To those who have not been following, about a week ago I had a good grumble about car rental companies.
In a nutshell, I said they generally don’t deal with complaints in a meaningful way. The industry doesn’t have an ombud, and I questioned the ability of its official body, the Southern African Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association (Savrala) to adequately deal with customer disputes.
To Savrala’s credit, its GM Sandile Ntseoane agreed to meet. He said Savrala takes complaints very seriously.
He even invited customers who are still unhappy about how they have been dealt with to mail him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ntseoane says the industry is aware of the problems around the length of time deposits are held and has set up a working group with the Payments Association of South Africa (Pasa) to address the issue.
Even so, the industry would gain if it opted to set up an ombud rather than have its conciliation committee, which is made up of two of its members and an independent legal practitioner, handling such matters. For one, as with other ombuds, it would be able to keep track of trending complaints rather than treat each one as a unique dispute.
An ombud would, for example, keep track of how many times customers are accused of returning damaged vehicles without agencies providing proof of the alleged damages.
The advantage in keeping records of these kinds of disputes is that it could eventually lead to the development of a standardised industry approach in dealing with these complaints, which would make for greater efficiency and be fairer to customers. Such a development could even eliminate the nagging suspicion that an agency or one of its employees is in cahoots with a ring of panel beaters to ‘fix’ non-existent damage to a vehicle.
Having its own ombud could also prevent customers from going to other forums to resolve their complaints.
Since many car rental agencies are also registered financial services providers, an imaginative customer battling to get resolution could take their issue to the financial services or motor industry ombuds.
Can the industry really take the risk of having a body that has little understanding of how it works adjudicating its disputes?
Some of the larger agencies should also seriously examine whether their behaviour is in keeping with the National Consumer Protection Act. If, for example, a customer is held responsible for damage to a vehicle, under the act, can an agency still charge them for repairs if it provides no proof of the damage?
Time for some soul-searching
From the amount of discussion generated by my last column, it is clear that it’s not just me who is unhappy with the behaviour of car rental agencies.
It’s time for the industry to get real about what it is really selling.
They parcel their service as a ‘convenience’. A customer conveniently picks up a car of their choice (usually without checking it) and then drops it off. No hassle, no fuss.
What they are actually selling is the right to operate an expensive machine for a limited amount of time. This right comes with certain responsibilities, which a customer should be fully aware of.
Car rental agencies should point out this reality, rather than soft-selling ‘convenience’.
I for one would like to see rental agents make this statement upon collection:
“At So-and-so Car Rental we offer an alternative speedy check-out and check-in service that does away with vehicle checks when you collect your car and offers no inspections on your return. Please note that if you accept this alternative service, you could be held liable for damages even if they do not occur under your watch. Such damages will be deducted from your deposit.”
This kind of honesty could be far-reaching. If the industry not only treats people like adults but also expects them to act accordingly, there is a good chance that its customers will treat hired cars with a little more respect rather than if they were 4x4s.
If the relationship between the car rental agencies and their customers doesn’t change, there is a good chance there might soon not be much of an industry to speak of.
Ride-hailing services have disrupted the taxi industry, and I suspect they are already taking market share away from car rental agencies.
For a similar fee, and the awkwardness that comes with making small talk with an Uber driver, someone can enjoy the same amount of freedom that comes with hiring a car, but without any of the liabilities.