International Franchise Systems (IFS) uses its recorded rental agent calls to coach call center agents and franchise owners. IFS can monitor these calls through a remote call-forwarded phone number. Photo courtesy of IFS.

International Franchise Systems (IFS) uses its recorded rental agent calls to coach call center agents and franchise owners. IFS can monitor these calls through a remote call-forwarded phone number. Photo courtesy of IFS.

In today’s rental process, a customer’s experience still often starts with the initial phone call. It can set the tone for a car rental company’s customer service, the revenue for the rental, and whether the customer will return.

What are the components of good (and bad) calls?

A panel seminar at the 2016 International Car Rental Show shed light on the answer by analyzing actual rental agent calls with customers, with the goal of giving attendees and their staffs the tools to improve their phone skills — to book the reservation and win a repeat customer.

The calls were evaluated by Jason Manelli, vice president of marketing for International Franchise Systems (IFS), the franchisor and corporate parent of the Rent-A-Wreck, Priceless, and Nextcar rental brands; Jon Dill, contact center director of IFS; Ian Kusinitz, owner of Empire Rent A Car; and Doris Morningstar, senior media consultant at Hibu, an online marketing agency.

Here is a compendium of their assessments and recommendations.

Good Calls

  • A positive tone sets the stage.

A rental agent’s tone can make or break a call. A pleasant and enthusiastic tone communicates a positive attitude to customers, fosters engagement, and builds a relationship. This should go without saying, but its importance is often overlooked. Based on tone, a customer can tell whether an agent is willing to help, the panelists said.

After listening to a call, Dill pointed out how the agent kept the conversation on a positive note with wording like “How does that sound to you?”

“She wanted to be talking to the customer, and you could hear it in the tone of her voice,” said Dill.

Remember, a customer can hear a smile over the phone. “Tone is an underappreciated and a nuanced thing to manage and train,” said Manelli.

  • Identifying repeat customers enables higher sales.

Asking if the caller is a repeat customer can help make the sale easier. According to Kusinitz, identifying repeat customers allows agents to pull up their rental history to gauge how much they’d be willing to spend for the next rental. If the customer upgraded previously, remember to present upgrade opportunities this time, said Kusinitz.

After asking if the caller is a repeat customer, it’s important to acknowledge his or her loyalty to the company. In one of the calls, the panelists praised the agent who said “welcome back” when the caller indicated that she had rented there before.

Morningstar recommends thanking repeat customers for their business. “It’s hard to get a new client, so make sure you keep your previous clients loyal to you,” she said.

  • Mentioning specials incentivizes immediate (and possibly longer) bookings.

Bringing up discounts or specials encourages the renter to book now. If the caller wants the vehicle for more than a few days, mentioning a weekly special could incentivize a longer rental. “With that class, we have a weekly special with unlimited mileage. How does that sound?”

“She mentioned the weekly special and had the total added up instead of giving the daily rate,” said Morningstar.

When the agent gives a total price for the week instead of breaking it down by the day, it helps to put the customer in those terms.

  • Inquiring about new reservations leads to new business.

“Do you have any additional questions or any other future reservations for me?” asked an agent in one of the calls.

Morningstar liked that the agent was thinking ahead to try to get another sale. “I don’t hear this in many calls,” she said, adding that this gets the caller thinking about upcoming plans. “The agent might as well book the reservation then and there and plan ahead.”

During the seminar, panelists (l to r) Doris Morningstar of Hibu, Ian Kusinitz of Empire Rent A Car, and Jon Dill of International Franchise Systems rated several recorded sales calls. Photo by Amy Winter-Hercher.

During the seminar, panelists (l to r) Doris Morningstar of Hibu, Ian Kusinitz of Empire Rent A Car, and Jon Dill of International Franchise Systems rated several recorded sales calls. Photo by Amy Winter-Hercher.

Phone Call Don’ts

  • Rushing the customer erodes established goodwill.

At the beginning of a call, an agent laughed at the caller when she mentioned that she needed a car within an hour or two.

“That’s not a good way to develop a relationship with the customer,” said Dill. “The agent was rude by laughing at the customer.”

In the same call, the agent rushed the caller when she was trying to look up her insurance information, peppering her with questions while she looked for her insurance policy.

Once the caller found her insurance policy number, the agent interrupted her and told her to just bring the information when she came into the office.

  • Waiting on getting the caller’s number risks losing the reservation.

During one of the recorded calls, the agent not only didn’t book a reservation over the phone but he also never asked for the caller’s name or number. He just told the caller to come into the office.
Caller: “I’ll be there in about 40 minutes.”

Agent: “OK. See you in a bit.”

What if the customer never showed up? If the agent doesn’t have a contact number, he or she can’t call to confirm that the potential customer is going to come in and book the reservation.

Additionally, if an agent gets the caller’s name at the beginning, he or she can use the name throughout the conversation.

“From the research that I’ve done, using someone’s name three times in a conversation really helps to build rapport,” said Morningstar.

  • Handling the phone sale and the counter customer is a disservice to both.

Answering phone calls while helping customers at the counter is too distracting, our panelists said, because agents can’t give their full attention to both customers at the same time.

“It becomes problematic,” said Kusinitz, explaining that the customer at the counter is today’s business, while the person on the phone represents future business. “You can’t be doing both at the same time.”

During a call, the agent was preoccupied with helping a person at the counter when she answered the phone. She ended up losing the sale on the phone.

This reinforces the need for the agent to get the caller’s number. If it gets busy at the counter, “The agent then says, ‘I have a customer at the counter right now and I would love to give both of you 100% of my attention. Can I give you a call back?’” said an audience member during the seminar.

“That way, both customers hear that they are important to the company. The agents end up getting the sale because they called the customer back.”

  • Don’t muddy the sales pitch by giving too much information.

During a call, the agent overly explained the deposit requirements. “The agent gave the customer too much information,” said Dill. “The deposit requirement is your company’s policy and you don’t have to explain every detail.”

Dill also commented on how an agent provided too much qualifying information before discussing the rate. The agent wasn’t selling the customer; the customer only wanted to know specific details like the price, the number of miles included, and the benefits and features of the vehicle.

“The agent needs to paint the experience for the customer,” said Dill. “The customer only knows what we tell them. When they call the next company and they explain it better, the customer will probably book with them.”

"This Call May Be Monitored."

These days, rental companies use digital marketing and online booking engines (such as Expedia and Travelocity) to get reservations, but the phone is still an important sales tool.

“Many reservations start online, but customers end up calling the rental companies on the phone,” said Jason Manelli, vice president of marketing at International Franchise Systems (IFS), during the ICRS seminar. “Therefore, many reservations are converted over the phone.”

Based on research by IFS, search-referred customers choose the phone instead of making an online reservation by a 15 to 1 margin. Advertisements on mobile devices make calling a one-touch action.

Working with online marketing agency Hibu, IFS is able to monitor rental agent calls through a remote call-forwarded phone number. Hibu’s online and search-based marketing platform features a call recording component.

During each customer call, a disclaimer is played: “this call may be monitored and recorded for quality insurance and training purposes.” As long as this is disclaimer is played to both parties, phone recordings are legal. To protect the identities of the customers recorded in these calls, IFS uses audio editing software to remove identifying information.

“We use these recorded calls for coaching call center agents and coaching franchise owners,” said Manelli. “Hearing yourself on a recorded call is like looking into an audio mirror. You never know how you sound until you listen to what the customer is saying and how you responded.”

From a management perspective, “Listening to the phone calls gives valuable insight into what customers are asking about and how our agents are responding,” said Manelli. “You can also listen for key words that are mentioned in phone calls.”

IFS also uses its phone data to identify trends, according to Manelli.

IFS ascertained that call center agents and franchise operators were having difficulty distinguishing between prepaid debit cards and bank-issued debit cards over the phone. In response, the company implemented a procedure for qualifying renters with prepaid debit cards, Manelli said.

IFS also pays attention to how customers react to certain makes and models and adjusts its fleet buy accordingly. “If you hear over and over that a certain make and model is undesirable and another is in demand, that tells you a lot about what you should and should not be fleeting,” Manelli said.

About the author
Amy Hercher

Amy Hercher

Former Senior Editor

Amy is a former senior editor with Bobit Business Media's AutoGroup.

View Bio