount in additional service reimbursements to correct the situation.

Suggested technique: Set a daily goal to have any additional customer requests or complaints resolved by the end of each business day.

In the last five years the industry has witnessed many changes. The evolution of customer service and the overall importance of the rental experience have changed as well. In this current economic climate it is critical that every customer leaves your operation as a satisfied customer. Implementing these techniques into your current service-based sales culture will not only shed light on the issues related to angry customers but help you gain control of their impact on your operation. 

Assessing Associates Who Have Angry Customers

If you have multiple associates who constantly have angry or problematic customers ask yourself the following leadership questions:

● Does the problematic frontline associate represent the brand and company well?

● Does the associate outperform his or her peer group in the areas of sales and service?

● Will this associate improve when given the training and resources needed to enhance the customer's experience?

● Knowing what you know about the associate now, would you rehire the associate today?

If the answer is no to all four of these questions, it is critical that your organization parts ways with that associate or manager in a fair and expeditious fashion. Now is the time to revamp and upgrade your team.

Ken Stellon is a frequent contributor to Auto Rental News and an annual presenter at the Car Rental Show. Stellon and his team at Frontline Performance Group can be reached at (800) 930-1214.