The failings of car hire companies have long been a staple silly season story on the slow and lazy news days of summer.
However this year, car rental companies have excelled themselves in offering a genuine news splash on their sharp business practices, negating any good PR work their communications teams might do. (For instance, “CAR RENTAL FIRMS DON’T DO REPAIRS YOU PAY FOR“, Daily Mail, 31 July 2017)
Not content with the usual doubling of their prices for the summer season and rip-off insurance cover, these greedy car hire firms have embarked on a raft of ramped-up prices and charges to drivers, the like of which has never been seen before.
Motorists are now confessing that they are almost “too nervous to drive” their rented cars or were “so worried about a prang”, it ruined their holiday.
And small wonder with reported charges as high as £8,400 for minor damage to a family saloon in mainland Europe if you HAVEN’T taken out extra insurance, usually the car hire company’s, at exorbitant cost.
Moreover, there continues to be no evidence or guarantee that what you shell out for a dent will actually be spent on repairing the damage, rather than the hire company simply trousering your cash and making some marks for minor dents and scratches on the car diagram for the next hirer.
Europcar is now facing an investigation by Trading Standards following accusations that it overcharged UK car hire customers for repairs to the tune of £30million – or 300 percent – over the past decade.
This probe could cost the company up to 10 percent of its turnover in penalties if found to be the case and open the floodgates for the whole industry to be investigated.
As a result of this negative PR, car rentals are down.
This would be terrible PR for the entire car hire sector – and potentially – disastrous for Europcar.
Time and time again in my career, I have found that bad companies call in media training, crisis communication training and crisis support professionals too late.
These firms want the crisis management people to solve crises caused by years or decades of mismanagement.
It is like trying to stick a first-aid plaster on a mortal flesh wound.
When sensible advice – such as “don’t rip off your customers” – should be listened to by these companies to avert PR disasters and public relations crises in the first place.
Avis was last year criticised for raking in £2.6million with its questionable “Brexit tax”.
This is the first time we have been mugged of £1,000, on my partner’s credit card for a pre-paid car hire.
And that’s despite having proof of excess insurance of £10,000 with Worldwide com.
This in itself is terrible car hire PR.
Other car hire companies have previously just taken my partner’s credit card details in case of an accident.
The woman in front of us did not have sufficient live credit on her credit card and was badgered by the car hire staff into buying Budget’s rip-off insurance – not a legal requirement as far as I am aware. They intimated that she wouldn’t get her hire car otherwise. So she felt she had not choice but to give in.
There was also a previously undisclosed “booking fee” of £15.96 for using rentalcars.com, which Budget deducted, even though Opodo had promised great savings if we booked our car hire through their partner rentalcars.com – not true!
And not great car hire PR for them either.
We were then given the keys to a dirty hire car. We could not tell what was dirt and what were chips and scratches on the hire car’s paintwork. There was no one in the pick-up area to check it over with us.
We were given no information as to what to do in the event of an accident or emergency which also set us on tenterhooks for the holiday because it was not a particularly new hire car.
There were no mats in the hire car to prevent dirt and noise and this made the floor slippery when changing gear, which is not very safe.
Not only was Budget earning interest on my partner’s enforced deposit, but she was also incurring charges on her card for TWO weeks – one week of car hire and another week afterwards, before her deposit was released and she could use her card again.
We left a one-star Google review of our dismal experiences at Belfast International Airport with Budget.
This factually accurate and negative review has now mysteriously vanished.
Can the car hire PR people tell us why car hire has suddenly become so expensive?
One of the biggest reasons seems to be the incredibly complex finance systems behind the industry.
Back in the day, a car hire company generally owned its own fleet of cars. . . and life was much simpler.
Now car hire companies tend to lease them from another company who lease them from another company.
They have special, mysterious relationships with certain insurers, repairers and breakdown agents.
The whole industry has become a house of cards, increasingly hollowed out and with more and more vested interests taking a slice of each car hire pie.
But things are set to change. Budget/Avis stock has slumped in the US during the first half of this year. And European car hire is increasingly being given a run for its money as any motorist needing a car for longer than 17 days can now choose buy-back leasing options on brand new cars at a much cheaper rate than traditional car hire – and without the pitfalls of extra driver charges, such as satnav and child seat hire, costing three times more than the item is worth.
To improve car hire PR immediately, car hire companies should:
1. Undertake to do any and ALL repairs that they have charged a car hirer for and pass copies of receipts onto former hirers to prove the work has been done and at reasonable cost.
Then subsequent car hirers would not need to worry about getting a hire car with pre-existing dents and scratches as they would have been fixed.
2. Put an end to rip off insurance deals. Insurance should be offered at an at-cost basis, not seen as a revenue stream.
3. Accept proof that customers have sorted out their own car hire insurances deals – and not demand £1,000 interest-free loans from them.
4. Publicly state that they won’t refuse hire of a pre-paid vehicle because a customer refuses to buy their exorbitant insurance but doesn’t have a spare £1,000 live credit on their card.
Car hire PR is only possible if car hire company chiefs start to treat customers with respect – rather than as mugs who are there to be exploited for a quick buck.
* This article is purely the view of the Brighton-based author who provides media training courses, crisis support and crisis management and crisis communication training in Sussex and London.