On a recent plane ride on Virgin America, suddenly struck with the need for nourishment, I tried to order food from my seat’s touch screen but was unable. I called the flight attendant for help. She told me that food service had ended; it was too close to landing. “Well,” she said, after I offered up my best hangdog look, “let me see if I can grab something for you.”
She returned with a tuna sandwich and a chocolate bar. I reached for my wallet. “Don’t worry about it,” she said. She smiled and walked away.
As I tucked into my sandwich — which tasted even better because it was free — I thought about how the bean counters at some companies might be horrified at the unaccounted expense of employees giving away inventory that was earmarked as a sales item.
When I got home, I was motivated to post on Facebook that Virgin had given me free food. This provoked a string of responses from Facebook friends regarding other positive experiences on Virgin, and was no doubt seen by those who had never flown Virgin.
In the days when the millennial generation is downright antagonistic to traditional advertising and when positive social media reviews are gold, what price would any company pay to have my positive posting on Facebook? You can bet it’s worth a lot more than the $7 sandwich. Richard Branson’s company gets it.
At Auto Rental Summit in November, David Purinton of PurCo recounted a similar situation. When he was a manager at a major car rental branch, he gave all his employees — including the shuttle drivers — coupons for discounts that they could give customers as needed to enhance the customer experience. The bean counters weren’t necessarily happy, he said. But the effect was two-fold: Not only did the coupon delight the customer on the spot, Purinton’s employees were empowered to make decisions that in turn enhanced their investment in the company.
“Customer experience is the new marketing,” said former Mercedes-Benz USA president and CEO Steve Cannon during a CXPA (Customer Experience Professionals Association) webinar.
“Now with social media and the connected environment we live in, a good experience can lead to thousands of connections and a negative experience can lead to potentially more than that,” he said.
This is acutely true for the car rental industry. Where can you make a difference, if your product — a rental car — is often viewed as a commodity? Where can you make a difference as a non-major rental company, where competing with the big guys on price is nearly impossible?
If online travel agencies (OTAs) such as Expedia and Priceline start prominently displaying Yelp-like reviews of car rental experiences, all car rental companies will need to elevate their game. In car rental, customer service is the new battlefield. Customer service is your differentiator. Embrace it now, because it will become your key to survival.