A Tale of Two Brands

While traveling in February I experienced a sequence of events that so clearly contrasted a group of employees who naturally displayed superior customer service with another group of workers who have lost my personal business for their company for life.

I was traveling with my four children in England, and we had rented a car to drive from London to Stonehenge (and to visit HighClere Castle, site of Downton Abbey, but that’s another story!). We made a reservation with a major international car rental company that has more vowels than consonants in its name (and shares its name with a top tourist attraction in San Antonio, if you can “remember”).

On Sunday, we walked from our flat to the Central London branch that we had booked our car from and arrived at the scheduled time only to be told there were no cars available. But we had a reservation. She simply shrugged and said that that didn’t mean that she now had a car available. I asked if any other London offices had cars available, and she said that she was sorry, but everyone is out. The best she could do is honor our rate for the next day.

Well, with no other choices left, we scrapped our Sunday plans and reinvented new ones. We also ditched our Monday agenda to return to the car rental office the next morning.

This time, there was a car as promised. To give credit due, we were given a token apology for the rebooking by that day’s agent before leaving the office.

After exploring the mysteries of Stonehenge and pretending to be heirs of HighClere Castle, we stopped for a quick pub lunch at Windsor on our way back to London. Not long after we got back on the road and entered the M4 highway, I felt a gradual, then more demanding, tug on the steering wheel to the left. I took the first available exit, pulling off the road into the Marriott Windsor/Heathrow Hotel parking lot. Here we were, in a foreign country, with no cell phone, and a flat tire.

I walked into the lobby of the Marriott and approached the concierge, who greeted me with a warm smile. I explained our situation and asked if it was possible that I might be able to use the phone to call the designated roadside assistance company. He asked if I minded if he made the call for me and asked for the paperwork. Smiling still, he then invited the children to sit and relax in the lobby.

He explained the situation in phone calls to both the rental car company and to the roadside assistance company. He then told us he was told that it would be up to two hours before the mechanic arrived (which he disgustedly felt was ridiculous), and invited us to relax in the hotel lounge. He promised that he would personally come and get us when the mechanic arrived.

Unfortunately hours came and went, and no mechanic. The concierge made several phone calls back, asking where the mechanic was, complaining that there were children stranded here with me. Still no mechanic.

Eventually at 10pm, five and a half hours after pulling into the parking lot…the concierge’s shift was over and he was going home. He called one more time, and they told him “within the hour”. He said to me he had made arrangements for us to stay at the hotel overnight if we needed or wanted to, at a rate that was very fair indeed. He brought waters and sodas to the children. And he introduced me to the security manager, who would help us out if need be after he left.

Am I clear that we were not even guests of this hotel?

When the mechanic finally showed, going on midnight (we pulled in to the hotel at 4:30pm), he changed the tire and then reported that the two back tires were bald. The security manager explained that it was illegal to drive with bald tires in Britain, and that those tires could cost us over $3,000 in fines if pulled over and written tickets. The mechanic agreed, but said my issue was with the rental car agency, which was true.

The security manager asked if I minded if he called the rental car agency for us, and after getting my permission, he made the call. He tried to explain to the rental company that he couldn’t understand how they could have leased us an illegal car, and that it was absurd to ask us to drive the car back to the rental agency.

I then took the receiver and tried to lay out our options. The easiest solution was to take our chances and get the car back to Heathrow Airport and go from there, so we did. At the airport, we were now dealing with all new employees who knew nothing of our painful odyssey. So I had to explain everything over again. The sales agent had to go talk to the manager who….knew nothing of our situation. The manager offered to give us a 20 pound credit on our bill and remove the drop charge for bringing the car back to a different location. (Say what?! After all that you are actually thinking of adding a drop-charge to our bill?)

I respectfully, but firmly, explained that the rental car company had, in my estimation, an obligation to get me and my children back to London, at least to their London location where we rented the car (now spoken by me at 1:30am). The manager politely disagreed, and refused my request to send us back to London in a cab.

What were our options? Paying for a cab ourselves, at around $80 on top of everything else? Taking the Tube (subway)? Already stopped running for the night. “Well you can take the night bus…it’s just a two block walk and although there are 25 stops between here and where you need to go, it will get you there.” Gee, thanks alot. We stumbled into our flat at 3:00am, nearly 12 hours since the tire went flat.

What is the end result? I will never rent from the consonant-challenged rental car company again. I will tell everyone in my network and on Facebook about how uncaring ALL of the employees were that I encountered. And my story will pass down the line.

I am also telling everyone about the wonderful service and support given to me and my children by the employees of the Marriott Windsor/Heathrow. What fantastic human beings, and clearly part of a corporate culture that values relationships, even with non-customers like we were that day. Trust me, if this is who Marriott is as a corporate culture, they are now the first place for us to look for a hotel. And I will recommend to many of my internationally traveling friends that they stay at the Marriott Windsor/Heathrow when traveling in London and looking for a great place to stay by Heathrow Airport or near Windsor.

The point is, not only does customer service matter, it leave scars…good scars and bad scars. My kids will never forget how indifferent the car rental brand was to us; they will also never forget how kind, helpful and understanding the Marriott employees were. How many people will they influence and touch with this story over their lifetime?

This is why a company like Shoppers’ Critique International exists…to help management understand how their brand and employees are perceived by the buying public. Not every company uses customer intelligence tools to find out…maybe some are having budget troubles, maybe some just don’t get it or care. Who knows with the car rental company that we rented our last vehicle from. But Marriott gets it. Well done, Marriott, and thank you for your outstanding customer service. You have made lifetime fans of your brand. The car rental company? Yeah,….not so much. In fact, not ever again.