For many of us road-weary business types, the car rental process approaches legalized torture -- forget about waterboarding. Try Alamo instead. I did, on three trips to Seattle to see my daughter and her family. I don't recall why I chose Alamo but began to regret the decision almost immediately.
Alamo turned out to be the only rental car company that didn’t have a counter at Sea-Tac, and that still may be the case for all I know. Instead, we were directed to the parking garage where humidity hung in the air like doom and where we had to follow a series of yellow lines past all the other rental companies’ cars to an office hidden in the far back corner – while dragging a huge sea of baggage along behind us. The fancy automatic check-in machine didn’t work, so we (that is, I) joined the line with other similarly-entangled Alamo “customers” to wait our turn.
The clerk was great, however, filled with personality and can-do spirit -- despite the late hour and clearly faced with someone who’d arrived at her counter with the vigor of a sweat-soaked sock and halfway short of breath. She took care of the paperwork lickety-split and walked us out to our car. Each time we returned to Seattle, we rented from Alamo for some strange reason – perhaps because we already knew how to find them (no sale there) but more likely because we hoped that same helpful young woman would be working, but it was not to be.
Alamo -- to their credit -- rose to the occasion once more but then totally and irrevocably blew it.
Credit: A drunken, uninsured young woman dressed to party lost control of her convertible on a narrow side street, slammed into a parked VW (reducing it to junk) and then careened across to our Chrysler 300 and neatly removed the driver’s side parking light before jumping from her car and weaving herself away down the street. Oddly, the rental wouldn’t run after that, so Alamo sent a wrecker with a sub on the hook, exchanged cars without a hassle, and all was well. Until later.
Debit: The woman in the convertible proved to be less than a model citizen and Alamo’s recovery unit didn’t get a dime out of her. So my insurance company (State Farm) paid up. And then Alamo began hounding me and hounding me and hounding me for a $100 balance. They were merciless. The same collection guy (Steven) called so often we almost got to be phone pals, but no matter how positive the conversation, Alamo’s computer kept spitting out nasty notices. They finally handed it over to a collection agency, which prompted me to pay it off.
Now flash forward to last night, while scanning one of my favorite pre-sleep diversions: Jalopnik, an oddly irreverent but entertaining web site about cars and car owners (tagline: Drive Free or Die). An article describing the top ten auto rental companies did not include Alamo. Ha!
But it did introduce me to Silvercar, a disruptive industry upstart from Austin with a tagline that screams competitive advantage! It also promises a novel and entirely unexpected experience: Car Rental That Doesn’t Suck.
Car Rental REimagined.
“We want to do for rental cars what iTunes, did for music,” CEO Luke Schneider told Wired in a pr-launch (October 2012) interview -- he had been CTO with another paradigm-buster, ZipCar.
Here’s the way Silvercar tells their story online:
“From reservation to return, Silvercar has re-imagined car rental. What does that mean? It means that we have worked hard to eliminate many of the hassles that have plagued this industry for years. But we haven't just improved the car rental process; we have truly re-imagined what it could (and should) be. We like to think of it as bringing the "wow" back to car rental. And we think we're onto something ... because at Silvercar, we don’t believe in ‘average’ or ‘sometime.’ We know you expect a world-class car, every time.”
Having only one car to choose from (everybody gets an upgrade) is pure genius. And so is their gradual rollout plan – not to mention the fun they seem to be having building their business. What other rental car company suggests that its customers strap a GoPro to their car, record their experience and post it to Silvercar’s zany Trunk Show blog? Or has five favorite movie car chase videos posted on their Web site for people to watch? Can you imagine Hertz or Avis doing that?
There are no lines and no hassles – even the old gas fill-up bugaboo has been done away with. Your Silvercar mysteriously knows how much fuel you need and that amount is calculated and added to your bill automatically (at local pump prices plus five bucks). The price seems right – about what you’d pay for a full-size rental with those other guys. In short, Silvercar has nailed it in a business that’s been stuck on stop for a long time.
“The cars are great and the whole process is laughably easier than conventional rental car companies,” reads one happy reader testimonial. So take that, Alamo!
As for me, I have but one question for Mr. Schneider: When is Silvercar gonna show up at Sea-Tac?
"Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought."
- Albert von Szent-Gyorgyi, Nobel Prize-winning Hungarian physiologist and co-discoverer of Vitamin C -
TakeAway: A product that makes a clear and compelling difference in customers’ lives can disrupt and scatter its competitors. If you have a competitive advantage like that, communicate it imaginatively and with gusto.
Tags: Alamo, VW, Chrysler, Chrysler 300, State Farm, Silvercar, Audi A4
Content © by Brian E. Faulkner.
ABOUT BRIAN FAULKNER:
Brian also is a three-time Emmy award winning Public Television writer
and narrator of UNC-TV’s popular Our State magazine series,
on the air since 2003.