When I rent a car, I too often find myself waiting in line for the service desk, wondering why my car isn’t ready for me, as promised. I’ve spent untold hours in those lines, imagining the logistical challenges that stand between me and my rental. I’ve developed theories about what it might take to process hundreds of dirty returns overnight and get them ready for the next morning. Or what’s involved in moving a fleet of hundreds of thousands of cars throughout the country so they’re in the right place for the next day’s planned rentals. I’ve imagined the chain of dependencies, and where the links might break. Maybe you have, too.
Now I can test my hypotheses against the real-world experience of this week’s guest on the Net Promoter System Podcast, Eric Smuda. Having led customer experience practices for two different giants of the rental car industry, Eric draws back the black curtain and reveals what it’s like to deliver a car to a customer, from behind the scenes.
As vice president of customer insights and experience for Avis Budget Group, he helped the company launch its Voice of the Customer program, which feeds insights from the front lines of the service desk all the way up the leadership chain, enabling the company to rapidly improve the customer experience.
As vice president of customer experience and loyalty at Hertz, Eric led a 45-person team on a mission to create a rewards program for Hertz’s most loyal customers. He explains how his team set a new standard for customer service, despite razor-thin margins and intense competition, by using the Net Promoter System to focus their efforts on the things that rental car drivers care about most.
In the following excerpt, Eric offers a hint of the logistical challenges that I’ve often wondered about while waiting for my rental car to arrive. As you might have expected, it’s complicated—even more complicated than I imagined.
Rob Markey: I always return my car late in the day, and of course, I always pick it up early. And so there's a certain number of hours available, between the time customers drop off this gigantic number of cars that get packed into the parking lot and then people showing up and looking to rent them. You could think about, well, if that's true, then what's the bottleneck? One bottleneck might be washing the car, or the bottleneck might be refueling, or it might be cleaning the insides. But somewhere in there is probably some operational bottleneck that is hard to get all the cars through in the number of hours available.
Eric Smuda: Right? Well, and particularly when you think about the real estate available at an airport location, you know, you hit the nail on the head there. If you think about what the fleet level looks like at any typical airport or rental car location, you know, it's going to be max fleet Sunday night, Monday. Business travelers start coming in Sunday night. They come in Monday morning. Fleet starts to erode by Tuesday morning, when that second wave of business travelers come in. You get to Tuesday afternoon and into Wednesday, you're at your lowest peak level, and then the business travelers start coming back Thursday and Friday. Well, now, from a rental car company standpoint, you've got the shift between the business traveler during the week and the leisure traveler on the weekend. And how does that cross brands within the company's portfolio?
Markey: So you might even be moving cars across lots from one brand to another.
Smuda: For sure you are. For sure you are. You know, I know you are a student of these things. If you want a fascinating view, go to Newark Airport, pick whatever brand, it doesn't matter, on a Thursday afternoon or a Friday afternoon. Because one of the joys about the New York marketplace is you have all of these Manhattanites who don't own a car, but the weekend comes around and they want to rent a car. They want to get out to Jersey. They want to get out to the Hamptons. They want to go to the Poconos skiing. Whatever they want. They want to run their errands, whatever it may be. And yet think about the availability of parking garages or the price of parking in New York City.
Markey: In Manhattan ...
Smuda: Yeah, in Manhattan. You're not going to stage a fleet there. So stand there on a Thursday afternoon or Friday in Newark and watch the business traveler bring the car in, and then the fleet of people that have to drive the car into the city to enable the leisure traveler in Manhattan to have a car for the weekend.
Rob Markey talks to loyalty leaders who are using the management system to create memorable customer experiences.
Markey: So these are employees of the rental car company who are basically repositioning assets.
Smuda: How else are you going to get a car into Manhattan? You're going to drive it through the Holland Tunnel or the Lincoln Tunnel, right? You know, you could put a handful of them on a boat across the river, but it is a very manual, tedious process to get thousands of cars into Manhattan for a Friday and then to reverse that on a Sunday afternoon or Sunday afternoon/evening and get that ready for Monday morning as the business traveler flies back in. So there's a lot of complication and a lot of bottlenecks, to your point, you know, behind the black curtain that the customer never sees.
Markey: I can imagine that this compounds if you then factor in “Hey, we’re hiring people at a lower wage,” and that then introduces two additional sources of variability. One, if people are in low-wage jobs, their likelihood of calling in sick or finding another job [means] turnover is very high.
Markey: And then, two, you're likely not getting an employee who is super-energetic and enthusiastic and creative about doing the job better. And so your efficiency and throughput suffers.
Smuda: You know, it's interesting, because it's easy to point at those folks and say, “Hey, that's where part of the problem is.” And yet I will tell you, having worked for multiple brands in the industry, those frontline people care passionately. They are doing their best. One of the regional managers at Avis when I was there had this great saying about hiring those folks. He said, “Look, hire the smile. You're going to have to teach them everything else about how ‘rental car’ works anyway. Hire the smile.” Look for the person that's customer service–oriented. Look for the person that can deal with the stress of “Rob's car's not there again.”
And if you look at the NPS ratings, such a high disproportionate share is actually driven by positive interactions with the employee. So you're absolutely right about who they're hiring. Do they get it right 100% of the time? No, of course, no business does, but I would say a high proportion of the time they actually are getting it right. And those people are passionate about trying to help customers. There are process issues and bottlenecks, as you referred to earlier, that get in the way.
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