Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Reminders of Business and Customer Perceptions

I returned from Orlando, and the 2016 Workers' Compensation Institute Workers' Compensation Educational Conference (WCI-WCEC). And, I had an experience that reminded me of the limits of technology and customer service. 

I traveled to the WCI from Gainesville this year. That is a story for another day. But, I picked up a rental car in Gainesville. I had hoped for 15 passenger van to accommodate the various shuttle driver duties I try to fulfill at WCI each year. I was only able to reserve a minivan online however. When I arrived at the agency, and voiced my disappointment, they offered to call their "other office" to check availability. I told them I had already checked all their local offices on the Internet. But, he assured me, all of their local offices are not on the Internet. 

OK, that makes sense. Why put all the available locations and vehicles on the Internet where someone might find/reserve them? The result of the call was disappointing. Without any advance warning, there were no 15 passenger vans available. He advised me to reserve earlier next time (but no suggestion on how to find this "double secret probation" location).

They rented me a minivan. Before preparing the paperwork, they offered me the "fuel service" option. With it, I could pre-pay for a tank of gas at a reduced price, and then could return the vehicle empty. I declined, as usual. The agent solemnly reminded me that I would have to return the vehicle "full" or pay the fuel service fee. I acknowledged and again declined. 

A few minutes passed and a contract was printed for signature. On this, the agent asked me to initial that this minivan had only 3/8 of a tank of gas and that I would have to return it with a similar amount or pay the fuel fee. But "why," I asked, was this car not "full?" Had the company not charged the last renter a "fuel service" fee when it was returned in this depleted condition? Is the purpose of that fee not to fill the tank? The agent replied "we don't do that (fill the tank)."

So where does the fuel service fee go? It does not go in the gas tank, but does it go somewhere?

I drove that minivan from Gainesville to Orlando. There were multiple trips around Orlando, and then I drove it back to Pensacola. My total mileage was just over 600 miles. Remember, it left the Gainesville agency at 3/8 of a tank. It is difficult to predict how much gas will be needed to have exactly 3/8 at the end of a journey. It is as difficult to pump gas and check the gauge to hit a target amount other than "full." Predictably, I returned the car with 1/2 tank in Pensacola. Remembering that it left Gainesville at 3/8 and returned 600 miles later at 1/2, one might be surprised at the ensuing interaction with the return agent. 

After a thorough inspection of the vehicle, and having notated the 1/2 tank of fuel and "mileage in," this gentleman looked me straight in the eye and asked "did you purchase any fuel?" I thought certainly I had misunderstood the question. Surely, there is no expectation that a vehicle will travel 600 miles and somehow accumulate fuel without such a purchase. I therefore expressed my failure to understand the question, and he repeated (increased volume, as if that will pierce my ignorance) "DID YOU PURCHASE FUEL?" I bit my tongue and simply replied yes. I then extended my hand expecting that the printer hanging on his belt was about to produce a receipt and that I could proceed with my day. 

Instead, he handed me the original agreement and told me I would have to visit the rental counter inside the airport. Not a long hike, but an inconvenience. There are car rental agencies at which a car can be rented and returned in the garage, without waiting in the counter line (I have both seen them and used them). Some companies even advertise this convenience as a reason to use their service. I asked why he could not close the contract, and he said "its the computers."

So, I visited the rental counter. When it was my turn, the desk agent accepted my original agreement, and tapped on the computer. I asked why the counter visit was necessary, and she replied "because the car was rented in Gainesville." It turns out that cars rented locally (in Pensacola) are "in" the garage computers, but cars rented elsewhere are not. I almost asked if the "secret cars" that are not on the Internet are in the garage computer, but I suppressed that one and walked away. 

Can it be true in the twenty-first century that companies have services and products that they intentionally do not display as available on the Internet? Is it true that a company that rents vehicles does not have all the information about all of their cars integrated into one computer system? Is it possible that someone really believes that cars accumulate fuel as they traverse the highways? If the vehicle is returned with more fuel than it left with, is anyone really sincerely wondering whether I bought fuel or not? 

It is intriguing. It says something about the company and its personnel. But this analysis is not about that. It is about us, not them. 

Do we all look at how things work in our own business and ask critical questions? How does something we do work, or does it work at all? I would suggest that we all gain by asking why we do things the way that we do, and whether we could do our tasks more efficiently. Can we provide our customers more and better information. Is their understanding of our process important and of benefit to us both? Are we engaged in asking questions like "did you buy fuel" not because the answer is needed or relevant, but because it has just become a question we always ask? Asking questions out of habit, engaging in processes out of habit, going through the motions out of habit; these may not illustrate an advisable course.

And, I keep wondering, where does that fuel service money go? The cars go out without a full tank, and get returned with less and a service charge is collected. But, no fuel is replaced. Thereafter, they undoubtedly return each time with more fuel than when they left, until eventually they return full (or close) again. When the customer brings back extra gas, there is no refund or consideration. Where does that "service" money go? 

I wonder, are customers asking similar questions about my business model? Are they wondering what we do and how, much less why?We all need to ask those critical questions about how and what we are delivering, and whether we could do it, or explain it, better. Otherwise, our customers might just take their business elsewhere without ever explaining to us why.

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