Nov. 8, 2012 at 9:37 AM ET
Contrary to the old Bing Crosby song, a smile makes a lousy umbrella. According to a new report, however, it can make for a significantly better experience at the rental car counter.
Released on Thursday, the 17th annual J.D. Power and Associates 2012 North America Rental Car Satisfaction Study reports that customer satisfaction with rental cars increased for the third consecutive year. The industry’s overall score of 769 (on a 1,000-point scale) is up 11 points from 2011 and tops the previous high of 767, set in 2006.
And a smile from an employee is part of the reason: “The difference of being greeted with a smile — whether it’s a shuttle driver, staff member during pick-up or the exit-gate person — can be as much as 100 to 150 points,” said Stuart Greif, vice president of the company’s travel practice.
Smiles aside, the survey looked at six aspects of the rental car experience: costs and fees, pick-up process, return process, the car itself, shuttle bus/van and reservation process. All posted improved satisfaction scores, led by the shuttle bus/van and costs and fees categories, over last year with the exception of the reservation process, which posted a 1-point decline.
Tallying the categories, here’s how the major players fared:
For those who follow the industry, it’s telling that the top three brands are all owned by the same corporate parent, Enterprise Holdings Inc. Based in St. Louis, the company is privately held, a fact that may give it an advantage in terms of making decisions that focus on customers rather than quarterly profits.
“The other big brands are publicly owned which can put short-term pressure on profits and growth,” Greif told NBC News. “Private companies have the ability to have lower profits or even a short-term loss without shareholders heading for the exits if it’s the right long-term decision.”
Among the survey’s other findings: Avis posted the most improved score, rising 24 points (to 766) and coming within 5 points of Hertz and 7 of Alamo; leisure traveler satisfaction rose 12 points (to 774), and business traveler satisfaction rose 11 points (to 762). Not surprisingly, perhaps, business travelers tend to be harsher critics than their leisure counterparts; on the other hand, they’re also more loyal.
Going forward, Greif expects rental car companies to continue to invest in technological improvements that simplify the rental process, lower wait times and facilitate the use of renters’ smartphones, music players and other personal devices.
Such efforts, of course, typically require major capital investment, which ironically may further increase the inherent value of the human factor.
“A friendly greeting and attitude toward helping customers goes a long way,” said Greif, “and it doesn’t cost millions of dollars.”
Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.