Let me start out by saying I have been a big fan of Zipcar for many years. For those not in the know, the company provides cars parked in local lots that you can unlock with an RFID enabled card and take out in half-hour increments to accomplish quick chores. They also have a nice complement of cars, including Minis, VWs, Tahomas, Scions, and BMWs. For a while, one of my most visited pages on this blog was one with a coupon for the service and I would guess hundreds of people have signed up on my recommendation. It’s only because I love Zipcar that I am posting now about my disappointment.
My commute necessitates that I keep my own car, but I started using Zipcar when I moved to Manhattan, and I’ve kept my account as a convenience. At first, it felt almost too good to be true. Almost any time I wanted, I could go across the street and rent a car by the hour. The prices, while not cheap, were fair, particularly with gas and insurance covered. As Zipcar has grown, I can now grab a car in many of the cities I visit as well, and since I tend to stay near universities, the cars are often nearby. Unfortunately, I was disappointed by my experience renting last night, and it is frustrating because it is an entirely fixable flaw.
Last night, I needed a car to go and pick up my own car, which had blown out a couple of tires on a giant NYC pothole and was getting re-shod over in Jersey. I reserved the car from 6pm, and trundled down to the garage: me, my partner, the baby, and a heavy and awkward car seat in the rain. When we got there, the car we had reserved was not there. It had not been returned on time. This is almost inevitable–sometimes people will blow out their appointment. This is actually the second time this has happened for me in NYC.
We waited for about 10 minutes–no luck. There were two other Zipcars on the lot, ready to go out. So, the obvious thing would be to swap our reservation for one of those that was available. I called the 800 number and spent 10 minutes waiting on hold. In the rain and cold, with a grumpy one year old. After 15 minutes, I handed my phone over to my partner, used her phone to go to Zipcar’s website, and cancelled my reservation. There was a $22 fee, but we figured at this point they wouldn’t charge us for a car they couldn’t provide, and I couldn’t rent another while I had an existing reservation. The car was cancelled instantly, and the new reservation made. 25 minutes after we had reserved, we were into a different car, and I was going through the always fun task of installing the baby’s car seat. My partner, meanwhile was still sitting on hold–now approaching 20 minutes.
My partner tried to politely explain the situation, but they said they couldn’t talk to her. (This always seems dumb to me. All she would have to do is lie and say she was me–we both have unisex names–but she isn’t the sort to do that. And anyone committing a fraud isn’t going to say “I’m not the person listed on the card.”) So, she hands me the phone and I say I’m in the middle of installing a carseat, and I’m fine with my spouse having this conversation. Note that such an authorization is fine for credit card companies, but not good enough for Zipcar.
I once again explained what happened. I was frustrated, both by waiting in the rain for half an hour and by the car seat, but I was polite. She said she would remove the cancellation charge, and then began explaining to me that the appropriate way to handle this was to call, so they didn’t have to reverse the charges.
“You do realize that you had me on hold for 20 minutes, right?”
I suppose she was frustrated by my response. And while not outright rude, she was terse and pointedly unhelpful. Given the tone of the exchange, I am now going to have to check to see whether she actually accomplished the charge reversal, and contest it with Zipcar and my card if not. In the end, I spent the seven dollars for the half-hour I couldn’t use the car, but more importantly, this was a waste of my family’s time that could have easily been avoided. By the end of this experience, I was almost ready to cancel my membership.
Perhaps I am expecting too much, but I think one of the reasons to have a really good automated service is so that when it fails–as in this case it did–you are able to provide the very best customer service person-to-person. Credit cards may be able to get away with keeping you on hold for twenty minutes, because at least you can do things around the house or office, but in this case we had somewhere to be–the shop was closing at seven–and we were stuck out in nasty weather as a family. My expectation is two minutes, not twenty.
Or more to the point: one of the things Zipcar has done really well is automating this process. You can reserve and change reservations via the web, a phone tree, or even SMS for some things. When I remade the reservation, I had access to the car within less than a minute. They should be rightfully proud of this interface. But their system “knew” that the car had not been returned. How hard would it have been for it to let me know that, and to give me options? This would have saved me from ever having to talk to a person (something I would vastly prefer). It would also have saved Zipcar money–less people to pay in a call center.
And when I do have to talk to a person, make sure that person is well trained and has the autonomy to make reasonable decisions and requests. I needed only one thing from this person, to reverse an unreasonable charge. I didn’t need a lecture about how this all could have been avoided if I had just been a little more patient and waited longer on hold. Something was missing there.
This is the second time I’ve had this experience. The first time, several years ago, the person was unhelpful–there wasn’t much they could do. This time, there was a ridiculously easy solution: move me to an unutilized vehicle, but their systems made that unnecessarily difficult. I really like the company, and I really hope they can do better with this. I like being able to recommend them, but right now, such recommendations come with a heavy caveat: don’t rely on a car actually being there, and avoid having to talk to customer service.