What National Car Rental Could Learn from Walmart About Disaster Repsonse

Like many travelers last weekend, I was expecting Hurricane Irene to turn my return trip from Istanbul to New York City into a nightmare. To my surprise, I seemed to get lucky: Anticipating that my flight to New York would be canceled, I managed to snag seats for myself and my family on a flight to Washington, DC and had no trouble getting a rental car at Dulles airport. After spending Sunday night in the capital, I drove back to New York, arriving home just half a day later than I had intended. In fact, I didn’t have a real problem until I tried to return my National rental car at the Manhattan location that I had requested when I made my reservation and that was specified on my contract.

“I am not authorized to accept your car,” explained the courteous young rental agent when I arrived at National’s East 80th Street location at about 5 p.m. on Monday afternoon. “You will have to drive the car to the airport.” The agent, who gave her name as Jay Givens, explained that in the aftermath of the storm and a large volume of rental cars returning to New York—often the only way travelers had of getting back from airports up and down the East Coast to which flights had been diverted in the aftermath of the storm–National didn’t have room in its garage. However, she reassured me, National would be happy to pay for my cab fare from the airport back to Manhattan.

Struggling to maintain my temper, I said that I did not have time to drive to the airport—this was rush hour, I might add–and that I wanted to speak to the manager. Ms. Givens readily obliged and it became clear from her brief exchange with the manager that I was not the first customer who had been asked to perform car-delivery services for National that afternoon.

I was ready to tell the manager that he might want to arrange for one of his employees to drive excess vehicles to the airport, or to lease space in one of the numerous neighborhood garages. Perhaps some customers would be willing to drive to the airport in exchange for a meaningful discount off of the hefty rental prices that National charges, especially for cars that are dropped off at a different location from where the rentals originate; in my case, I paid over $200, about double the cost of a one-day rental, for the privilege of dropping the car off in Manhattan.

But before I could say any of that, the manager sighed audibly and said: “Go ahead, leave the car. I’ll probably get fired. But just leave it.”

Fired? Ms. Givens, a picture of calm and courtesy throughout this exchange, nodded and explained that it was National management that had issued the edict to turn away customers who were trying to return cars in Manhattan.

Just then, a harried young man raced into the office. He too wanted to return his rental car. But unlike me, he wanted to leave his car at the airport so that, after a grueling drive from North Carolina, where his flight had been diverted, he could catch a connection home to Germany from JFK. Only, in his case, the company wouldn’t allow him to return the car to the airport. You see, the German tourist had rented a car from Alamo, National’s sister car-rental company. Almost all National rental locations also rent Alamo cars—but not the one at JFK. And even though the East 80th Street station was filled to capacity, the company wouldn’t allow him to drop his car at JFK.

I left the National office shaking my head. Many companies—like Walmart, which organized a rapid-response flotilla of supplies to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina—realize that disasters are an opportunity to burnish their image and win customer loyalty. But disasters also test management systems. Judging from what I experienced, it’s a test that National Car Rental and its parent Enterprise Holdings, which bills itself as the world’s largest car rental company and one that aims to “exceed” customer expectations, failed this week. The one thing the company has going for it are employees who want to do the right thing. Their fear of reprisals, though, is another indicator of lousy management.

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