Unf*cking car rental

The oldest case for VRM is one that has hardly improved in decades: car rental. Few business categories do a worse job of matching specific customer needs. Or a worse job of doing even the very limited range of services to which they limit themselves.

For example, Enterprise. I had a car booked for this evening in Santa Barbara that I would drive for the next week and return to the same airport. Price: $205 for an economyh car.  Nice deal. But, thanks to the common difficulty of getting from Airport A to Airport B, I’m arriving at 11:45 this evening, after Enterprise is closed.  So I called the company from the airport in Denver, where I’m sitting now.

The robot asked if I’d like to answer a one-question survey if I stayed on line after the call. I pressed 1 for yes. The reservations agent explained that I couldn’t change the reservation for pick-up tomorrow morning, but would need a new reservation. This one would be $245. Why? The short answer: because that’s what The System says.

So the survey robot asked me to say whether I was satisfied with the agent’s service (not the company’s, meaning the agent gets penalized, I would guess). On a scale of 1 to 5 (where 5 is most satisfied), I punched in 2. The robot expressed electronic unhappiness with my dissatisfaction, and told me to leave a detailed message. When the promt for that came, I started to talk and the robot instantly interrupted with a “Thank you,” and hung up the line. Is there a better way to compound customer unhappiness than that?

So I want to take this opportunity to appeal to anybody in a responsible position anywhere in the car rental business to work together with us at on a customer-based solution to this kind of automated lameness. It can’t be done from the inside alone. That’s been tried and proven inadequate for way too long. Leave a message below or write me at dsearls at cyber dot law dot harvard dot edu.

Let’s build The Intention Economy — based on real, existing, money-in-hand intentions of real customers, rather than the broken attention-seeking and customer-screwing system we have now.

[Later…] Just booked a Budget compact car through United for $196.86. Got miles with it. By the way, I am a long-standing member of Budget’s FastBreak club. There was nowhere on the reservation I just made to note that. Makes no difference. Just pointing out how lame “loyalty” programs are too. I have minimal loyalty to Budget (which, over the years, has generally been okay). As of now, I have antipathy toward Enterprise.


  1. David Weinberger

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  2. rcannon100

    Yeah. I love going to the grocery store and having the check out clerk ask me, “Did you find everything you were looking for sir?”

    There is no grocery store anywhere that has everything I am looking for. That would require smushing a COSTCO with a WHOLE PAYCHECK with the convenience of the neighborhood HARRIS TEETER.

    Okay, I have a choice. I can say “No” – which means I have to have a 5 minute conversation about what I was looking for that I did not find, that concludes with an insincere comment from a clerk who could care less but is following the script “I am sorry to hear that sir”

    Or I could say “yes”, get out of the store 5 minutes faster, and avoid insincere crap.

    I had two XM radios – I just canceled one bc I dont use it and XM keeps jacking the price. It takes 10 seconds on the website to subscribe; to cancel you have to call. 23 minutes later the service person asks, “were you satisfied with your service to day sir??” “NO! It took 23 minutes to do something that should take a few seconds on your website.” “Oh, I am sorry to hear that sir” said in a most automated, could care less, tone.


  3. steve garfield

    I have a loyalty card that is also a stored value card. When I go to the checkout, the clerk asks me “Is this for points, or are you paying?” Something to that effect.

    From my point of view, if I am handing the clerk the card, without any cash, that means that I want both points and to pay for my transaction.

    I explain to the clerk, “I’m not handing you any cash, so yes, add my points and pay with the card.”

    I inquire, “How do other customers handle the transaction?”

    He replies, “Some give the card for points first. Then give me cash.”

    The clerk mutters, “Whatever.”

    The system is broken. The computer should tell the clerk that MY CARD has stored value on it.

    The system in the supermarket is broken too.

    I press “CREDIT”, then slide my card in. After hte clerk has rung in my items, s/he asks, “Credit or Debit.”

    Another broken system.


    Now I feel better.

  4. Mic Edwards

    Dear rcannon100,

    When you say, “could care less,” I’m presuming you actually mean, “couldn’t care less.” Is that true?


    English speakers all over the world are scratching their collective heads at this bizarre Americanism (which is almost–but not quite–as bizarre as calling the second course of your meal the ‘entree’).

    A Curmudgeon

  5. Doc Searls


    It’s funny that this is one “bizarre Americanism” I hated and refused to use for many years. Eventually I gave up and now employ it occasionally.

    I still hate “like” as an all-purpose … what, adverb? Now I hear English speakers from other countries using it all the time. It’s the new “um.”

    So yeah, I’m a curmudgeon too. We’re an important, if ineffective, club.

  6. Don Marti

    Maybe the Zipcar people are one step ahead of you.


    If the legacy car rental companies don’t want to play VRM, how about a hotel that offers both an airport shuttle and plenty of Zipcar parking spots? If you come in at night, ride the shuttle to the hotel instead of picking up a car just to park it. Then reserve a car for the driving you need to do during your stay.

  7. Patrick

    Where Doc was going, Zipcar is only on the UCSB campus- a short distance from the airport. He would still have to get there, and the rate for his week would have been $86 a day for a Honda Civic Hybrid. He would have the same proximity issue when leaving, as the Zipcar is supposed to be left where one picks it up.
    So until Zipcar becomes a part of the larger Santa Barbara community than the campus, or a campus shuttle visits the airport at midnight AND Zipcar has competitive pricing, its a promising not there yet.
    Access is the key here. Doc just wants the car when and where he lands. Why technology doesn’t enable a global rental car company to give Doc keyless access the way Zipcar does – eliminating office hour and human contact constraints seems like the question to answer.

  8. Brett Glass

    Doc, shame I didn’t know you were marooned in Denver. I was there picking up Internet gear and could have taken you for a good meal.

    By the way, I’m surprised that you went with United/Budget rather than a liquidator like Priceline. Priceline is known for being able to get fantastic deals out of the major rental car companies for last minute rentals.

  9. Doc Searls

    Thanks, Brett. We were fairly stranded out at Concourse B, hoping to pick up any number of flights as they went out. DEN-SJC-SBA, DEN-SFO-SBA, DEN-LAX-SBA… We ended up with one we had reserved part-way into the ordeal, direct DEN-SBA, last flight out at the end of the day, delayed. Arrived in SBA well after midnight. Anyway, we had to sit there and hope for getting on standby earlier.

    As for Priceline and Hotwire, I’ve often used them for hotels and sometimes for airline and car reservations. The problems show up with cancellations. It can be an ordeal. When I had to cancel trips to Munich and Copenhagen last year, it took months to sort out what would have gone much faster if we had booked directly, and we still lost money.

    Oddly, I’ve often found the best deals through United’s connection. Not sure why, but it’s worked out that way.

    But I’ll give Priceline another shot next time.

  10. JohnE

    I like the lead blog on this page well said. But can;t agree on Budget.
    Dealing with rental car companies can sometimes be a pleasant experience where you as the customer are dealt with correctly and honestly or you treated as an absolute imbecile.

    On a recent trip to Vancouver, Canada I had booked a car with Hertz, no problem did the booking here in Australia before flying over, got the confirmations and price via email( its even better with a CDP number). The pickup was easy, a pleasant experince a newish car no problem, after 10 days had to change the drop off point from the city to the airport, no problem did it over the phone easy. Flew to the east coast was due back in a week but had to shorten the trip. Came back 4 days early ( had a car booked with hertz )
    it was a saturday, hertz had no cars for an early pickup , someone suggested Budget, great they had a car, organised a price and the man behind the counter, Alan’ started off pleasant enough until I produced my NSW drivers licence and Visa card, hmm, this card is not valid he tells me, what card? the Visa is a debit, they are not accepted here in Canada he tells me, I had been on planes and moving for 15 hours so I kept a straight face and composure, he then proceeded to tell me I could not have the car. I tell him that I had used my debit card, with Hertz, Air Canada and a host of organisations while I had been in Canada, impossible he tells me , they were not a valid card.
    Thanks Budget, a 45 min drive to Langley took me 5 hrs by bus and train and on foot.
    My complaint to Budget Australia about the arrogance and lack of customer empathy from Alan, was a sheer waste of time, why because apparently the Budget rental office at Vancouver Airport does no accept Visa debit cards. Now if they were a single franchise maybe I would understand that. But the Budget Rent a car internal investigator from Australia must not have read the policy on cards accepted and Visa debit is one of them ( but have to admit thats the aussie site)
    Budget is on my never use list and tell as many people as I can to not use them list as well.
    Isnt it great, you travel to a foreign land and you get treated like you are a blight on the landscape, a leper and invader getting none of the welcome to my country how can I help you that tourist ads would make you believe actualy occurs.

  11. care seller

    thanks for the interesting post, a good read, nice one.

  12. VroomVroomVroom Car Rental

    I feel your pain about the automated voice responses at car rental companies. They piss me off so bad that I want to throw the phone against a brick wall sometimes. In theroy they sound like they could be helpful. If I need to go to the trouble to phone a company, it’s because their website didn’t help me. Automated systems never help with unusual queries, so unfortunately, they are as helpful as the little paperclip dude in microsoft word.

    I’d be interested in finding out how a VRM would help my car rental comparison website.

    P.S. What is the biggest difference between CRM and VRM?

  13. Jesse Jorstad

    Bisexuality immediately doubles your chances for a date on Saturday night. – Woody Allen Born 1935

  14. Super Cars

    Thanks for thos article/story. I like the lead blog on this page well said. Good luck.

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