As consolidation looms, car sharing risks losing local edge

As the consolidation of the burgeoning car-sharing industry begins to accelerate, customer service could get left behind. For an inherently local business, that's a problem.

I arrived home an hour later than I should have last night. It wasn't my fault.

The night began well enough: I reserved a PhillyCarShare car -- my wife and I are members -- for roughly six hours to facilitate my appearance at a pre-Christmas family dinner in the Philadelphia suburbs. It couldn't be easy enough: select the time, select the vehicle and in seconds, a car at my disposal for the night, conveniently located three blocks away from my front door.

Dinner was lovely, and it was nice to see my family, who are dispersed along the Eastern seaboard. But when I said my goodbyes, loaded up the car with gifts and turned the key in the ignition, nothing happened. The lights came on, the steering wheel was unlocked but you would have thought that I had left the starter on an exit ramp on Interstate 95.

It didn't seem as though the battery was dead -- headlights were blazing, and I hadn't left anything on or ajar -- but you never know, so I tried to give it a jump. No dice. Out of options, I called PhillyCarShare's emergency line. And that's where things went south quickly.

The issue turned out to be the car's safety system, which mysteriously engaged on its own, disabling the engine. It's something that PhillyCarShare can reset remotely, and it's not an unusual issue. The problem: it took 45 minutes, much of it in a hold queue, to fix it. The customer service representative forced me to go through her checklist ("Have you made sure the gas card is in place?" "Miss, there is no gas card in this or any of your vehicles."), rather than listen to the clues I was actually offering her: the lights were on, the wheel was unlocked but something was blocking the ignition from doing its job.

After a jaw-dropping three-quarters of an hour of pointless troubleshooting, the CSR tried "one last thing" before calling roadside assistance: she sent a signal to the vehicle, remotely resetting the ignition. Key was turned, engine kicked in, and we were on our way, an hour later than expected. (Thank heavens, because the roadside assistance option would no doubt have left us waiting well into the wee hours of the morning.)

It is at this point that I should offer the following context: PhillyCarShare used to be a not-for-profit company serving the Philadelphia region. It competes with for-profit ZipCar, and frankly seems to be more prevalent in the city than that company. While PhillyCarShare's customer service was great, its financial books were not, and this summer, Enterprise Rent-A-Car acquired the organization, revamping the fleet and reorganizing it into a for-profit entity.

It's a tired and unfortunate truth that as companies scale, most become focused on efficiency and not customer service. We've all had our moments with clueless CSRs who are unfamiliar with the business they're tasked with addressing, across all industries. This is not why I offer you this tale.

What struck me about this particular frustration is that Philadelphia is not alone in this phenomenon: local car-sharing organizations are consolidating across the country as major rental companies like Enterprise and Hertz use their market share to acquire or eliminate smaller rivals in this new segment. It makes sense: a car rental company, whatever the business model, can save on fleet and maintenance costs and logistics through increased scale.

But the overlooked aspect during this consolidation is that car-sharing is inherently local. A poor rental experience with Avis during a business trip may compel you to avoid giving them your future business, but for all but a few high-flying executives -- George Clooney's character in Up in the Air comes to mind -- the car rental experience is an exception to life's rule. For most, a business trip is an infrequent item on one's schedule. It's not something you do most weekends.

But for a car-sharing service, it's much different. It's how you get your groceries; it's how you bring your pets to the veterinarian's office; it's the tool with which you visit family nearby who live beyond the reach of public transportation. Chances are high that you and a handful of your neighbors use the same vehicle on a regular basis. Your relationship with the company is more intimate, your use of its services far more acute, and your expectation when you call the "emergency line" late on a Tuesday night is that you'll reach an actual person. Because it's probably an emergency.

To be fair, I did eventually reach an actual person. But I grappled with a phone tree first, and once I got to her, she was, in a word, clueless. Before the acquisition, a call to PhillyCarShare's emergency line would immediately connect you to a person who could quickly identify who and where you were and how to address the problem at hand -- no phone tree, no checklist, no waste. After the acquisition, I spent at least 20 minutes on hold as the CSR got her bearings.

Before last night, I had never spent more than 30 minutes, cumulatively, on the phone with PhillyCarShare. After last night, both the company and I wasted the better part of an hour accomplishing little -- and in the end, I had to call them once more just to extend my now-expired reservation (which, I should add, I was still charged for).

As consolidation in the car-sharing sector accelerates, I won't be the only one with such a story. The early reports from customers of companies such as PhillyCarShare, ZipCar, Baltimore's AltCar, New York's Mint, Austin's Car2Go and others indicated that the concept was a delightfully seamless experience. As clumsy rental giants elbow their way into this burgeoning business, the "honeymoon period" for car-sharing -- at least for the consumer -- may be coming to a close.

Photo: Peter/Flickr

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com