Thursday, April 18, 2013

You Know How To Take The Reservation

While I’ve been on Twitter for a few years now, I never really viewed it as much more than a tool for following news and sharing views on topics of interest to me (politics, beer, sports, etc.). I usually dismissed claims about how it and other social media tools like Facebook were going to revolutionize business interactions and that companies needed to have a social media presence (more than just advertising) or risk being left behind as overblown hype.

Now, while I still remain skeptical about much social media is really going to “change everything” when it comes to business, a recent experience has at least partially opened my eyes to the power that social media can provide to consumers and the businesses who serve them.

A few years ago, the company in whose salt mines I toil switched car rental vendors from Avis to National. While I never really had any issues with Avis, I quickly became a fan of National after the transition. I’m an Emerald Club member which means that when I arrive at a National location I proceed directly to the rows of Emerald Club vehicles, choose the one I want (I usually drive a different car each time) , and head to the exit. After a quick ID check and a couple of questions (fuel, GPS), the gate is raised and I’m on my way. It’s a quick, simply, and efficient process which is what most travelers are looking for.

When I return the car, the process is equally painless. By the time you get your belongings out of the vehicle, the National customer service rep already has your receipt printed out and you’re on your way. Again, it’s quick, simple, and efficient. I probably end up renting through National ten to twelve times a year and I’ve always had good experiences with them.

So when we were planning a family vacation to visit my wife’s sister’s family in Miami I decided that we should get a minivan from National. Traveling with three small boys, suitcases, and car seats is anything but a quick, simple, and efficient process. So anything that would help ease that pain was much desired. Last year on the same trip, we rented a minivan from Dollar. We saved some money upfront, but had to wait in line forty-five minutes before we could get to the vehicle. After a long day of travel with kids, that’s the last thing we wanted. It’s true that time is money, but not all time is equally valuable. It’s hard to put a price on the value of time not spent in line with restive children.

When I discovered that I could use some of my Delta sky miles to rent from National, it seemed like the perfect solution. Yes, it would cost more (based on the miles to dollars equivalents) to go with National this way, but it would ensure a much smoother pick up process and would avoid at least some of the stress of family travel. It was relatively easy to book the minivan through Delta’s site. There wasn’t an opportunity for me to add my Emerald Club number to the reservation, but I assumed that I could do that later on.

I assumed wrong. First I tried to do it online through National’s site. I got a message that since the reservation wasn’t made directly with National the only way to add my Emerald Club number was to cancel the existing reservation and make a new one with National. That seemed silly to me and I assumed that I could resolve the problem with a phone call.

Again, I assumed wrong. I called the general National customer service number and explained my problem to the rep. All I wanted to do was to get my Emerald Club number added to the reservation so that I could pick up the minivan the same way that I always did when renting with National. The rep explained that this was not possible. The “system” would not allow it since my reservation was a “voucher” reservation. Therefore, I would have to go to the National counter in Miami when we arrived, wait in line, and then they could add my Emerald Club number. I reiterated that this was exactly what I wanted to avoid seeing that I would be traveling with family in tow. I was again told that there was nothing they could do. Maybe if I called the Miami office directly they could resolve. After getting that number, I assumed that one more call would be required to set things straight.

Wrong again. The rep in Miami told me the same thing: they couldn’t add the EC number because the “system” wouldn’t allow it, but if I just went to the counter when I arrived they could do it there. Again, I explained that this was exactly what I didn’t want to do and why. She then said she was sorry, but there was nothing they could do because it was a “voucher” reservation. She then added that this wasn’t the first time a customer had complained about this problem. Really? Then why don’t you fix it? I didn’t mean her personally, but she should at least someone at National know this was an ongoing issue. I was 0 for 2 at this point, but still clung to the belief that if I only talked to the right person all would be okay.

Strike three was a call to the National Emerald Club service line. I went through the same rigmarole with a rep who finally asked if I wanted to speak to his manager. A manager? Yes, now you’re talking. Finally, someone with the authority to take care of business. After explaining the background of the situation for the fourth time, I was again told that it was impossible to do anything. The manager took an interesting tack by trying to place the blame on Delta. My reservation’s not with Delta, it’s with you, I explained to no avail. I then detailed how it should be relatively easy for National to avoid this problem in the future by allowing customers to enter their Emerald Club member when making one of these now notorious “voucher” reservations. Well, I couldn’t fix that, he said, it would take someone at a VP level to do that. I’m not asking YOU to correct it, I just want you to at least acknowledge that you’ll pass this on to someone who can. Is that too much to ask? Apparently, it was as the call ended with no offer to do anything from his end and no satisfaction on my end.

At this point, I had pretty much given up. Just for the heck of it I sent an e-mail to National’s customer service as well without much hope that it would do much good. Then, I had another thought. I had mentioned National on Twitter once and knew they had an account (NationalPro). Why not give that a shot?

So I tweeted that I was a loyal National customer, but was not happy with their response to my present problem. It wasn’t long before I heard back from NationalPro. I followed them and they followed me so we could send direct messages. After a couple of messages, I was told to send an e-mail to their “social customer service team” and after doing that I shortly received a response that everything would be taken care. My Emerald Club number would be added to the reservation and I could pick up the minivan without having to wait in line. Just like that all was right with the world again.

Three phone calls and an e-mail to the traditional National customer service outlets had yielded nothing. A couple of tweets and an e-mail and it was resolved. My reaction to this is mixed. On the one hand, it was gratifying to have things set straight through Twitter and to realize how effective it can be for consumers. On the other hand, why doesn’t National empower its other customer service agents to resolve matters in the same way? One of the lessons that I learned from this is that I’m better off going right to Twitter with a problem instead of calling or sending e-mails. Is that really what National or other companies who provide similar support on Twitter really want? It will be interesting to watch how as businesses try to strike the right balance between traditional methods of customer service support and social media.

POSTSCRIPT: We were able to pick up our minivan in Miami without having to hit the National counter and we put it to good use on our vacation in Florida which, in addition to Miami, included side trips to Islamorada in the Keys and Bonita Springs on the Gulf Coast. It was almost always sunny with temps in the low to mid-eighties. Now, we’re back in Minnesota and it’s snowing on April 18th. Welcome home?