Thursday, March 18, 2010

Don't Swindle Your Customers. They Don't Like It.

I have been traveling a lot recently, meeting with clients. Part of my job is to periodically travel to see our clients, check in with them, and express our continued thanks for enabling us to be their lawyers in South Carolina. It's my pleasure and privilege to go to our clients' home bases and just say "hi."

As a consequence of all of this recent travel, I've been spending a lot of time in airports, at rental car counters, in hotels, and in restaurants. On a recent trip, I detected being cheated or unfairly gouged twice in the course of about an hour by two otherwise well-respected and well-known travel and hospitality-related brands. These experiences triggered this blog entry. As a lawyer who preaches customer service as a means to eliminating and/or controlling claims, I am disappointed (and angry) with them. These experiences illustrate to me personally that one really bad transaction can possibly wreck a customer relationship that has lasted for years.

We have a wonderful client in Phoenix. Several weeks ago, the client's risk manager asked me to come to PHX to give a little talk to her line analysts about South Carolina law. I was only too glad to accept this invitation. This client has been extremely loyal to us and lets us be us with regard to zealously defending its lawsuits. There's a lot of water under this attorney/client bridge; therefore, when this client requests something, we find a way to deliver.

South Carolina and Arizona are a good distance from one other. No problem though. That's why we have transcontinental flights. After flying from CLT though IAH, however, it had been a rather long day. Once we landed in PHX, I was ready to get to the hotel, check in, and find some dinner.

As I got off the plane, I realized I had forgotten to make a rental car reservation. Assuming there were cars available, I nevertheless made my way to the rental car agency I have used religiously for nearly the last ten years. Like the relationship I have with our Phoenix client, I thought there was a lot of water under the bridge between me and this rental car agency.

As I got to the counter, I laid my frequent customer card on the counter and hoped for the best. Unfortunately, I was advised the agency was completely sold out of cars. Disappointed, I started thinking about Plan B. As I began to leave, however, the attendant cheerfully related to me that there were approximately 15 cars available, but that they were $200 a night. To me, this was a curious revelation. First, you tell me you have no cars and then you tell me you do, but they are 3 times the amount I am accustomed to paying. However, there was about 20 miles between the airport and my client and I needed to get there first thing in the morning. Accordingly, I capitulated and bit the bullet for the $200 rental car. Of course, when you add the local taxes and "recovery fee," this amount quickly escalated to $275. Outrageous.

Needless to say, I was pretty put out with my long time rental car vendor as I left the counter and headed to the stalls. I had already begun composing my letter to the company's CEO in my head. As I was doing this, I came upon something that made me even angrier.

This agency permits frequent customers with reservations to head straight for their cars after getting off the plane. You know which car is yours by finding your name on a big digital board before getting to the stalls. Once you get to your car, your name is on another digital sign directly about the car. This is typically how I get my car (because I usually have the foresight to make a reservation). On this night, when I got to the (overpriced) car I had been assigned, there was someone else's name posted by my car. What this circumstance connoted to me what that whomever reserved my car didn't make it to Phoenix at the time they expected to be there (this happens some times when your plane is running late or you miss a connection). Accordingly, all the agency did was give me someone else's car - - - there was no magical, hidden cache of cars. The agency capitalized on the reserving customer's failure to make PHX on time and then turned around to triple the price of the car for a (loyal) customer who had the misfortune on not making a reservation.

I understand and support the ideas of free market society; however, my questions in such a situation are this: Why would you treat a valued customer who has rented perhaps 500 cars from you within the last 10 years they way you did? Why take advantage of a situation and gouge someone who has been demonstrably loyal to you? Why possibly wreck a lengthy relationship with a quick hit? Up until yesterday, I sang the praises of this rental car agency. Now, I question the character of some in its workforce who inexplicably jack up a rate to capitalize on a circumstance outside the control of the customer. As the old adage states: "Business goes where it's invited, but remains where it's well treated and appreciated." I'm not feeling too appreciated by my rental car agency today.

After getting my car, I headed to the suburb where our client is located. After finding my hotel and checking in, I drove over to a QSR, which is nationally known. By this time, it was 9.00p PST (and 12.00 a EST). I just wanted to get something quick and go to sleep.

I elected to go through the drive thru and just take dinner back to the room. I ordered a simple combination that was $6.00. I did not say "small" for the combination; however, it's been my experience that this is the default when the client says nothing.

Not in this case. Instead, after placing my order, I saw on the LED sign at the ordering station how the drive thru attendant quickly "added bacon," "added cheese," and made the combination a large. Instead of getting a $6.00 combination, which was my expectation, I got a $9.00+ meal. The QSR successfully added $3.00 to the ticket. Because of my tiredness, I opted not to get into an argument. I just paid for the meal and headed off.

As someone who regularly works side by side with restaurant operators, I knew what had happened was just plain wrong. I understand that "upselling" is a tactic employed by QSRs and fast casuals to improve revenues; however, just cheating folks out of dollars by upsizing without inquiring if that was the customer's true intent and adding components to the meal that were not specifically added should not be part of the game plan.

I am well aware that managers of hotels, restaurants, bars/clubs, rental car agencies, etc. have revenue goals set out for them by their bosses. However, there is a right way and a wrong way to accomplish these goals. Giving customers a great product at a fair price is the way to build and maintain loyalty and revenue. Swindling customers out of their money through outright stealing and deception may earn some extra dollars in the short term; however, in the long run, encouraging or permitting your organization to engage in this conduct results in customers going elsewhere and badmouthing your brand. Also, on the litigation side, these customers are eventually jurors. Creating a reputation as a cheater and a swindler likely doesn't win you a lot of respect in the jury room when your counsel implores the jury to "be fair" when arriving at its verdict.