Don’t abuse your best customers Part II: Hertz #1 Club Case Study

My first job out of business school was with Bain & Company consulting.  I spent six years at Bain and during that period and my longest non-travel period was two weeks. One of the first things I did after starting at Bain was to join every frequent flyer program and several hotel rewards programs. Although I do not remember the exact date, I also joined the Hertz #1 Club as soon as it was launched.

One of the greatest benefits of the Hertz #1 Club is you can usually avoid standing in line at the rental counter and proceed directly to the lot where your car is waiting for you.  Although I perceive Hertz to be more expensive than Budget or Alamo, I made the mental value calculation that the ease of reserving (call the 800 # 1 number) and picking up the car is worth whatever premium I may be paying.  I have also been able to rent some great vehicles recently, notably the Ford Edge on my frequent trips to Pittsburgh.

Last weekend, I planned to fly from Boston to Pittsburgh, pick up a Hertz car, drive to Morgantown, WV for two days of board meetings, basketball and football games and then on to Charleston to visit my father for a few hours before flying back to Boston via Charlotte.  I was originally planning to start my journey Thursday by flying from Boston to NYC for the OMMA Advertising Networks conference and then to Pittsburgh Thursday night.  But the LGA-PIT flights were canceled Thursday night, so I flew back to Boston and took the Friday morning 6 AM BOS-PIT flight.

On the way to the airport in Boston, I remembered I had not changed my car reservation, so I called the Hertz #1 line and re-booked. While on the phone, I remembered seeing a recent Hertz ad claiming that you could “reserve the car you wanted” at many Hertz locations, so I asked about this.  The reservations agent read a list of vehicles available and said I could “request one.”  Although the Edge was not on the list, I selected a Pontiac G8.

When I arrived in Pittsburgh later that morning, I was surprised when the #1 agent told me I would be renting a Honda Accord and not a G8.  No problem, I thought, the new Honda’s look like great vehicles as well.

As I approached space D4 underneath the Pittsburgh airport, I realized the Accord was not the new model, but rather at least one model old.  I was even more surprised to find out that the car smelled like smoke and had cigarette burns on the seats and door fabric.  On the seat next to me was a “Pre-Rental Vehicle Inspection Form,” something I had never seen before in any rental car.  The form noted that there were “dents” and “scratches” on the front, driver and passenger side of the car.  To complete the picture, when I started the Accord the odometer read 34,000 miles, another first in my rental car experience.

So, as an ex-smoker extremely sensitive to the smell of cigarettes, I found myself driving to Morgantown with a raging headache in a smelly car that was out of alignment.  For 20 of the past 27 years (the exception being my time in Canada when I was 100% loyal to Tilden/National, our AIR MILES Sponsor) I have only rented Hertz cars. Hertz has the data to know this, yet they give me a vehicle that is worse than I would expect from the lowest cost car rental company, and charged me $100/day for the experience.  Maybe given my last minute change this was the only vehicle available that could be dropped in Charleston, but if that was the case, they could have and should have apologized in advance.

My next steps:

  1. Check out Avis, National and or Budget “Number 1” Programs
  2. Wait a few days to see if anyone from Hertz is monitoring their customer’s comments on blogs like this.
  3. Try to find Hertz CEO’s email address and see if he/she is interested in responding to this.
  4. Do the same thing with the Hertz board.

Here’s the back of the envelope loyalty math.  Assume I rent 20 vehicles a year for another 20 years at an average price of $50 per rental.  That’s $20,000 in lost revenue from breaking the virtuous cycle of relationship marketing and not using the information Hertz has in its database to treat a valuable customer well.  Hertz blew it at step 1, they know I am a loyal customers and instead of rewarding me with an upgrade or other amenity, the insulted me by giving me a brand damaging vehicle. Let’s see how they attempt to recover, if at all.

Questions:

  • What data do you have on your best customers that you are taking advantage of today?
  • Are there similar examples of “best customer abuse” happening in your company?
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