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?