5 Simple Ways Rental Car Companies Could Improve The Customer Experience

You’re sitting in a Ford Focus, or maybe a Nissan Versa, or perhaps a Hyundai Accent. You’ve waited in line at the counter, initialed in seven places, declined the insurance, and received the rental contract printed on an old dot-matrix printer.

From which rental car company did you rent the car?

It’s a trick question, because the main players in the rental car industry all look alike. The rental car experience has become so commoditized, it’s not uncommon to walk up to a counter with three different logos and the same employee.

In this age of disruption, why has the rental car industry remained largely immune? In this age of innovation, why has it failed to improve on the experience for decades? And where do they even purchase those dot-matrix printers anymore?

Here are five ways that Avis or Alamo or Budget or Dollar or Enterprise or Hertz or National or Thrifty could stand out in a competitive marketplace by creating a remarkable customer experience:

The Contract: Any time a customer has to “initial in these seven places and then sign here,” it’s a good indicator that the experience is too complex. This is a classic case of the lawyers determining the customer experience, which should always be a red flag. Lawyers are critical to an organization as they help keep the employees out of jail, but required legal disclosure language is a great opportunity for a creative marketer to turn it into an experience. After all, the goal is to get the customer to read and understand the legal contract, yet that is usually not the result. Instead, rental car companies should use icons and easy-to-understand language in the contracts, convert the process to an app, and/or ask the desk employees to explain it to every customer in plain English.

The Gas: There are always two choices, with neither one being a good option. You can pay for an entire tank of gas up front at a usually-reasonable per-gallon rate, yet if you’re traveling less than 300 miles you end up paying for gas you don’t use. Or you can let the rental company fill the gas tank when you return it, usually at a per-gallon rate that is three times (or more) an average fill-up price. Of course you can fill up the tank yourself, as long as you remember, have time, and find a local gas station that isn’t too close to the airport (more expensive) or too far (you end up returning less than a full tank). A simple way for one company to stand out would be to offer a “worry-free” return policy where they charge you a reasonable per-gallon amount for gas used. This would completely change the return experience and create value for customers.

The Insurance: Let’s face it: Very few Americans understand the nuances of their insurance policies, whether it’s health insurance, home or renter’s insurance, or auto insurance. This poses a big problem in the unfortunate event of a car accident while driving a rental car. It also results in customers often paying twice for the same insurance – once to their auto insurance company and once to the rental car company. Instead of offering a $20 per day insurance rider that most people turn down but some unsuspecting customers accept, why not add $2-3 to every rental and insure everyone automatically? It would be one less thing for drivers to worry about.

The Tolls: It’s perfectly fair for rental car companies to charge customers for tolls used. What’s less fair is to also charge a per-day fee for the benefit of having the E-ZPass device in the car. And if you look at the fine print, that charge is often per calendar day (whereas the rental fee is usually per 24 hours, meaning you can get charged twice for tolls on a 24-hour rental) and is charged whether or not you use the device. Wouldn’t it be simpler if every car was equipped with a toll device that was already included in the price of the rental? It’s at least one less step, it’s fair to the customer, and it’s a great example of “doing simple better” – intentionally using simplicity as an experience differentiator.

The Car: Wouldn’t it be nice to find a bottle of water or a mint in the car when you pick it up? How about a sign that thanks you for being a customer and directs you to a telephone number if you need help with anything? Better yet, consider using the On-Star technology found in many cars to allow the driver to contact the rental car agency directly with a question or problem. Another idea would be to partner with Sirius XM to equip all cars in the fleet with the radio service, a nice added benefit which would also serve as a perfect “taste test” to then market the subscription service to car owners. Or consider painting the cars a more unique color than black, white or gray to make it easier to find a rental car in a crowded parking lot.

Not every car rental experience has to be the same, but that’s generally the case today. The problem then becomes that car rental agencies end up competing on price, which is a loser’s game. The product is identical so the only thing left is customer experience. The company that decides to develop a unique and remarkable experience will win in the end.