World Wars, financial collapses and global events couldn't stop our industry, and neither will COVID-19. - Photo via Depositphotos.

World Wars, financial collapses and global events couldn't stop our industry, and neither will COVID-19.

Photo via Depositphotos.

To say we're conducting business in a new world isn't exactly breaking news. Virtually every industry has been impacted by the recent COVID-19 outbreak and car rental is no exception. In the short-term, finding ways to rent vehicles when nobody can leave the house is a gigantic problem. Many will view this new reality with a mental image of dinosaurs helplessly watching skyward as the meteor descends.

But there's a reason the car rental industry has endured since nearly the advent of the automobile. World Wars, financial collapses and global events couldn't stop our industry, and neither will COVID-19. And from the fog of uncertainty will lead the ladder of opportunity, for those forward-thinking enough to recognize it. With this belief in mind, below are five predictions for the future of car rental in the years 2020 and 2021 After Coronavirus (AC).

Prediction 1: The virus will pass and customers will come back. 

It’s a frightening time in the world. While the crystal ball is a bit cloudy about exactly how and when we will recover, it will inevitably happen. Oh, we'll get very comfortable in our respective spaces and it will change the way we do things (more on that in a minute). But traversing the highways is in our DNA. It represents a return to normalcy, and lately, a chance to free ourselves from isolation. 

Simply, travel represents hope, and that hope is needed. Believe in the American spirit, and when travel can be a safely enjoyed pastime again, welcome it with open arms. Weave your car rental operation into the fabric of your community and feel good that you will help your fellow citizens heal.

Prediction 2: Some customers won't ever set foot on your lot again. But they'll still rent. 

Humans have track record spanning millennia of adapting to their surroundings. When you stick us in one place for months at a time, we are going to make it work. In the short term, homes will become safe spaces and one of the few environments where we have some semblance of control. For some, delivery will forever replace trips to the store or, in our case, a trip to the rental counter. 

Consumers will get very used to goods and services coming to their doorstep. When travel resumes, the car rental industry will need to adopt that mentality. Say goodbye to "we'll pick you up" and hello to "we'll drop it off." Find ways to get vehicles to the customer, not the other way around. Create delivery parameters and make your operation world class from the front porch. Embrace mobile apps and technology to facilitate the transaction.

Prediction 3: Vehicle cleanliness will matter more than ever. 

An old district manager used to tell me "Fast Service + Friendly Service + a Clean Car = Good Customer Experience." Go ahead and double weight the CLEAN CAR portion of the equation, especially for the foreseeable future. 

Fair or not, our operations are about to be held to CDC-level germ eradication standards by many customers. A dirty rental won't just be an annoyance, it'll be a perceived health risk and a lost customer. 

Acknowledge this and adapt: Commit to protecting the health of your staff, customers and everyone else. Seek lot staff with a keen eye and attention to detail and train them properly. Invest in quality cleaning products to do the job right. Resist renting vehicles that are not up to cleanliness standards and keep customers informed that the reason their vehicle is taking an extra minute to clean is for safety.

Prediction 4: Flexibility will be an asset. 

When recovery begins, it will be gradual. While we would all love to pick up right where we left off, indications are that in the early stages, uncertainty will remain, and it will take time to fully get back to normal. Some customers who were in the market for a new vehicle before the pandemic will be understandably hesitant to commit to a lease or car payment and will rent until they have a better read on the situation. This also applies to business partners who similarly might want more clarity before committing to a fleet plan. This creates unique opportunities for car rental in the interim. Weekly or monthly rentals allows filling a transportation need while buying time to let recovery take shape. Show flexibility to your client base and let them know you have solutions until the dust settles. It will pay dividends in the short and long term.

Prediction 5: Our connection with customers will deepen. 

There aren't many positive aspects of the recent situation, but the slight uptick in collective empathy is one of them. Despite a period of stress, people are rallying together for a common cause. Whether you're the CEO or an intern, the situation has impacted all of us and we are all rooting for each other to succeed. Handing that first set of keys to a customer when things open up will likely be an emotional experience for customers and agents alike. 

For the customer, it may be that first venture out into a world that looks the same but is vastly different. For the agent, the transaction will be unlike any other in their career prior. That emotion is powerful and not to be ignored. Be there for each other on a human level. We need it everywhere — at home, on TV, in the grocery store, and yes, even at the rental counter.

In the grand scheme, renting cars is but a blip on the collective radar of the economy, much less our humanity. But helping people get from A to B is our business. Our customers might be stuck at A for a while, but they can't wait to get to B for any number of reasons. B represents the family and friends they can’t see, or a weekend getaway, or just a change of scenery after looking at the same four walls for months. 

When it's safe to do so, let's work together to make the transition back to normalcy as seamless as possible for all of us. Until then, take care and be safe. See you (in person) when this is behind us.

Matt Sonetto is assistant performance director at Frontline Performance Group.

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