Christian Retailing

CompeTuition: Avis: Keeping on top of customer service complaints Print Email
Written by Christine D. Johnson   
Wednesday, 11 May 2011 04:15 PM America/New_York

by Kirk Blank 

A recent experience with a company with which I often do business reminded me that it is not only others' excellence that offers lessons in how to improve what we do. My encounter with the Avis car-rental company served as an object lesson in how to lose friends and influence people to go elsewhere.

It started when I approached the Avis counter at the airport in Grand Rapids, Mich., about my reservation, relevant papers in hand. Before I could present them, the agent—with a rather large wad of gum in her mouth—told me: “We ain't got no cars so you're gonna have to sit down, and I will call you when we get a car.”

Fortunately, my co-worker who was traveling with me said something that reminded me not to lose my Christian testimony! I quickly began to recall the Seinfeld episode from 1991:

Jerry: Seinfeld, reservation for a mid-size car.

Rental car agent: I'm sorry, we have no mid-size available at the moment.

Jerry: I don't understand, I made a reservation. Do you have my reservation?

Agent: Yes, we do. Unfortunately, we ran out of cars.

Jerry: But the reservation keeps the car here. That's why you have the

Agent: I know why we have reservations.

Jerry: I don't think you do. If you did, I'd have a car. See, you know how to
take the reservation, you just don't know how to hold the reservation, and
that's really the most important part of the reservation, the holding. Anybody
can just take them.

Agent: Let me, uh, speak with my supervisor.

The agent goes into an office with a window in the door so she can be seen
speaking with someone.

Jerry: Uh, here we go. The supervisor. You know what she's saying over there?

Elaine: What?

Jerry: Hey Marge, you see those two people over there? They think I'm talking
to you, so you pretend like you're talking to me. OK, now you start talking.

Elaine: Oh, you mean like this? So it looks like I'm saying something, but I'm
not really saying anything at all?

Jerry: Now you say something else and they won't yell at me ’cause they thought
I was checking with you.

Elaine: OK, that's it. I think that's enough. See you later.

The agent returns.

Agent: I'm sorry. My supervisor says there's nothing we can do.

Jerry: Yeah, it looked as if you were in a real conversation over there.

Agent: But we do have a compact if you would like that.

Jerry: Fine.

Agent: All right. We have a blue Ford Escort for you, Mr. Seinfeld. Would you
like insurance?

Jerry: Yeah, you better give me the insurance because I am gonna beat the heck
out of this car.

When I was finally called to the counter, more than a hour later, I was informed that the mid-size I had reserved was unavailable, but I could have a compact—or just wait, with no guarantee of my requested size being forthcoming.

Having taken the smaller car, I pointed out to the agent that she had made no adjustment on the invoice. Her answer: She had no authority to make a change and I would have to write and get a credit or convince the agent when I returned the car to the agency. To cap it all off, the vehicle I did eventually receive was dirty, outside and in.

Feeling compelled to contact Avis' customer-service line, I left a voice mail and was assured I would receive a response within 36 hours. Despite leaving two further messages in the following three weeks, no one ever called me back.

Frustrated, I sent a letter to the CEO. An assistant called me three days later to apologize and correct the problem. I received the following email:

Dear Mr. Blank, 

Thank you for contacting me. Please accept our apology for the horrible experience you had at the Ford airport location in Grand Rapids.

We view with extreme gravity any report of discourteous treatment of a customer, as there is never an excuse for bad manners. Under all circumstances our customers should be treated with respect and professionalism. We regret any breach of this standard made by the Avis agent with whom you spoke. Please be assured that corrective measures have been taken to prevent any recurrence.

In an effort to reflect our concern and to promote positive customer relations, we are mailing an Avis Customer Service Certificate in the amount of $45.00 for your use on a future Avis rental. We hope you will allow us the opportunity to provide the type of quality service for which we are known, and that you expect and deserve as a valued Avis customer.

So what application do I see for Christian retailers?

By the time you get a complaint letter, the problem most likely has been festering for a while and has affected many of your customers. Act quickly to learn more about the problem. It was obvious from the duration of time between my original contact with Avis and the final resolution that the company did not have a system in place to respond swiftly.

Take an active role in observing how your staff treats customers—on the phone, by e-mail and or in person. If a supervisor had been present at the airport in Grand Rapids that day, things would have been quite different.

Take the time to actively ask your customers how you and your staff are serving them. Also consider asking some customers who have not visited your store in a while why they haven’t been in. There are many low-cost ways of doing this, through e-mails, Facebook postings, online surveys and postcard mailings. (Every time that I stay at a Hampton Inn, within three days of my stay, I am sent a very quick survey.  If I’ve gone for an extended amount of time without staying at a Hampton Inn, I receive a survey asking where I’ve been and how they can better serve me.)

Since we are a society that uses Google instead of a phone book these days, take some time to search your bookstore online with pejorative terms like "stinks" (and worse) to learn if there's a groundswell of discontent about your store. Customers who are frustrated will often resort to the Internet to warn others about bad businesses. In fact, there are Web sites dedicated to identifying companies with poor customer service.

Customer service is too important to ignore. While it may be somewhat uncomfortable to let someone go, holding onto an employee with little regard for customer service will eventually kill your business' reputation. From a preventative standpoint, make sure your corporate values on customer care are clear, and incorporate them into the hiring process to ensure that those you bring on to take care of your customers are staff members who truly value serving others.

This last point is the perhaps most important one. When someone prizes being of service to others, they don't need extensive training on how to help another person. They know how to do it instinctively. And great customer service helps build great companies. One of my favorite verses is 1 John 4:19: “We love because He first loved us.” We are called to be God’s representatives—to reflect the love that we’ve been shown.

Customer service is the connective tissue between your business and your customers. Make sure that you're not the last to know that poor representatives are the cause of a customer exodus.

Kirk Blank is president of Munce Group and a member of the Christian Retailing editorial advisory board.