I traveled to San Francisco International Airport for work. I needed to make my way to Mountain View to sleep that night and then Sunnyvale for meetings the next morning. It should have been a fairly straightforward trip, but when I heard that my flight was delayed, I knew that I was in for an adventure. I guess United's computer system was down that day, causing a number of re-routing problems, from passengers to planes.
It all started with my flight being delayed by 30 minutes, which is nothing in the world of travel. That can be made up in a flight. The real delay occurred when we started to land at SFO but the pilots abandoned the landing at the last minute because of the weather conditions.
The weather was just a mess.
I finally made it to the car rental building to pickup the car by 10:15pm. I originally booked the reservation to pickup the car at 8pm. Yes, we're talking a 2 hour delay at this point.
I made it to Car Rental Company A (or rather, FOX Rental Car) counter, where there were about 6 people in line before me. I figured it wouldn't be long now.
45 minutes later, I finally got to talk to an agent. At this point, rather than 2 agents working there was only 1. I guess the other one was on his meal break? I gave the agent my info - my name, my license - and she went to find my reservation. A few seconds later she told me that my reservation was cancelled because the system automatically cancels car reservations after 3 hours.
Yes, cancelled. Through no fault of my own, my car reservation was cancelled.
What made it worse was that my reservation wasn't just cancelled, I was told to pay $25 extra per day for it. Yes - my booked rate was gone, I already had to wait an additional hour in line causing my reservation to be cancelled, and I'd have to pay more money to get a car. They had to be kidding!
I decided to take my chances elsewhere.
I went to the Car Rental Company B (Budget) counter to see what they would charge for what I wanted to do. A lovely woman there immediately helped me get a price. Actually, it wasn't too much more money. In fact, the daily charge was about the same. I was on my way in 20 minutes.
I also learned that Car Rental Company A has done this before, especially for international travelers who don't know any different about American car rental companies.
The next day, I sent an email to the woman's manager to tell them how much I appreciated her kindness and service. She really helped me out and got me on my way.
I got a response.
Sure, they appreciated getting feedback on the woman at the counter. She's a rockstar.
But apparently, I wasn't the only person having a problem with Car Rental Company A. Car Rental Company B is often cleaning up the problems that A creates. It's becoming a pattern. The customer satisfaction manager contacted me to better understand my problem with Car Rental Company A because it was impacting B's business. Sure, they love the business that A inadvertently sends their way, but people are coming to B on the furious side. It's not fair to any customer nor to Company B. They were repairing the broken relationships A caused.
You could say that A was doing all of these rental car companies a favor. But were they?
- They ruined the travel experience for some at SFO.
- They made their competitors clean up their mess.
- They are giving rental car companies a bad name - sketchy, sly, and an industry that takes advantage of a customer's situation. Just not helpful.
So what are the morals of this story?
- When you have a complaint about a company, share it. Others probably have a similar complaint. You are never alone when you experience a problem with a company. There are probably 5 or 6 more people having experiences like yours, waiting to voice their challenges.
- Not all companies want to make a fast buck. Some genuinely want to help customers. And not just their own customers - any customers. I think some companies truly like helping people find solutions to their problems. Thank God for those companies!
- Complaining to a competitor isn't being gossipy. There may actually be a larger problem there. In this case, Company A was providing a sketchy experience to customers. This wasn't just impacting their own business and improving business for competitors, it was impacting the experience people were having with the airport. This is why the competitors were getting annoyed. They were getting unhappy customers looking for solutions at their counters. Sure, they got the business. But at the same time, they got challenging customers who were annoyed and they had to fix a competitor's problem. That can win customers, but it can also cost a company money.
- Just because someone doesn't share a complaint with you doesn't mean you did a great job. Most people won't complain about terrible service. See the first bullet. Often people don't complain.
- Always complement those who help you. They deserve the praise. They made your day - make theirs. Or help make their year if this goes on their record and contributes towards a bonus.
- If you are a company that's part of a larger ecosystem, remember that your challenging business practices don't simply impact you; they impact the perception people have of your competitors or the experience in that ecosystem. It's like a stone in a shoe. It hurts. It's annoying. And a small stone ruins how you experience wearing that shoe. And you may need to replace the shoe over a stone. Don't be that stone.