I Return the Car Where?!

By Ron Rosenberg

Sales manager giving key from the new car

When an industry reaches a certain level of maturity, it should be reasonable to expect that the core functions of these companies should run relatively smoothly.

Unfortunately, this isn't always the case.

I'll start with the standard disclaimer that everything I'm about to share falls solidly under the umbrella of "first-world problems" since the backdrop of this story is a recent vacation we took to France and Switzerland.

We flew into Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport and picked up a rental car for the two-hour drive to the town of Sancerre, where we would be staying for a week. No problem there - the car was ready, almost new, and an upgrade at that!

After the first week, we were off to Lyon for a few days before traveling by bus to visit some friends just north of Geneva.

The drive from Sancerre was around four hours, through some incredibly beautiful countryside. We had until 5:30 pm that afternoon to return the car at the main train station in Lyon, and we arrived there around 4:45 pm to make sure we had some extra time.

Our plan was to drop off the car, take an Uber over to the place we were staying, walk around the "old town" that evening, and get up bright and early the next morning for a full day exploring the city.

It shouldn't have been that difficult, really - we had the address of the return location on our documents, we had looked it up on Google Maps, and it wasn't the first time we had dropped off a car in Europe.

Where's the Rental Office?!

As you might expect, things didn't go quite as planned. For starters, when we actually followed the directions from the GPS system, it took us through tunnels, down streets that were closed for construction, and into parking lots that had no relationship whatsoever to our rental-car company.

And when the GPS determined that we had passed what it thought was the correct location, it sent us on one after another delightful trip around the vast rail station.

We tried calling the number on the reservation for assistance, but the call couldn't be completed. When we tried again on a second phone, it rang and rang with no answer.

When it became painfully obvious that we weren't getting the car back on time - even if we ultimately found the location - we threw up our hands and made our way over to the Air B&B we were renting for this segment of the trip.

The Long, Winding, and NARROW Road...

We were staying in the Vieux Lyon part of town - an area known for picturesque narrow cobblestone streets, and a lively atmosphere. What the area isn't known for, however, are wide streets and an abundance of parking.

We drove up a very steep road just past the Vieux Lyon area and were fortunate enough to find a spot on the street where we could park the car and deal with the return the next morning.

We then took all of our luggage back down that same hill, checked into our room, and called the rental company's main US number. After spending 20 minutes with the representative (who was actually working in an offshore call center in Asia) the bottom line was that since we had already picked the car up in France, we would have to speak directly with customer service in France.

It didn't matter that we had actually tried to do this many times with no success; unfortunately, there was nothing she could do to help us. Again, recognizing that we would be effectively banging our heads against the wall by continuing, we set this issue aside for the night.

What Are You Looking For?

The next morning, while having coffee with our hosts, we described the events of the previous afternoon and explained that we had to leave shortly to go out and find the rental agency so we could try and return the car.

They went out of their way to help us by attempting to call the number on the reservation (again, either unable to connect or no answer), searching for the location on Google Maps, and using Google Earth to view the area around the station from street level in hopes of finding some indication of the actual return location.

After about ten minutes, they found an archived street-view image with a sign that said because of construction, an alternate location was being used, and indicated an alternate address. I should point out that this sign was not at that location when we were there the previous day.

I Think This Is It...

Armed with this new bit of information - and assisted by very light Sunday-morning traffic - we were able to navigate to the address our hosts had found. But instead of the normal collection of signs displaying the names of all the rental-car companies, all we found there was a large parking garage...and about a half-dozen other cars driving up and down the street with puzzled looks on their drivers' faces.

I pulled over and Lorie walked over to the garage entrance. Fortunately, the door was open just then, and about 20 feet inside, she saw some very small signs with the names and logos of the various rental-car companies.

She arrived back at the car with the good news, and we drove to the entrance of the garage, excited to have finally reached our destination!

We Can't Get In!

Unfortunately, our glee was short lived - the solid steel garage door was closed. There was a machine which presumably would cause the door to open when we pressed the button to get a ticket, but the machine didn't work.

We also noticed a keypad but had no clue what the code might be. Just then, someone (maybe another customer who had better success with his own rental company) got out of his car, walked up to the keypad and entered the correct code.

The large door swung open, and we followed the signs to go up the spiral path to get to the fifth floor. We were expecting to see people waving us into the return area, where they would scan the vehicle's barcode, check the mileage and fuel level, and print out our final receipt.

What we found instead was a single open parking spot in the section for our company, and at that point, I was grateful to see this, since other customers ended up driving around to find a place to park and with little success.

Where Do We Go Now?

There were no customer-service staff members there, and no signs indicating what we were supposed to do next. In fact, the only person who seemed even remotely connected with the company was cleaning the cars in a separate area of the garage.

Another customer whose French was considerably better than ours managed to find out that we were supposed to walk about a quarter mile back to the train station where we would find the actual rental counter to return the keys and get our receipt.

Together with our new friend, we walked to the station, and after some searching found the rental counter.

I'm Sorry for the Inconvenience - I Really Am

We explained the whole sequence of events to the agent, and he couldn't have been nicer if he tried. His English was flawless, and he apologized repeatedly and sincerely for the inconvenience.

By way of explanation, he said that the number on the reservation receipt wasn't valid, and pointed out a section on the actual rental agreement we had received in Paris (a small card not much larger than a standard index card).

On this card, in extremely small type was the number of the office we were standing in. He didn't make any excuses, and couldn't explain why the old number was still being provided anywhere in the system.

As for the incorrect address for the return location, he explained that because of the construction in the area, they had to use an alternate location, and this should have been explained to us when we picked up the car originally, apologizing again.

When we asked why there were no signs anywhere - on the street, near the station, or, at the very least, at the garage location, he sighed in a manner that indicated his own frustration and explained that the city simply wouldn't allow them to do that.

Then, without being asked, he updated our record so we wouldn't have any additional charges for the late return, and apologized once more for the inconvenience.

Lessons Learned...

There were some definite lessons and observations from this situation.

First (and this one was a lesson for us) was to always allow several hours whenever returning a rental car to any location that's not at an airport. The airports all have ample signage directing returning travelers to the correct lane, garage, and floor where eager employees will check in the vehicle and get you on your way.

Second, people remember "beginnings" and "endings" of all experiences. If you make a good first impression and end the experience on a high note, it almost doesn't matter what happens in between.

The pick-up experience in Paris was smooth and professional. The drop-off in Lyon was exactly the opposite, and the worst part was that everything we experienced there was entirely avoidable.

You must make the effort to follow the steps your customers go through when working with you.  What do they experience? How does this make them feel? And most importantly, what can you do to make their interactions with you - and the results they get - as positive as possible?Save

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