My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Goodbye Avis, Hello Uber

Only two hours before the nightmare that would unfold, I was sitting with friends sharing my loyalties to travel programs. I had lost status on nearly everything when I got pregnant with my son (where’s parental leave??), forcing me to rethink my commitments. I told everyone about how I loved the fact that Avis had been so good to me, so willing to give me hybrids when they were available. I had been in an Avis car for 20 of the 28 days that month and I was sad that I didn’t have a hybrid in LA but the customer service rep was super apologetic and I understood that it was a perk, not a guarantee.

When I got into my car at 10PM that night, I discovered I had a flat tire. Exhausted and jetlagged, I called Roadside Assistance and braced myself to begin the process. I didn’t give it much thought given that I was 7 miles from LAX where it’d be easy to exchange a car. And it’s LA, land of cars, right? I had gotten stuck in much worse situations, situations without phone service. When I got the rep on the phone, we went through the process and I said that I didn’t feel safe driving significantly on a spare, especially not in LA. I asked how long for an exchange because we were so close. He said it’d be longer. I asked how long but he didn’t know; he said he’d text me when the order was placed. I figured go ahead and I can always call back and shift things. It was dark, I was falling asleep, and time passed.

An hour later, I still hadn’t heard anything. I called back, now much more frustrated. They told me that they still didn’t know. I pushed and pushed and they told me it’d probably take 4 hours. WTF? Are you serious!?!? How long for a spare to be changed I asked? Another 90 minutes they told me. They wanted me to wait until 12:30AM to get a spare tire on my car or until 3AM to get a replacement. I told them that this wasn’t safe, they asked if I was in a life-threatening emergency. No, it just wasn’t safe for me to sleep in my car in the middle of Los Angeles. I asked if I could just take a cab to the 24/7 LAX counter and hand over the keys. No, I couldn’t get a new car without giving up the old one and they wouldn’t receive the keys without the car. They reminded me that I was liable for the car. At one point, he recommended that I just leave the keys in the unlocked car. At this point, I knew the rep knew zero about the context in which I was in. Los Angeles. Late at night. In the dark. I was furious. Luckily, I have friends in Los Angeles. One is a late night owl and agreed to take the keys and do the exchange. I got driven to the hotel, angry as hell.

They texted us that they’d arrive at 4AM to pick up the car. They didn’t show up. At 9:30AM, I called back furious. They blamed the towing company and said another 30 minutes. Eventually they showed up at 11:30AM. Luckily, my friend was amazingly awesome and managed to make it work even though she worked and had to juggle. At 4PM, I called Avis to make sure they had the car. Nope. And they couldn’t close the account or look up the repair information. Roadside assistance told me to call customer service, customer service told me to call LAX rental directly, LAX rental sent me to his manager who went straight to voicemail. Not surprisingly, they didn’t return that phone call. I tweeted throughout and the only response that I got from the Avis rep was a polite note to say that they hoped everything worked out. I wrote back that it absolutely had not and got zero response. I wrote to the Avis customer service and the Avis FIRST email. No response. So much for being a valuable customer. Luckily I had done all of this through Amex Business Travel who was just awesome and leveraged their status to push Avis into taking care of it and giving me a refund.

I know lots of people have horrible customer service experiences with companies like Avis, but I’m still stunned by the acceptability of what unfolded. The way in which such treatment is considered acceptable, normative even. The absolute lack of accountability or recognition of how outright problematic that experience was. It all comes back down to markets and “choice,” as though the answer is simply for me to go to another company. Admittedly, I will walk away from Avis and my status now but it’s not simply because I think that a different company will be better. It’s because the entire experience soured me on the very social contract that I thought I had with Avis.

What if I was in a city where I didn’t have friends? What if I had been in a more remote setting (like I had been for 14 of the 20 days of rentals this month)? What if I had a plane to catch? I thought the whole promise of roadside assistance was that Avis would be there for me when things went haywire. Instead, they passed the buck at every turn, making it clear that they refused to take responsibility for their vendors. One of the phone reps eventually went off script and noted that some of the company policies are disturbing. But he was clearly resigned to it.

As customer service has become more automated, more mechanized, companies create distance between them and their customers. We aren’t people. We are simply a pool of possible money, valued based on our worth to the company. They do enough to keep us from going elsewhere if we are valuable, but otherwise do everything possible to not take responsibility. They don’t want us calling in so they pass the buck to keep their numbers and they stick to their scripts. The low-level employees have no power and they know darn straight that when we ask for their managers, we’ll never reach them. This is what Kafka feared and the reality of it is far more pervasive than we acknowledge in a market economy.

Old industries rage against new startups who are seeking to disrupt them, but what they don’t take account for is the way in which customers are fed up being beholden to the Milgram-esque practices of these large companies. When all goes well, working with big companies can be seamless. But when it doesn’t, you’re on your own. And that’s a terrifying risk to take. Cars break down, flights get delayed, hotels get oversold. The risks are more upfront with new disruptors but, above all else in peer economy stuff, you often get to interact with people. It’s not perfect – and goddess knows that there are incidents that are forcing the peer economy companies to develop better protections – but somehow, it feels better to know that you’ll be interacting with people, not automatons.

I rent cars for work travel mostly because I like listening to NPR when I’m moving around. I like being able to explore when I don’t know where to eat and this has historically made it easier. But I’m reassessing that logic. I never want to have a repeat of the hellish night that I went through this week. I don’t trust Avis to be there for me. I have a lot more faith in the imperfections of the network of Uber drivers than the coldness of the corporate giant. When they leave you stranded, they leave you *really* stranded. As for my non-urban car rentals, I need to figure out what’s next. I am very angry at Avis. Truly, overwhelmingly offended by how they’ve treated me this week. Also, scared. Scared of what happens the next time when the circumstances aren’t as functional.  But are any of the other companies any better? Do we really have market choice or is it a big ole farce?

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16 comments to Goodbye Avis, Hello Uber

  • Hollie m

    Hubby has had good service from enterprise and budget- and as you know, he travels almost as much /more than you do! ;) we almost tried uber in Chicago but ended up walking everywhere. Waiting for it to arrive in Philly.

  • I don’t want to seem inconsiderate and I do understand the deeper meaning of us becoming faceless accounts in the face of multi-corpororate bank machines but, before you finish the tirade and go off rental cars(forever)(not to say you don’t have the right or a good reason to) did you consider going to another company besides AVIS. The problem is, of course, deeper but it might be worthwhile to forego your reward points and try a different one. Ask them upfront what would happen if adverse circumstances happen. Some do have a guarentee. And, if you want the ultimate peace of mind(although it is slighlty devious) you could call customer service and say you are stranded in L.A. You couldn’t get very high up the totem pole of disaster recovery without an actual car but you could guage their response.

    I think there is something to the benigness and happiness of Uber but there is something to the total freedom represented in one’s own car…

  • Hey, danah.

    By coincidence (or perhaps not), fixing the broken car rental market was one motivation for creating ProjectVRM at the Berkman Center in 2006. The project now has many dozens of developers, all over the world working on VRM projects — all with the purpose of making customers both independent of providers like Avis, yet better able to engage with them (preferably with tools of our own, that work outside corporate silos). Yet car rental remains as FUBAR as it ever was. Fixing that one is not on any developer’s road map — far as I know. Looks like the best we can do is hope that the Ubers and Lyfts of the world will disrupt what is clearly a lousy product/service category.

    Back when we started, I had a long talk with one of the top executives at Budget Rent-a-Car, which shortly thereafter became part of the Avis-Budget Group. Here is some of what he told me, as best I can recall:

    1) The whole industry is caught in a squeeze between regulatory systems and car companies.

    2) On the regulatory side, airports exert a huge amount of control over what a company can and can’t do (partially accounting for non-differences between their offerings, and counters at airports), and also take a much larger slice of revenue, through taxation, than the rental companies themselves make. Municipalities and other bodies also take their own slices.

    3) The car makers hate the rental car companies, because the makers don’t make much money selling or leasing the cars to that channel as they do through their own dealer networks. Car rental also competes with car buying, which makes the whole thing even more fraught.

    4) The down-scale cars that one rents that are “or similar” on the rental car vehicle listings (for “economy,” “compact,” “full-size,” etc.) tend to negatively impact sales of those same cars at dealers. This is less the case now than it was in ’06, because there are fewer cars made for (or relegated to) the rental market (as were the Chevy Cavalier and Cobalt, and the Chrysler Neon and PT Cruiser in their days). Instead today rental car companies have models from many makers. These tend to have much higher odometer readings than were racked up a decade ago. This is both (as I understand it) because fewer cars overall are being sold/leased to agencies like Avis, and the differences between cars are smaller than ever. For example, Chevys are getting better and better while Toyotas and Hondas are getting more and more average and Chevy-like. So there are fewer outright-bad cars (e.g. the Chevy Cavalier and the Chrysler Nova) than there used to be, and the driving experience is much more generic than it ever was. This too, however, argues against buying new cars, and is another reason for the car makers to dislike the rental car companies.

    I had thought for awhile that ZipCar (co-founded by our mutual friend Robin Chase) might disrupt the business; but ZipCar was sold to Avis last year, so we shouldn’t hold our breath for that one.

    All that said, I have never been a loyal customer of any rental car company, and have rented countless cars over the years. And I’ve been lucky not to have had any experiences as bad as yours was. (Well, I did visit three icky experiences back in ’07, as a challenge to developers. Nothing happened.) And here we are, rooting for the disruptors. May the best of those win.

  • Anon

    If they had only left the tools to change the spare in the car you would have been able to swap the spare out in a few minutes and taken it back!

  • As I read this I compared your experience to the one I would have had in the same situation. My first thought was that I’d have called AAA for a tow so it would not have been as bad as what you faced.

    Then I remembered my last towing experience.

    I drive a motorcycle much of the time and so I have a premium “recreational vehicle” AAA membership because you need a flatbed for transport. The last time I broke down the first guy showed up with a tow truck instead of a flatbed. The next guy had a flatbed but no tie-downs. As you can imagine I told the dispatcher on the first call that this was for a bike and repeated that adamantly several times on the second call. He failed to include that information, or else the responding operator ignored it. I never found out which. Despite having the most expensive premium membership offered, I lost a whole day waiting on a tow properly equipped for a motorcycle.

    My only consolation is that it wasn’t in LA in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, very few vendors in any industry are any better. They all aspire to be best and fail to consider that “best” is a relative term. Sometimes vendors need to stop measuring themselves against the competition and switch to more objective criteria for what constitutes excellent service. My illustration of this is the competition to be the best fast food establishment. Those at the top of that category would do well to remember that there’s no prestige in being King of the Hill when the hill in question is a dung heap.

    When Avis was #2, the 60-year stretch form 1962 to 2012, their slogan was “We try harder.” About the time they fell to #2 they dropped the slogan and apparently stopped trying at all. CMO Jeannine Haas says the new slogan “It’s your space” is “reflective of [Avis’] ongoing mission to be a customer-led, service-driven company, and presents the brand in terms of the customer experience and the advantages inherent in renting from Avis.” No shit. The operative word here being “your”. Your space, your problem.

  • OK, that’s 50-year stretch and they dropped to #2. It’s late and I’m tired. And it’s STILL not as bad as waiting on a tow all frickin’ night.

  • RogerTheGeek

    Is this really different than other “service” organizations though? Airlines, banks, and insurance companies come to mind where the agent has little to no control how you are treated as a customer. The most you can do is hope for the best and try to escape any holes they dig for you. In most cases, you are at their mercy and most of the companies are amoral.

    This is one reason I try to drive everywhere in my own vehicle. At least, I have some control. I will remember your experience when I have to rent a car someday.

  • Jonah,

    The differences between car rental companies is to nil than with nearly every other product/service category a traveller encounters. Hotels chains and airlines are far more varied. To some degree this is due to the nature of facilities provided by airports (all the major companies jammed into one rental car pickup-return garage, and within airports all stretched behind one long partitioned counter, looking as nearly-identical as cells in a prison); but to a greater degree they are all copy-cats with remarkably little imagination. And much of the copy-catting is around screwing the customer, for example with insurance one doesn’t need, and “buy your gas first” non-deals that only make sense if you return the car with an empty tank. I am impressed, however, that Avis has a history, with danah, of trying to give her a hybrid. I wasn’t aware that this was even close to an option with any of the agencies.

    Still, one of danah’s points is that she was a loyal Avis customer. That’s why she didn’t check with the competition. And Avis let her down.

    J.D. Power’s latest survey (2013) does show some degree of customer satisfaction range, from 743 to 809 across the category, with Dollar at the bottom and National at the top. The industry average was 775, and both Avis and Budget (owned by the same company) were below that. So was Hertz, which surprises me, since it’s usually (in my experience) the most expensive.

    Anyway, my point is that these companies have been competing for a long time to offer slightly-less-generic services, with an emphasis on screwing customers with time-wasting up-sells at the counter. (Making you pause, for example, to sign and initial a mess of “declined” insurance coverages.)

    Not surprisingly, the top thing customers care about, says J.D. Power, is price. danah chose on actual loyalty and service, and got screwed. That’s a sad reveal, not just on Avis, but on the whole industry.

  • Larry Smith

    “in an Avis car for 20 of the 28 days”

    An unfortunate incident (flat tire)
    led to your terrible experience (stranded)
    that points to a need for disruption of a moribund industry (car rental)
    by using loosely affiliated outside contractors (Uber)
    strung together with a wireless app.

    -1/28 = 0
    Trashing the good in search of the perfect.

  • Matt

    There is a new entrant in the airport car rental market, Silvercar, that is at least differentiating itself from the current players. I have no experience with them, but here is a blog post about them
    http://www.caseyliss.com/2014/5/28/first-time-with-silvercar

    (Nothing in that post to indicate how they would have handled danah’s situation)

  • Cheryl

    This is all so true. Today, I had a terrible experience with Mercedes Benz Financial Services (actually the last few days) while trying to pay off my car. That aside, I want to comment about Uber. I was skeptical at first. I have a daughter in SF who uses it all the time so I got to experience it with her. Efficient, effective, customer focused. The rating feature protects riders and drivers alike. More recently, my younger daughter and two friends (18) used uber to get around San Diego during Comic-con. I was nervous so insisted they send me driver details. They simply took a screen shot of the info that uber sends to tell then who their driver will be. I now have the driver’s name, license plate and make and model of car. No cab company gives you that. Now, I will tell you it’s not as easy to get that info directly from uber (I know because I got worried about my older daughter one night when she didn’t answer her phone and tried to reach uber to get info about her driver (yes, I’m paranoid). With uber, we have some sense of control. We can rate the service and the drivers know it. By the way, my younger daughter left a purchase in one uber car … Not only did the driver return it to the hotel desk, he left an adorable piggy bank as a gift … Ok, maybe he was flirting but he was entirely appropriate while she was in the car and did not harass her at any time. Compare all this with my recent ride with Executive-car to the Phoenix airport. My driver was nice but entirely lost. If I hadn’t realized she missed the airport, I would have missed my plane. She had no training whatsoever. And she’s just one of many such drivers I have had from “premium” services. God help me if I try taking a cab. So, uber it is for now. Who knows what new disruptive service providers will come up with next to improve our lives.

  • One bad experience can ruin a lifetime of good ones, it’s true. And customer service is hard to do right, even if ‘right’ is pretty simple (as in this case). I’ve heard great stories about Avis, Hertz, etc., as well as negative ones.

    But the other part is, also, what you can do to alter the rules of the game. Rep is incompetent? OK, talk to manager. First level of escalation fails? OK, consider the other avenues, where you may have more leverage. In this case, that’s what you ultimately did, but the question is whether you can delegate or outsource more of the suffering and mess in the first place (if it must exist).

    As a still-frequent traveler I am sadly exposed to the constant failings of the travel business (even for me, ostensibly a super-valuable and price-insensitive customer when on business travel) and in my professional experience I am exposed to the constant failings of the business world in general. It’s hard. The Comcast guy – he was just trying to do his job, albeit too eagerly. It’s hard to align all the incentives, training, and systems correctly.

    Ultimately you come back to focusing on people’s desire to be treated like people, by people. But the mantra of so many start-ups, of the tech world in general, is to get rid of all the people. Look up the stories of people trying to fix problems with Google, and you see a chain of misery… and that’s even for those who are paying a lot, but falling below the full-service AdWords thresholds. Once a full-service industry is “disrupted” by its free, ad-supported alternative, where does the customer service go – if it existed at all to begin with? Self-service smarts aren’t invested in the same way revenue-generating features are; cost-deflection is the name of the game for most or at least minimal churn-reduction.

    I don’t really see how the Peer Economy is so different that a franchised / corporate mix of something else. The car breaks down while the owner is away on vacation and you’re “sharing” their car for a “donation” or whatever. How is the problem different? The AirBnB owner is a creep, and you don’t have a good easy recourse and have to call AirBnB. How is it different from a bad hotel, except it’s actually worse? Etc…

  • Dana, I empathize with your upsetting experience and fully understand your level of anger, but I don’t think your level of surprise is justified. Complementing your observation that we’ve become a pool of money to corporations, I’d say we’ve contributed to that in our quest to optimize our consumption. Our intense focus on saving money means every corporation has to drive their prices to an absolute minimum if they want to attract customers. Which means they have to be maximally efficient and operate on tiny margins. For them it’s “wasteful” to hold extra resources in reserve to handle unlikely events. The amount they save by *not* having extra staff available (all the time) just in case someone has a flat is presumably greater than the amount the lose by having angry customers like you who suffer those rare events switch to a different company.

    You get what you pay for, and our consumer society has demanded to pay the absolute minimum. No suprise at the outcome. I’m sure if you’re willing to spend like the 1%, you get service that makes you happy all the time.

  • E

    I would have waited an hour, then drove all the way to their office on the flat. The extra cost would have convinced them to do better next time.

  • When all goes well, working with big companies can be seamless. But when it doesn’t, you’re on your own.

  • Thomas

    Pure corporate greed would probably explain a large amount of your experience:
    1) Industry consolidation in the rental industry (among others) gives you less outright choice
    2) Many of the rental companies are owned by PE firms that exist only to squeeze profits
    3) The front line people aren’t paid a living wage or really enough to care (as shitty as your situation was)
    4) Tort reform and other laissez-faire regulation means that it’s harder for you to get your day in court should you need one

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