Dealing with An Irate Customer– Me!

by Mary Jane Grinstead on January 8, 2012

Here’s another car rental story. My mother lives in a very small town in southeast Missouri. It’s 417 miles from my house in Chicago door to door down I-57, one of the longest, most boring, and heavily under- construction routes in the US.

 I have finally wised up and started taking Amtrak from Chicago to Carbondale, IL. That gets me within striking distance—82 miles. Enterprise has the only car rental place in Carbondale. I call them when the train nears the station. Someone picks me up, takes me back to the rental counter, and within 20 minutes or so I’m back on my way. I’ve been following this routine since the fall.

 So the Thursday before Christmas my husband (who LOVES trains) and I board the 8:15 a.m. 391 Saluki line for Carbondale. As usual, I call Enterprise from the edge of Carbondale and they say they are on their way. When we arrive, there is Cody from Enterprise to pick us up in his own car.

 He says that’s because Enterprise-Carbondale has run out of cars and he’s going to drive us to Marion, IL to get a car. Now Marion is about the same distance from Sikeston as Carbondale, and it’s about a 30 minute trip from Carbondale to Marion, so this was a reasonable alternative—but I popped.

 I didn’t want a reasonable alternative. I wanted a car at the Enterprise location in Carbondale like I had reserved—and I for sure didn’t want to have to ride another 30 minutes to get to it. And I sure didn’t like being surprised at the station when they had my phone number or could have alerted me when I called from the train. I demanded to go to the rental office in Carbondale, and Cody, who is personable, gracious and exactly the kind of person you would want to have representing your business, took us there.

 And then we met the new Enterprise branch manager in Carbondale—Elizabeth Dodd. I had to have been the NIGHTMARE customer—insisting on a car when there weren’t any and other people waiting. Angry because when we called from the train, we weren’t told about the lack of cars. Tired from traveling and a little stressed with the whole Christmas thing.

 Well Elizabeth Dodd was unflappable. She expressed regret, took full responsibility and in the middle of my rant, when a car arrived, asked me if I would mind having a larger vehicle and did the paperwork at a lower rate than my original quote.

 It was A+++ in managing rude and irate customer, but the most amazing thing to me was I felt that Elizabeth really did care about me getting to my mother’s house on time and wanted to honor the reservation commitment that had been made because it was a commitment…in spite of the fact that my anger was way out of proportion with the situation.

 Here’s the second amazing thing. When we returned the car, Elizabeth and Cody were the only two on duty again. There were four Japanese-speaking customers trying to change a reservation and understand the pricing and terms. The phone was ringing off the hook with people trying to reserve cars, get quotes, and one guy was even trying to buy a truck from the Enterprise inventory. Elizabeth was wearing all the hats—still unfailingly polite and respectful to the people in front of her and on the phone.

 Lessons from Elizabeth and Cody

  •  If there’s a problem that’s going to affect a customer, tell them about it as soon as you can. Offer an alternative.
  • Even if the customer is raving and ranting, don’t lose your cool. It will only make a bad situation worse.
  • Handling an irate customer smoothly and turning the situation around in front of other customers sends a strong message to everyone in the room that you really do care about customer service.
  • Even unhappy customers respect leaders who take ownership and responsibility.
  • Sometimes things go wrong. If you make a commitment to a customer (ie, a reservation for a rental car) figure out how to meet that commitment and then, going forward, figure out how to NOT run out of cars.

 Even if there ever is another car rental place in Carbondale, I’m sticking with Enterprise…and Enterprise should stick with Elizabeth and Cody.

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