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Budget Car Rental, A Failed Brand Promise and The Damage Done


If I told you I’m thin, clean-shaven and demure — and you know me — you’d either laugh in my face or simply nod politely and walk away shaking your head. It’s like President Donald Trump telling us he knows how to act “presidential” before sending out a mean-spirited Twitter rant at 3 a.m. that appears to have come from a fitful 16-year-old internet troll.

We all are relative brands — human beings, organizations and products — each with brand promises meant to appeal to target audiences. In turn, those audiences decide whether or not they wish to engage with us, be friends with us or do business with us.

Pontiac used to sell us on the brand promise that “we build excitement,” and Geico promises that “15 minutes could save you 15% or more on car insurance.” These promises prove worthless if not backed up by requisite actions, which is why no self-respecting hamburger aficionado would eat a burger from McDonald’s (although props on the fries and coffee). 

Rental car companies are brands like any others. Enterprise “picks you up” and appeals to family renters. Hertz, Avis and National have typically gone after business travelers. Dollar and Alamo typically vie for the value-focused consumer. 

Budget rental car is currently running ads featuring Jessica Simpson that target busy families by offering up a brand promise of convenience while highlighting SUVs. And as a father of two with a Spring Break trip upcoming, I bit on the power of advertising. I reserved a vehicle at Budget’s Denver International Airport location, initially signing up for a mid-size car. But after considering the potentially snowy drive from Denver to Steamboat Springs, I changed my reservation online to an SUV hoping to get four-wheel drive.

The online experience for any level of SUV, however, didn’t mention 4WD, so I called the toll-free number for Budget Fastbreak (frequent renters membership club). After spending 15 – 20 minutes online with the representative, I was told they could not help me and to call the Denver desk. I did that, 10 times over three days, and no one answered the line. So I emailed, received no response within a day and a half, and finally took to social media at 4:36pm on Feb. 7:

To be fair, my perspective on social media customer service is a tad skewed. We’ve been doing it for eight years, and we helped build Charter Communications’ program. While there is no industry standard, response times can depend on how active that channel is. If a customer tweets a concern after hours, by our standard, a response within 12–18 hours is reasonable. If it’s during regular business hours, however, acknowledgement of your post should happen within an hour. Thus, with mine being during business hours, I expected some degree of response within an hour or so. Just under five hours later, I heard back:

We then went back and forth, and two Tweets later they asked me if I emailed socialinfo@budgetgroup.com. I told them, “No, I followed the instructions on your website as all consumers are supposed to do.”

OK, Twitter seemed to be proving a dead. Drats! But on Feb. 9, I finally heard back via email (three and a half days later). Excitement ensued and fistbumps were had in the Perlut house! The response? 

Unfortunately Budget customer service is unable to determine or guarantee that you would receive a 4 wheel drive vehicle, we advise that you contact your location directly and advise them of your preference.

Bummer. I responded back, alerting them I had called over and over and over again to no avail. This time, I received a relatively quick email back. Sweet!

Upon arrival, you may advise the counter representative of your preference within your car class and, if available, we will be happy to accommodate your request.

Ugh. One more dead-end channel through which nothing was accomplished.

I shared my experience with a member of our team who has an extensive background in online customer service and he shared an anecdote about Redbox. One night, his family was preparing for a family movie night and had picked up a movie. Once they settled in on the couch with a pizza, they opened the movie case and saw the DVD was cracked. He tweeted at Redbox and instantly received a response that addressed his concern, demonstrated a desire to help and offered a speedy resolution. He emailed them immediately and received a response offering an instant account credit. In the end, he said, “We knew that Redbox cares.”

While my colleague’s Redbox experience demonstrates how customer service should be executed and the resulting emotional impact, mine outlines how Budget’s actions failed its brand promise and damaged the brand in the eyes of a consumer.

Oh, and I now have a reservation with Alamo. Boom!

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