Inciter | If you don’t care, at least fake it
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If you don’t care, at least fake it

The other day I had the illuminating experience of dealing with two car rental companies in the same day. I had booked a Zipcar for a trip to Richmond to meet with a client. I needed a reliable car service that I could catch from the train station in Washington, D.C. and the Zipcar system is really an amazing one.

Zipcar has cars located strategically close to public transportation systems in urban areas and college towns. The idea is that once you are a member of Zipcar, you use theCar online registration system to book the car, then just show up with your key card, get in, and drive away. So this particular morning I arrived at the train station in Springfield, Virginia and there was no Zipcar there.None. As it turned out I either reserved the car for the wrong day, or the reservation system malfunctioned. Either way, it was a very stressful experience.

So imagine my surprise when I called customer service, and was told that I would be charged $3.50 to talk to a live person! This I was willing to do because without a Zipcar I couldn’t get to my meeting. But for $3.50 I would have expected a customer service representative who was at least sympathetic. It was obvious that the woman on the other end of the line could not have cared less that I was in a bind. And it occurred to me, even when the company can’t do anything to resolve your problem (I can understand that they can’t make a vehicle appear out of thin air) it really goes a long way to at least pretend to check on things and see if there’s a solution. It’s a good idea to appear sympathetic even if you feel confident that the customer’s harried state is due to their own misuse of the product or service. And the most unfortunate aspect of this overlooked strategy is it wouldn’t have cost Zipcar a dime.

So standing in the parking lot without a car, I thought, “I’ll call Enterprise, I doubt they can do anything, but it’s worth a phone call.” Why enterprise? They have a good reputation, and they are known for picking people up. But I figured there was no way they could get me in a car in time to make my meeting. When the assistant manager of the Enterprise office picked up the phone, I explained my situation, ending with a pathetic “there’s not any way you could help, is there?” He answered “we can pick you up in ten minutes; we’ll have you in a car in 25”.

I didn’t believe him, but said I would give it a shot. It helps when customers have low expectations, don’t you know? But the best part was, Enterprise fulfilled its promise, and I was on the road in time to make the meeting in Richmond. What’s the lesson here? Even if you can’t help the customer, pretend like you care. Even the offer of a small condolence prize (they could have offered to credit me the charge I received for the Zipcar I never drove) or just plain human sympathy can help. People often understand that things go wrong, but they don’t understand when the company doesn’t seem to care. And the lesson for Enterprise? When another company screws up their customer service, take advantage of it. The last thing the assistant manager said to me as I walked out the door at the end of the day after returning my car was “next time don’t use Zipcar, use us!” and I probably will.

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