How Not To Compete With Zipcar: Send Your Customers Overseas

I’ve been a Zipcar member since 2007, and a reasonably satisfied one. Though I suspect that “car-sharing” will never live up to its initial hype, Zipcar works well for someone who needs a car occasionally: The site is easy to use, the car locations are usually convenient, and Zipcar pays for the gas.

Lately, though, Zipcar has felt like it’s nickel-and-diming me. The cars are getting shabbier and are poorly maintained (a bald tire exploded last year while I was driving somewhere in Queens). And especially since the weeks before and since the company filed to go public , extending a reservation if, say, you’re caught in traffic is now close to impossible without incurring a late fee. So I recently tried a competitor, Hertz Connect , which launched in 2009. For my purposes, there’s no difference on price or location, but there were some definite pluses: The Jetta I got had fewer than 8,000 miles on it, and the GPS included as standard was welcome. (A comparison by New York magazine reached similar conclusions.)

For reasons I can’t understand, however, Hertz treats Connect customers as though they live in another country literally. Hertz Connect’s Web site indicates that the service is available in 19 states (principally in university towns). But if you need to get hold of Hertz Connect quickly imagine that the location of the car you’ve reserved has involuntarily changed, and Hertz has failed to provide a phone number for the new parking garage the “contact us” page on the Hertz Connect provides two choices. One is to fill out an e-mail form. The other is this is a direct quote from the site to “call your Member Care Centre on 08708 45 45 45.” Eagle-eyed readers will discern that this is a phone number for the United Kingdom. Furthering the impression that Connect customers are foreign is this page for Connect from the main site , which contains a “breadcrumb” button that will take you “back to services in United States.”

What gives? Hertz is a rental-car mammoth that began in Chicago in 1918. The company took in a billion dollars of revenue in its last quarter. So why can’t its Web sites figure out how to give the right contact information to American renters? I put the question to Hertz PR people, who’ve thus far been silent. Given Zipcar’s advantage in the car-sharing space, Hertz’s bizarre treatment of its customers suggests that it may be a while before it catches up.