Column: Hertz refused to let facts get in the way of an unwarranted late fee
Mark Stanley makes his living advising corporate clients on how to improve their customer service. So it’s fair to say he knows a thing or two about treating people right — especially if the goal is to expand business.
His recent experience with Hertz, therefore, should be taken not just as yet another horror story involving the formerly bankrupt rental car company, but also as a case study in how not to win friends and influence people.
“I travel about 150,000 miles a year. I know how these things should work,” Stanley, 64, told me. “Hertz seemed more interested in collecting an unwarranted fee than in gaining a long-term customer.”
To be sure, Hertz isn’t the only rental car company that tries to push people around. I’ve received tales of woe involving Avis, Budget and other companies.
But Hertz, which also owns the Dollar and Thrifty brands, keeps turning up at the center of some of the most egregious examples of questionable corporate decision-making.
In June I related the story of a Highland Park nonsmoker who was hit with a $400 smoking fee because a couple of attendants at a Hertz lot claimed they smelled smoke in the vehicle.
Hertz subsequently cut the fee in half but refused to eliminate it, even though the customer, Sean Dungan, was a member of its Gold Plus rewards program. Dungan told me he’d be switching to Enterprise.
Then, in July, I shared the story of a Utah woman who found a used condom in her Hertz rental car. Hertz acknowledged that “our cleanliness standards were not met in this situation,” but nevertheless imposed a $50 cleaning fee for what it said was dog hair in the vehicle.
The woman, Faith Cenobio, told me she wasn’t traveling with a dog. She said she’ll never rent from Hertz again.
And now we come to Stanley, author of the book “Experience Design for Customer Service: How to Go From Mediocre to Great!”
Again, helping companies improve their interactions with customers is what the Los Angeles resident does for a living. Current and former clients include Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Anthem Blue Cross.
Normally, Stanley told me, he rents from Avis when he travels. But Delta Air Lines offered a special promotional rate for Hertz when he flew in July from L.A. to Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii, so he gave the company a try.
Stanley was scheduled to return his rental car by 8:15 p.m. July 13. He said he dropped it off, fully gassed, around 7:45 p.m. so he could make a 10:20 p.m. flight home.
“The guy in the Kona office said their computers were down, so they’d email me a receipt,” Stanley recalled. “When they did, it said I returned the car at 10:14 and that I had to pay a late fee of $201.05.”
Considering he was on the plane at that time awaiting takeoff, this seemed like a stretch on Hertz’s part. Stanley emailed the company and pointed out the discrepancy. Hertz didn’t respond, he said.
Stanley then disputed the charge to American Express, his credit card issuer. AmEx looked over the situation and Stanley’s supporting documents. It waived the Hertz late fee on Aug. 17.
Problem solved? Not quite.
In late September, more than a month after AmEx resolved the dispute in his favor, Stanley received a letter from Hertz reiterating that he owes the company $201.05 for turning in his car at 10:14 p.m.
If Stanley wanted to challenge this, it said, he’d have to write a response and snail-mail it to Hertz. Otherwise, “the company may report you as delinquent,” which means it could sic debt collectors on him and trash his credit score.
Stanley recently wrote back to Hertz, repeating what AmEx already concluded: That he was sitting on a plane at 10:14 on the night in question, and that he indisputably was on the flight because he used his credit card for a Lyft ride home after landing in L.A.
The Lyft booking also serves to show that the plane took off and landed on schedule.
All of which is to say, there’s no possible way Hertz’s late-fee claim held up.
Stanley took the extra step of reporting the matter to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Businesses are required to respond to any complaint lodged with the agency.
So why was the company still pursuing this?
I put that question to Hertz. It took them a week to provide a response.
“Upon further review, we have agreed to waive the late fee as it appears that this matter was not properly researched when Mr. Stanley initially reached out to us before disputing the charge with his credit card,” said Lauren Luster, a company spokesperson.
She added that Hertz has contacted Stanley and “apologized for this inconvenience.”
Stanley told me he was pleased with the outcome — but surprised he had to spend three months jumping through hoops just to get Hertz to acknowledge it screwed up.
He noted that Hertz had multiple opportunities to “properly research” the case — his initial email, AmEx’s investigation — and kept coming up with the wrong conclusion until both a federal agency and a journalist were involved.
“Their time would have been better utilized trying to attract and keep customers, particularly when an incident like this was easily validated,” Stanley observed.
He speculated that many consumers might not have gone to the lengths he did in challenging an unwarranted fee.
“If you were my mom,” Stanley said, “you’d get scared and write them a check.”
He also marveled at Hertz’s choices throughout this process.
“Think about it,” he told me. “This was my first rental with the company. This experience sets the tone for our relationship.
“Even if I did return the car late, the right way to handle it is to send me a letter saying you understand that mistakes happen, waive the fee and say you’re looking forward to my next rental.”
The more Stanley discussed it, the more animated he became.
“How does this build a future relationship?” he asked. “It doesn’t. It says they’re more interested in a $200 fee than they are in having a long-term customer.
“Here was a chance to steal me from Avis, handed to them on a silver platter. They chose instead to come after me for a charge I didn’t even owe.”
Stanley makes great points about customer service in general. I’ve written previously about how service has been given short shrift by many companies during the pandemic.
Stanley’s key lesson is so obvious it shouldn’t have to be repeated. But I’ll do so anyway: The way to win customer loyalty is to treat people respectfully and fairly.
Or as Stanley put it: “All the marketing in the world won’t compensate for a poor service experience.”
Hertz and other businesses should pay attention. This guy literally wrote a book on good customer service.
Oh, and for what it’s worth, he’s sticking with Avis for his future rental car needs.
The view from Sacramento
Sign up for the California Politics newsletter to get exclusive analysis from our reporters.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.