Friday, April 13, 2012

Gas in Jew Jersey

Driving back from NY the other day, I stopped at a Sunoco station on the NJ Turnpike. I did the normal out-of-state-tourist thing and started to unbuckle my seatbelt when I saw the attendant walk towards me. Fortunately, from deep in my memory, the recollection of New Jersey's archaic gas-pumping law bubbled up, so I didn't make a fool of myself by trying to get out of the car.

I had a rental car that I checked out with 3/4 tank of gas, so I wanted to return it with a three-quarter tank, of course. I did some quick math and determined I needed exactly 13.2 gallons to bring the car back to 3/4 plus enough to drive the 80 miles to Hertz.

The attendant walked up to my window, and I said, "Can you put 14 gallons in?" He looked at me for a second and then said, "No. Dollars." I gave an exasperated sigh (both because of the archaic law preventing me from easily doing what I needed to do, which was put exactly 13.2 gallons in as well as my perception of his questionable intelligence) and whipped out the calculator. I could have been mean and said $48.32, but I decided $50 would be easier for him to understand.

The next few minutes left me sitting there feeling mildly insulted by the New Jersey legislature. Why am I perfectly safe to pump my own gas in 48 other states? I've never blown myself up there (or seen anyone else blow themselves up, for that matter). Do I magically become inept upon crossing the New Jersey state line? In some way, I guess I should appreciate the "full service" aspect of the law--meaning I don't have to do it myself--but two things challenged that: it actually made it more difficult in this case, since I had to do extra mental gyrations to communicate to the attendant what I wanted (and spent an extra $1.68 in doing so), and on top of that, there is something that feels fundamentally un-American about not being allowed to do it yourself, like they're taking an essential liberty away from me or something.

Fast forward to today. I Googled some background on the New Jersey fuel-pumping law and came across this (older) article from USA Today. What's actually funny about the article is just how stupid it makes New Jersey residents and lawmakers look. Check out this quote:

"Bill Dressler, executive director of the New Jersey Gasoline Retailers Association and Allied Trades, says there are safety concerns. While attendants are trained, many motorists would be novices. 'It could be put in the wrong container, says Dressler, whose group represents about 2,200 of the state's 3,800 gas stations.

The wrong container? Seriously? Does he honestly believe that New Jersey residents are too stupid to find the big hole in the side of their cars where you stick the nozzle in?

Or this one:

"Even though [Amanda Darien is] going to have to work more this summer to pay her gas tab, she says, 'I just don't want to get out" of the car. She has been to other states, and when it came time to fill up, 'I didn't even know how.'"

Perhaps my statement above was premature. Maybe they really are too dumb to fill their own gas.

My favorite is this, though:

"Assemblyman Francis Bodine, a Republican, says that after stopping at self-service stations in the South recently, he found that gas in New Jersey was the same price or slightly cheaper. 'So I don't see any economic savings to having to pump your own gas,' he says. 'The flip side of it is ... there'd be some job losses.' Besides, he says, 'If I'm in a tux going to a black tie (event), I don't want to stop and handle a gas pump.'"

I'm not sure there's any further comment needed about that.

(I will clarify, though, his comment on gas prices--according to Jim Benton of the New Jersey Petroleum Council, New Jersey's gas taxes are the third lowest in the nation. "People don't realize that while New Jersey gasoline is typically cheap, it's not because of a full-service requirement, but because of our low motor-fuel tax," he says. "There's no reason to suggest that prices would not be in fact even cheaper" if stations went to self-service.)

I suppose I should just relax and let them pump my gas for me. At the very least, it gives me a few seconds to catch up on email, Facebook, or to Google the history of arcane laws. As long as the attendant can understand "$48.32, please."

Monday, November 26, 2007

I guess mileage running is a crime

I receive email fare alerts from that wonderful deal-finding website Earlier this summer, I found some great deals from my hometown of Anchorage, Alaska to various far-away, exotic places on the east coast: Charlotte, NC, and Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. (Hey, at least they were exotic to me, since they're on the opposite side of the continent.)

As I began to look into the travel possibilities, I noticed that the trips would net me about 9,500 airline miles each, and so three trips would get me to Alaska Airlines MVP status. So I made haste and booked three trips: two to Charlotte (one for the end of August and another one in December, figuring I could jump in a car or on a train and go somewhere more exciting than Charlotte itself) and one to Charlottetown. According to Travelocity's flexible dates feature, though, there weren't a whole lot of dates with seats left, so I found a pair that worked: leaving here on 9/6 and returning on 9/8. The trip was as much of a mileage run to help me achieve elite status for the first time ever as it was a trip to actually see the destination. Besides, I love whirlwind weekend trips: nothing like someone asking what I did last weekend and telling them, "Oh, I was on the east coast of Canada." It's always funny to see them do a double-take.

I left and had a wonderful 22 hours there, during which I drove around downtown Charlottetown before heading across the great Confederation Bridge and down to Halifax for the night. I left Halifax the next morning, chanced upon a perfectly-timed stop in Truro to see the world-famous bore tide come up the Salmon River from the Bay of Fundy, and rushed in the Charlottetown airport with just 50 minutes to spare before my flight.

Fortunately, Charlottetown is a small airport, and there was no hint of a line through security. But my first inkling of a problem came when the friendly Transport Canada inspector asked me to step aside. First, he passed a metal-detecting wand over my entire body, and then asked me if it would be all right if I let him pat me down. Of course I wasn't going to say no (I had a feeling it was a rhetorical question, despite the pleasantly-surprising politeness and joviality of Canadian security), so he donned a pair of gloves and proceeded with a full-body pat down. I passed with flying colors, of course, and proceeded to wait in the seating area for my flight to Boston.

Once we arrived in Boston, I began to understand why so many people call Logan Airport one of the worst (it seems there's a competition between Logan and Dulles for which is more hated). First of all, apparently no one gave our Delta/Comair flight crew copies of U.S. customs forms (whether that's the fault of Comair, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, or Logan operations isn't clear), so we were unable to fill out forms prior to our arrival. Second, we sat on the tarmac for a good 10 or 15 minutes before we were allowed to disembark from the small 50-seater CRJ and proceed onto the shuttle bus from our gate at Terminal A over to Terminal E (supposedly we were waiting for some paperwork). Once we arrived at Terminal E, we were herded up the escalator and into the customs and immigration hall. Of course, none of us had filled out our customs forms, so we all huddled around a small table and shared pens while we watched three 747s-worth of passengers arrive through the door and get in line for Passport Control ahead of us.

Finally, after waiting for 20 minutes in line, I was thrust in front of the passport inspector. He slid my passport through his computer and asked me a few brief questions about my residency and where I had come from. Then he asked me how long I had been in Canada.

"One day," I replied, although I wasn't sure if my 22 hours should have been counted as two calendar days.

Pause, followed by a suspicious look at me.

"Where do you live?"

"Anchorage, Alaska," I replied, probably a bit tentatively.

A rapid fire response: "Where do you work?"

"Um, at a car rental agency."

Again, without hesitation? "Which one?"

I told him.

"Are you a student?"

"Yes," I replied.

"What are you studying?"

"Journalism," I replied, beginning to grow a bit anxious and a tad bit annoyed.

"Why did you only go to Canada for one day?"

"Uh, the fare was cheap and it was the only day I could get off," I replied, now truly concerned. I know it's not good form to snap back at a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officer, but it took every fiber in my body to stop myself from screaming, "I'm not a bloody terrorist! I was just trying to qualify for elite status on an airline!"

He then thumbed through my passport, which only has one other stamp (from my trip to Australia--my old passport with all of my European stamps had expired). I don't know if that made me look suspicious, but at that point I think he pressed me for another couple of questions, wrote a big check mark on my customs form, and sent me on my way.

I proceeded downstairs and collected my bag from the carousel, where a Delta agent had been watching it while she waited for my interrogation to be completed. My connection time was starting to get tight, so I threaded my way through the crowd off of an Alitalia flight and waited in the Green: Nothing to Declare line.

At the front of that line, another customs agent examined my customs form. "Sir," he said, "I need you to go wait over by that 'stop' sign there."

Uh, sure, I guess--who am I to question an agent of the federal government? Maybe I had been selected for a random inspection even though I had nothing to declare.

Even though there was no one in line in front of me, I waited a full five minutes before an agent finally called me over to her line. I handed her my customs form. "Sir, I need to see your passport," she said. I was surprised, since my recollection was that once I had passed Passport Control, I didn't need to produce it again. (Not that I was opposed to it, but I pride myself on looking like a seasoned traveler and always having exactly the right documentation ready to produce at exactly the right time.)

"Where are you coming from?" she asked.

"Canada," I said.

"What were you doing in Canada?"

"Just visiting. I found a cheap airfare."

"Do you know anyone there?"

"No," I said, now feeling like I had done this before.

"How long were you there?"

"One day," I said, and the same thought about calendar days passed through my head.

"That's a pretty short time to travel to a foreign country," she said. Uh oh.

"Uh, they were the only days I could get off," I stammered.

"Sir, I need you to put your items on the belt for inspection," she said. I proceeded to do so. "This is a lot of stuff for a one-day trip," she said as she proceeded to open my backpack, which contained my laptop and reading material, and my small rolling suitcase, which contained my toiletries and a change of clothes. (I would have stuffed everything in my backpack, but with the liquid ban, I figured I'd better take something I could check.)

"Um, it's mostly, uh, German homework in case I have time to do it," I said. Wow. What a dumb response.

She proceeded to leaf through my backpack. She unzipped a compartment I had forgotten about and pulled out five or six burned CDs. "What's on these disks?" she said as she glared at me.

"I don't know...uh, they're probably audio CDs or something? I forgot they were in there." Suddenly, I was struck with visions of her associate grabbing me and slamming me on the floor and slapping a pair of handcuffs on me. The last place I wanted to be was in a Boston jail, although that would have made a pretty cool excuse for why I could not show up for work the next day.

"Where do you live again?" she asked.

Phew, an easy question. "Anchorage, Alaska," I said.

"Who do you work for?"

I told her.

"What do you do for them?"

"Um, customer service, and I'm a manager." Oh, like she cares that I'm a lousy shift manager. Whoopdedoo.

She conferred with her associate for a moment and proceeded to hand back my passport. "You're all clear."

I sort of stood there in shock for a second, but when I noticed her associate eyeing me, I decided I'd better get out of there before I did anything else suspicious. "Uh, thanks," I stammered as I zipped up my bags.

Once safely out the door and back in my home country, I tried to console myself with thoughts about them just doing their jobs to prevent terrorism or that my quick trip must have flagged something in their computer or that it was just the legendary East Coast or Bostonian sharpness. Still, I couldn't help but think that the good ol' U.S. of A didn't feel quite as welcoming as it should have.

So far, though, the INS folks haven't broken down my door and carted me away, so I think I'm safe for the time being... :P

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Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Customer Service, Part II

In a recent article, Christopher Elliott said: "Hertz showed its commitment to customer service when it offered to drive a key out to your location. If it had continued to show that high level of customer service, it should have allowed you to return the car after you had it towed back to the dealership." He was referring to a replacement of a key stolen out of a rental car.

As a rental agent (not Hertz) who very much values happy customers and good customer service, I have to ask: what is the definition of customer service?

Over the few years I've worked in customer service, I've come to the conclusion that excellence in customer service is swiftly, completely and gladly taking care of any problem that is the company's fault. Excellence in customer service should be expected of any company.

But I've begun to think that good customer service doesn't necessarily extend to righting problems created by the customer. These are things in which a company can "go the extra mile," but you can't hold anything against a company if they don't do these. You can certainly pledge your loyalty to them because of their willingness to work with you and take care of you, but you can't accuse them of poor customer service because they won't throw money at you.

Let me make this more concrete. I'll use the Hertz rental car incident, since that's the industry I'm familiar with and that's what started this whole thought process.

The customer lost the key. She should not have left it and her purse in the car. She could have (and should have) prevented the whole mess by keeping the key in the house with her.

So, Hertz should not be expected to spend their money and their agent's time to provide a new key. The fact that they did surprises me. Maybe the office had nothing else to do that day. For them to come out to the house for no charge was an act of service that goes above and beyond. But they would have been perfectly within their rights to inform the customer that she would be responsible for all charges.

Can the rental agency really be expected to write off a tank of gas, a door ding, or $20 because the renter forgot to fill it up, accidentally bumped into a pole, or couldn't find the airport? I've had people swear never to rent from me again because I wouldn't do the above. If we refunded everyone's gas tank who simply forgot to fill it up, never charged for damages because "it was an accident," and gave $20 to every person who complained about their inability to read a map and find where the rental returns are (when they're clearly marked, too!), we'd never turn a profit. (As it is now, we barely turn a profit--the rental industry is like the airline industry--extremely competitive and therefore unable to raise rates without losing business--except without the government subsidies. That's why they push the insurance sales so much--sometimes that can make or break the bottom line.) If we dispatched one of my agents every time someone called and said their keys got locked in their car or their tire got flat and they need help putting on the spare, we'd have to raise my rates by a few dollars per day. We'd need to hire an extra person whose sole function was to drive around town and help these people. He may even have to spend several days on the road driving out of town to help people stuck in rural areas. After benefits and taxes, that's upwards of $50,000 per year.

Sure, it's nice when a company is understanding about incidents, and I know it's never an easy time when stuff gets stolen from you, you run into a tree and your car won't drive, you get a flat tire or you lock the keys in your car, but those are all things that YOU can prevent. You really have no right to get mad at the rental agency for charging you for their services or even leaving you to deal with the situation on your own.

If they choose to be nice and help you on their dime, then be grateful! As I said before, you can surely pledge to rent from them for the rest of your life. Companies can (and do) use this "above and beyond" as a strategy to gain customer loyalty. But again, it's not fair for you to complain and pledge to boycott a company because they wouldn't pay for your mistake. That's unethical and un-American. And unfortunately, that's what society has become: most people don't like taking responsibility for their actions.

Let me use a comparable example in the airline industry. An airline customer service agent once told me that she was sick of people getting mad at her because *they* missed their flights or got to the airport too late to check in. Should the airline put these people on another flight--or even worse, another flight on another airline, costing them upwards of several thousand dollars--at no charge, just because it's "good customer service"? Sure, when the airline overbooks or is delayed because of mechanical problems, these actions are appropriate--because they are preventable and correctable by the airline. Bad or spoiled food, poor attitudes, faulty equipment, careless baggage handlers--these are all things that the airline should own up to and compensate customers for. But if it's out of the airline's control--late customers, security snafus, or even weather-related delays, the airlines can't be expected to take on that financial burden. If they do, great--pledge your loyalty to them because they do that sort of thing. But they're not contractually and ethically obliged to do it.

Last, back to the rental industry: if something happens that clearly IS the rental agency's fault, then by all means, the company SHOULD right the wrong swiftly, gladly and completely. There are many times when this does happen, and when it does, we try to take care of the customers. Sometimes engines break down due to faulty construction. Our warranty with the manufacturer covers these incidents, so we gladly take care of customers for no charge. Even if we rented old cars that were out of warranty, we'd still shoulder the responsibility for mechanical breakdowns, because our maintenance procedures are responsible for determining the reliability of the automobile. If we give the customer faulty directions to the car or forget to give them their keys, then they're perfectly within their rights to ask (nicely, though, please! We're much more willing to work with you when you're pleasant.) for a discount for their lost time. If we run out of cars and have to make you wait, that's on us: we should have planned our reservations better. (Even though the need for overbooking comes from the high percentage--30%--of people who make reservations but then never show up, so in a way, that's society's fault as well.) That's where free upgrades come in if they're available. But if your reservation was for 10 a.m. and it's now 8 p.m., you can't expect us to (and get mad at us when we don't) give you a free upgrade because your vehicle's no longer available.

In summary, a good company should take responsibility for its actions. They should swiftly, gladly and completely right any wrongs that they're responsible for. But they can't be held to pay for things that are the customer's fault. If they do, then bonus: that company should be rewarded with more business. But if they don't, then no one has a right to complain.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Rudolph the Brown-Noser Reindeer

Christmas music gets to me because it's so repetitive. Buy a CD of it and chances are it's the same 10 songs that are on every other CD of Christmas music.

Anyway, as I was listening to an old '40s singer croon her version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, it dawned on me how different those times were. Rudolph, with his weird nose, was the subject of unending teasing on the reindeer playground. But as soon as Santa picked him, "all of the reindeer loved him."

In today's elementary schools, when the teacher picks the nerd for a special project, it just adds another thing for his classmates to tease him about, saying he's a brown-noser, a teacher's pet, or a suck-up.

Perhaps reindeer are not as cruel as real kids...

Saturday, December 10, 2005


In a Wikipedia article about the movie "The Island," Starkweather is described as "a tall and muscular African-American." This brings up an interesting point I've thought about for a long time.

I just saw the movie on the plane ride back from L.A. America has nothing to do with the movie. Perhaps he should be labeled "a tall and muscular African-Utopian." The clones know nothing about living in America.

Or maybe we should just say he's black.

Or how about disposing with labels altogether? Wasn't that Dr. King's goal--that people would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character?

Friday, December 09, 2005

The Tim Tam Slam

This exchange was on the Tim Tam talk page in the Wikipedia. (No offense to anyone reading here...)

AnnaAniston: Sorry, but do we need to put "(US: Cookie)" next to the word biscuit? I'm sure that our yankee cousins who have made it to the Tim Tam page might have an idea what a Tim Tam is, if not then the picture might assist, or if they're really stuck, they could click on the link to biscuit and figure it from there. I just can't believe that americans can be so dull as to need a separate language spelled out for them at every turn! (in playful exasperation!)

dmmaus: Agree. We don't need to go adding "(UK, Australia: Biscuit)" to every article where the word "cookie" appears. I imagine that would be stopped pretty quickly. Same thing here.

Me: OK, I agree (as the person who originally added the "(US: Cookie)" note to the article) that we should avoid unnecessary clutter, so I don't have a problem with removing that note. However, I have to, as a well-traveled American citizen who works in the travel industry, disagree with AnnaAniston's hypothesis that Americans can't "be so dull." Most Americans are VERY oblivious to the way things are done in other cultures and countries. In fact, I'm the only one at my place of business who knows how to dial internationally--no one else knows what the international access code is or what country codes, city codes and the like are. I have to make sure to note that an envelope will need foreign postage. I bet you none of them can name the countries with right-hand drive, and I can guarantee that none knows what GSM mobile service is and how SIM cards work or even that non-US countries usually call "cell phone" service "mobile." I could go on, but you get the picture. One would hope that Americans using the Wikipedia are of a slightly higher average intelligence and awareness than most, but, well, it goes on. As I mentioned to someone today while I was at work: "A smart customer? I think that's an oxymoron."

All right, now that I got that out of my system...

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Standard and Poor of Living

I work in the tourism industry in a place that gets a lot of international tourists. A $125-per[-summer]-night motel (yes, motel, not hotel) room is high but not excessive to a middle-class American, but that price must be obscene to someone from Romania, the Sudan, or China.

When the media reports of laborers in Thailand making $1 per day, most people's immediate reaction is, "Oh my gosh, how can anyone live on that?" But you have to keep in mind, too, that things cost a lot less in Thailand than here--$1 goes MUCH further. I've heard reports of 4-star-hotels going for $20 per night, and lavish six-course dinners costing $10. (OK, my memory might be exaggerating, but you get the picture.) So, a $1-per-day income in a country like that, while still far below the average relative income of someone in the U.S., is not quite as low as it sounds at first.

I'm not an economist, but I'm intrigued about how all of this relates. In my completely ignorant and uneducated view, I see two factors:

1. Income
2. Cost of living

So, here's how I see this all interacting from my view.

1. Income: Within my country's borders (the U.S.), my income qualifies me for lower-middle-class status

2. Cost of living: I like to call myself a poor, starving college student, but I'm lucky enough to have low living expenses and a decent job. I can afford the food I need, a well-running car (not anything fancy, mind you), and a laptop computer. I can also afford to take a few much-needed trips each year.

1. Income: Let's assume I keep my American job and take a two-month trip to Thailand.

2. Cost of living: That same income will go MUCH farther. I'd probably be able to afford a nice seaside condo and perhaps a housekeeping service. I might even be able to make payments on an imported luxury car--a Mercedes, perhaps.

1. Income: Let's assume I take a job in Bangkok that is similar to my current job. My income is cut 90%.

2. Cost of living: My new income in Thailand qualifies me for lower-middle-class status. I have to share a flat with a couple of friends, rely on public transportation, and can't afford many imported-from-America items.

1. Income: My small income per year is well below the U.S. poverty line.

2. Cost of living (traveling): I can barely afford the bus ride from the airport to my old house--it's half a day's Thai wages for me. A Taco Bell burrito costs as much to me as a four-star restaurant back in Thailand.

There's a third factor, too--the exchange rate. Currencies rise and fall against each other--one day, the Euro is strong and the dollar is weak, and travelers to Europe see a higher cost whereas travelers to the U.S. feel slightly richer in comparison. Goods imported from Europe are more expensive (a Mercedes might cost $2,000 more).

So what my actual QUESTION is, then, is can someone devise a simple-to-understand way to put all of this data together? Purchasing power parity and GDP lists are useful, but I want to know how it applies to my daily life and to the daily lives of people in other countries.

The Economist's Big Max Index is a very useful tool for this, but it doesn't quite go far enough. Let me pose some hypotheticals followed by some questions:
1. In order to pay for a Big Mac in the U.S., I need to work at my job for about 15 minutes. Or, put another way, I can buy 4 Big Macs per hour.
2. In order to pay for a Big Mac in Argentina, I only need to work about 8 minutes. I can afford almost twice as many Big Macs there as I can here, or 8 per hour. Therefore, can I conclude that my standard of living is twice as good as his?
3. How long does an Argentinean need to work to pay for a Big Mac? Let's assume an Argentinean in a similar place in life as me makes half as much as I do. Therefore, he needs to work about 15 minutes to pay for a Big Mac--the same 4 per hour as I can buy. Are our standards of living comparable?
4. The Argentinean comes to the U.S. He can only afford 2 Big Macs per hour. Is he poor?

Let's assume that a Big Mac is a fairly good measure of the average price for food. (That is, a dinner at McDonalds costs roughly the same as a dinner at any other fast food joint, is cheaper than casual dining, and somewhat in line with food prices at a grocery store.) Regardless of exchange rates, in the above example, both of us spend about the same percentage of our income on Big Macs--that is, on food. Assuming transportation, housing and goods were roughly the same proportion of the Argentinean's income as it is for me, we'd both have roughly the same standard of living...unless you introduce that perhaps his food isn't as good as mine and his housing is ramshackle.

I think what the real thing I'm looking for is: what percentage of the average person's income is spent for a given standard of living? Yes, the Big Mac in Switzerland costs more, but do Swiss people make more? Probably not: I had a nurse friend in Germany who made about $1500 (USD) per month. Yet the cost of living in Germany is far higher than it is in the U.S.--gas is (or was, anyway) four times as much there as here, and even eating out was relatively expensive (the average meal bill as seen on our U.S. credit card statement was more for a party of four than it was at a similar restaurant back home). How did she survive? She was the housekeeper for a Catholic priest and paid no rent. (But not everyone can do that.)

Cackle's Jackal?

Hmm. I guess I'm not as original as I thought. Grr. (And her blog has been around a little longer than mine.)

P.S. Check out the Emily Chickenson fried chicken doll greeting card set that she linked to...

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Thoughts on Customer Service

I have a habit of going off on long rants on random things. (In fact, I debated titling this blog "Random Musings from The Jackal," but "The Jackal's Cackle" sounded better.) Sometimes I post them in the discussion area of various Wikipedia entries. That's not really the place for it (although right now the readership potential is much higher there than here, since no one knows about this, yet), so I thought I'd cave in and start a blog, because I want comments. Lots of comments.

For my first post, I'll take the random rant I just posted on the discussion page of Wikipedia's Customer Service article and post it here (edited slightly to remove the original's irrelevant Wikipedia-ness). It's somewhat stream-of-conscious, but I rather like it that way. (I may edit it for coherency when I get a chance.) I welcome any and all comments.


What is the boundary between good customer service and unnecessarily "sucking up" to the customer and even "throwing money" at them? In my opinion, customer service consists of two parts: the attitude (friendly, helpful, knowledgeable, etc.) and the action (treating customers well, resolving disputes, etc.).

In my industry--rental cars--it is really easy for customers to be dissatisfied. Whether it's simple (and somewhat avoidable, although all put together it's nearly impossible to get everything 100% perfect 100% of the time) things like frozen windshield wipers, slightly dirty cars, or even the way the cars handle or large things that we have to do that can turn people off, like charging them for damage, their walk to the cars (my airport is HORRIBLY laid out, but we have no control over it), many people come back angry and claiming to never rent from us again. (Of course, all the other agencies do the exact same things we do...which may be why rental cars is consistently ranked among the lowest customer-friendly industries.)

Our franchise tries to offer the "attitude" part of customer service well--we try to staff our counters with friendly, outgoing, knowledgeable employees--but it's harder to find the balance with the "action" part of customer service.

Personally, I very much believe in the value of customer service. I believe that excellence in customer service will reward us in the long run with more profits due to repeat business and good referrals (although this is harder to do in a tourist-centric town like mine is, where people visit mostly once). I have a tendency--or so say many of my colleagues--to overcompensate customers for their complaints. (They say I'm too eager to "give away the farm.") If it were up to me, I'd try to make everybody happy. But realistically, there has to be SOME POINT at which you have to draw the line and say, "No more!" (Reminds me of the Dilbert comic where Dogbert is training managers: "Rule number one of customer service: The customer is always right. Rule number two: They must be punished for their arrogance!")

Let me try some concrete examples.

1. Someone comes in to us and complains that the car was dirty--they found an empty soda can in the back seat, and the back rugs weren't vacuumed. Our fault. They want compensation. What would be good customer service "in action"? Seems easy: perhaps a 5% discount. Or perhaps nothing, some argue--perhaps that's just one of those things that happens occasionally, and people shouldn't be so anal about it. I lean toward the former, but I can appreciate the management's point of view in that if we always handed back money for every little complaint, we'd eventually be broke and bankrupt.

2. Let's try a more difficult one. A customer returns the car after having to drag five suitcases through the snow through the 1/4 mile walk from the lot to the counter. Not our fault--we can't control where the airport puts us. They're angry and yelling, though. Should we give them a coupon for a free day? Everyone else says no. I waver. I know it's something we can't control, but I still feel bad for the customer having to suffer through it. Perhaps we could go to extreme measures and hire some more shuttle drivers to sit out in the lot and drive people up to the airport terminal where the cars are, but that could cost us close to $100,000 in wages, benefits, insurance, etc. for the four full-time shifts that would need to cover it. Can we afford that? No. Is that customer service in action? Yes. Is it worth it? That's a hard call.

3. How about when people claim they're never renting from us again because THEY crashed into the tree and crunched the front end of the car at a cost of $8,000 (after declining our "expensive" insurance). What is excellent customer service that exceeds the customer's expectations? Well, we can't just eat the $8000 because someone swore they were going to write the attorney general and tell everyone to never rent from us again.

4. I'm the only worker on premises. I can't leave the counter as I must be there to answer the telephone or wait to rent cars to anyone else who shows up. A customer who is disabled comes up to me. He says he cannot walk out to the car staging area (which, again, is 1/4 mile away). He tells me that I need to go out to the car and drive it closer for him. What do I do? I'd love to be of service, but I can't just leave the till for anyone to come in and steal. And of course someone else (a hurried businessperson, perhaps) is going to walk up and be miffed that I'm not there to immediately help them out. What to do in this situation?

These are the tough issues of customer service. It's easy to smile and point someone (or take them over) to the infant clothing section, but it's far harder to deal with dissatisfied customers who threaten to take their business elsewhere, whether it's your company's fault or not. What say you?