Rental companies interact with customers at various times during the rental process. Each engagement presents an opportunity to either solidify the customer relationship or allow a breakdown in the customer experience.
When these touch points become “pain points,” customers often go elsewhere, and their negative reviews could impact your company’s brand reputation.
Despite common “pain points,” the rental car experience continues to improve each year — customer service is getting better, according to data from J.D. Power & Associates’ North American Rental Car Satisfaction Survey.
In the 2016 survey, overall rental car satisfaction averaged 804 index points, a 6-point improvement from 2015. The data looked at six factors: costs and fees; pick-up process; return process; rental car; shuttle bus/van; and reservation process.
Overall satisfaction is higher among business travelers (806) than leisure travelers (798), but satisfaction among “bleisure” renters (a combination of business and leisure travel) is the highest (836) among the three groups.
How should these positive trends be interpreted? And as an operator, how can you strive to improve the customer experience?
We talked with two customer service experts to put together a list of guiding principles that can help drive positive customer interaction.
A Smile Goes a Mile
Rental car employees smile less often than employees in both the hotel and airline industries. For the rental car industry, smiling employees had a slight uptick from 2015 but the numbers are still low compared to the other travel industries.
Rental car customers were asked, “Did the staff greet you with a smile?” According to the survey, customers said 83% of rental car shuttle drivers smiled, 81% of rental counter staff (at pickup) smiled, 76% of rental car counter staff (at return) smiled, and only 69% of rental car exit gate personnel smiled.
This compares with the hotel and airline sectors, in which 93% of customers were greeted with a smile by staff members, according to the J.D. Power survey.
“Three out of 10 exit gate personnel don’t smile as customers exit the lot,” says Rick Garlick, J.D. Power’s global travel and hospitality practice lead. “Take that extra time to smile. It might seem so simple, but it makes a difference with customers. The more interactions where you have smiling people, the more you drive satisfaction.”
Mary Jane Wells, a customer service consultant with 25 years of experience in the travel industry, encourages rental companies to train frontline staff to smile and recognize them when they do.
“The other travel industries are better about teaching positivity and smiling to staff members,” says Wells. “Rental companies need to make smiling and a positive attitude part of their training programs. This will be a positive impact for the customer’s experience.”
Don’t Slow Them Down
Customer satisfaction has improved in business travel. One reason is that many rental companies have found ways to expedite the rental experience. However, the greater amount of interaction usually equals greater loyalty and satisfaction, according to Garlick.
So, how does a rental company balance the idea of interaction — leading to greater satisfaction — with getting people moving quickly?
The idea is to create meaningful interactions without slowing people down, says Garlick. He suggests providing assistance without intruding.
According to the survey, examples that received high satisfaction ratings included express/counter bypass service, an automated check-in kiosk machine, and a dedicated member program counter.
“When I rent for business, I don’t care if there are scratches on the car since I’m covered by my company policy,” says Garlick. “But the rental company will take you through the whole vehicle walk-around. I prefer the brand that lets me jump in a car and go.”
Wells refers to it as interacting with customers but removing obstacles. In order to remove obstacles, it’s important for rental companies to know their customers. Are they leisure, business, or both?
She also suggests measuring customer effort. A company can measure its Customer Effort Score by mapping out all the different touch points and seeing where more effort is needed. “The more effort customers go through, the more likely they won’t be loyal to your brand,” says Wells.
When it comes to customer effort, it’s about avoiding the next potential issue, according to Wells.
“Find out about the top 10 issues that customers call about, ask questions about, or complain about,” says Wells. “Then rental companies can proactively teach their staff to be armed with this information and how to bring it up.”
Respond to Social Media
Thanks to social media, the customer experience doesn’t end once the vehicle is returned, when customers will comment on social media about their experiences and ask questions.
According to the J.D. Power survey, 25% of renters have posted comments to social media. Of those renters, 77% expected a response from the rental car company. The good news is that 69% of renters said they received a response from the car rental company.
“A company’s satisfaction increases when it responds to social media comments,” says Garlick. “By engaging customers online, you can enhance their experience.”
If a company opens a social media channel, it needs the resources to check the page and respond to comments regularly, according to Wells. In addition to being proactive, it’s also important to understand what to say on social media.
“If people are complaining, there are certain things you want to take offline,” says Wells. “You can apologize for that experience and say, ‘I’ll give you a call.’”
During the vehicle pickup process, employees can offer directions or suggestions about local destinations.
Providing entertainment and dining options ranked the highest in satisfaction, according to the survey.
Other ideas that improved customer satisfaction included offering location of the nearest gas station or directions to a specific location, or a map of the area.
“Offering something at the point of pickup gives about 100 points extra in customer satisfaction,” says Garlick.
Wells recommends knowing your customers to help determine what extras they would appreciate. The business customer won’t likely want the same things that a leisure customer would like.
“Business travelers may like local dining recommendations since they could be taking a client out to dinner,” says Wells. “A leisure traveler may prefer entertainment options or a map of the area.”
Upgraded Features Enhance the Experience
Offering customers upgraded features also enhances their rental experience. According to the survey, the highest satisfaction ratings went to in-car navigation, climate-controlled seats, in-car satellite radio, and keyless start. Other upgraded features included Bluetooth, power seats, and miles-to-empty indicator.
“Make sure that customers are aware of the extra options,” says Garlick. “The more they purchase, the happier they are.”
If you ask your customers what features they like, you can match the vehicle’s features to what your specific customers need, Wells says.
Make it Easy
For fleet vehicles featuring newer technology, it’s important to help customers understand how to use them.
“Every new technological feature also creates a potential point of dissatisfaction if the customer can’t figure out how to use it,” says Garlick.
This tip goes along with making it easier for the customer. According to the survey, the highest satisfaction rating (864) went to customers who described the ease of operation of vehicle features/amenities as “very easy.” Those who answered “somewhat easy” gave an overall satisfaction rating of 763, while the lowest satisfaction rating (656) represented customers who said it was “somewhat/very difficult” to operate vehicle features.
“There are a lot of new technologies that are great for new cars,” says Wells. “But it’s frustrating not knowing where things are located or how to use certain features.”
A car rental company could prepare a Q&A on vehicle features by asking its team members for the most common questions heard from customers.
“After you receive a new vehicle model, conduct a fleet meeting with the staff so they are familiar with the cars and can answer questions from customers,” says Wells.
Educate on Fuel Prepay
If your company offers an option to prepay fuel, make sure that your customers are aware of the advantages of prepaying.
When customers take advantage of prepaying for fuel, they are about 100 points more satisfied (836), according to the survey. For customers who returned the vehicle full by refueling themselves, the overall satisfaction rating was 790, while the lowest rating (763) represented renters who returned the vehicle less than full.
When mentioning the prepayment option, Wells recommends using common language to explain what it means. “Customers don’t always understand industry jargon,” she says.
A rental company could offer its fuel prepayment feature in different packages, customizing them based on its location.
Empower Problem Solvers
According to Wells, it’s about empowerment with customer focus. When things go wrong, customers want your help to fix it; they don’t want to better understand your policies.
When customers have a staff service issue, they are going to give the company a lower satisfaction score, says Garlick.
In the survey, customers who experienced a problem gave an overall satisfaction rating of 750. Of those who had an issue with staff service, the satisfaction rating was 680. A lower rating of 672 was given when the problem involved staff attitude.
“It’s really about service culture,” says Garlick. “It’s about having staff not be a source of frustration, but rather someone who can facilitate a reservation.”
Garlick recalled a situation where a $50 fee for a parking ticket showed up on his business credit card. When Garlick asked the rental agent to move the charge to his personal credit card, the agent said that company policy wouldn’t allow him to do it.
“This made me even more frustrated,” says Garlick. “The agent amplified the problem instead of solving it for me.”
Rental companies need to trust their employees to make the best decisions with customers. Wells suggests setting up a peer support network for employees regarding customer service. She also recommends that companies set up incentive schemes that include some element of quality of service or customer satisfaction.
“Mirror the type of behavior you want to drive that’s aligned with your company’s goals,” says Wells.