Car rental customer satisfaction increased for a third consecutive year, reaching its highest level in seven years, according to the J.D. Power and Associates 2012 North America Rental Car Satisfaction Study released today.

Now in its 17th year, the study measures overall customer satisfaction with renting cars at airport locations by examining six factors (listed in order of importance): costs and fees, pick-up process, return process, rental car, shuttle bus/van and reservation process.

Enterprise ranks highest in customer satisfaction among rental car companies, with a score of 804, performing particularly well across all factors, according to J.D. Power. National Car Rental follows in the rankings with 788, performing well in the return process factor. Alamo ranks third with 773 and performs particularly well in the shuttle bus/van factor. All three brands are managed by Enterprise Holdings. 

You can view the ratings here.

Overall satisfaction in 2012 averages 769 on a 1,000-point scale, up from 758 in 2011, and beats the record high of 767 that was set in 2006. Overall satisfaction in 2012 is driven by increases in scores across all factors except reservation process, which is down by one index point, compared to 2011. The greatest year-over-year improvements across the industry are in the shuttle bus/van and cost and fees factors.

Overall satisfaction among the business and leisure/personal customer segments also increases from 2011, with each segment reaching the highest satisfaction levels in seven years. Overall satisfaction among business customers increases to 762, up from 753 in 2011, while satisfaction among leisure/personal customers improves to 774, a 12-point improvement from 2011.

“The rental car industry continues to step up its game, building on improvements in the rental car customer experience made over the past several years, while also benefiting from higher satisfaction levels with cost and fees relative to prior years,” said Stuart Greif, vice president of the travel practice at J.D. Power and Associates. “However, there still are tremendous opportunities to leverage technology to address customer pain points in the rental car experience. There is also an opportunity to make the most out of staff interactions with customers and raise customer satisfaction levels even higher.”

The 2012 North America Rental Car Satisfaction Study is based on more than 12,100 evaluations from business and leisure/personal customers who rented a vehicle at an airport location within the previous 30 days to being surveyed. The study was fielded between October 2011 and August 2012.

Last year, ACE Rent-A-Car had the highest ranking.

The Findings

Customers’ positive or negative encounters with staff during the rental car process contribute to their overall satisfaction, according to the study. Overall satisfaction among customers who are greeted with a smile at the rental counter when picking up their vehicle averages 795, compared with 647 among those who are not greeted with a smile.

Similarly, the gap in satisfaction between customers who are greeted with a smile during the return process and those who are not is 149 index points (801 vs. 652, respectively).

“While the investment in the vehicles and running rental car operations is significant, how much does it cost to provide a genuine warm smile?” Greif said. “A friendly greeting and attitude toward helping customers goes a long way, and it doesn’t cost millions of dollars.”

While business customers tend to be more critical of their rental car experience than leisure/personal customers, they also tend to be more loyal. The study finds that 33% of business customers say they “definitely will” rent from the same brand again, compared with 26% of leisure/personal customers.

“Business customers tend to rent more frequently, so they are more aware of what to expect and they are often pressed for time, thus speed and efficiency are critical to their satisfaction,” said Ramez Faza, senior manager of the Travel Practice at J.D. Power and Associates. “Therefore, business customers tend to be tougher graders.

"Leisure/personal customers tend to shop around more and search for the best value and are often more satisfied with cost and fees than are business customers. These insights are somewhat counterintuitive, because business customers are not paying out of their own pocket, whereas leisure/personal customers are spending their own money.”

Among leisure/personal customers, 41% selected their rental car company based on price, while 13% based their selection on past experience with the brand and 9% based their selection on special promotions or discounts.

For business customers, 24% selected their rental car company based on price, while 16% based their selection on past experience, 13% based on their company’s travel policy and 12% on membership or rewards programs.

On average, customers spend slightly less than 10 minutes each waiting on the shuttle bus or van, in transit to the rental car facility, and returning the vehicle and being transported back to the airport.

The pick-up process takes longer to complete, an average of nearly 17 minutes. This reflects much longer wait times for customers who pick up their vehicle at the counter versus those who enjoy the speed and efficiency of counter bypass programs or kiosks, both of which result in higher levels of satisfaction with the pick-up process than does the use of counter pick up, even at dedicated loyalty member counters.

“Rental car companies must continue to balance the need to serve their customers more quickly with the need to improve service,” Faza said. “There are benefits to reducing wait times, as customer satisfaction tends to decrease after 5 minutes at any given stage of the process.”

Stuart Greif was a speaker at the 2012 Auto Rental Summit focusing on customer service in the car rental industry. Read more about the event here.