Designing positive customer experiences – a rental car example

One of the things that can relatively easy make your company stand head and shoulders above the competition is great positive customer service. I was reminded of this the past weekend. Cued by the terms in a car rental contract, I immediately thought of the same mechanism could be achieved with less agony for the customer.

What do you notice when you visit a new country?

The language?

The food?

The atmosphere?

The customer service?

Where our customer service expectations come from

Customer service appears to be highly contextual and culturally rooted from what I can tell. I see it consisting of two parts, expectations from the customers and the company’s sense of what’s decent or sufficient. The sense of what’s sufficient or “enough” likely reflects the general expectations in society. I believe this is why people who travel from a high hospitable service industry culture (like North America) to a less one (such as Italy) feel offended when their expectations aren’t met. If the company can tune in to the expectations of the customer early, they can adapt and successfully meet those expectations more often.

That doesn’t happen often and in some countries, companies appear to do only what’s minimally expected of them. Forgetting the massive potential in delighting their customers as a way to forge a lasting relationship and long-term loyalty.

Sweden, where I’m from, appears to be a place where customer service can (in my experience) range from abysmal to OK and in the rare cases be exceptionally good. I am constantly marveling at the idiocy I see and the loss of good will caused by the customer dealings taking place here. Unlike the U.S., where the customer is always right (or at least most important), Swedish companies seem to seek to satisfy customers in a more ad-hoc fashion. It’s a lottery of sorts and depends on what company you deal with, who you deal with and what day it is. I think it’s a result of the lack of awareness of how important customer satisfaction is and what the return is.

Efficiency versus effectiveness

In my opinion, achieving great customer satisfaction comes from always viewing what you do from a customer’s perspective. Unfortunately, many companies appear more concerned with optimizing their processes and getting better at they think they do by taking an internal perspective. They solve problems through themselves, and seemingly for themselves. This leads to poor sales, uninspired marketing and a general lackluster image in the eyes of buyers.

One way of looking at this is to compare operational efficiency with resulting effectiveness. Striving for effectiveness means looking at ways to maximize the value output and what your business does for its customers. Internal concerns such as efficiency come second. This way of thinking goes deeper than the tired old slogan “customers first”. It’s become necessary in order to be competitive today when customers have more options and are better informed.

The car rental fuel clause

The case that reminded me of all this happened two days ago when we rented a van to transport furniture. If you have ever rented a car, you know that it usually comes filled up. You then fill it up yourself before returning it to the rental place.

This company had chosen a different approach and rented out the van with the tank almost empty. You were then expected to return it in the same state (running on fumes, more or less).

Surprised by this I called the owner and asked why they’d chosen this policy instead of the more common one. He was kind enough to explain it to me. Apparently, many previous customers had either not filled it up completely, failing to make sure it was completely full (diesel fuel foams when you fill it, making the gas pump stop before the tank is actually full). Other customers had simply driven 300 kilometers and figured they didn’t need to fill it up since the fuel gauge hadn’t moved, resulting in the next customer taking the hit which meant the rental company had to pay for it.

As a result, he’d simply made the decision not to rent out cars with a full gas tank anymore. Apparently without considering other ways to solve the problem. While this addresses his problem with cheating customers, it makes renting a car so much less pleasurable as a customer.

The policy offloads their entire problem on their customers. First of all, your first stop after renting it is to go to a gas station to fill it up. But not too much as you’ll need to plan your driving. The rental company isn’t going to compensate you for the fuel left when you return the car. On your way back, you need to keep a close eye on the needle to make sure you aren’t running the tank dry and similarly plan how much you fill up the car with.

This is a typical inside-out way to solve a problem that a minority of customers are causing.

What we can learn from designing services

With a bit of service design thinking and some numbers on fuel fraud incidences, they would likely have arrived at the conclusion that a minority of customers do this. Also, that many of them do it out of not knowing better and not intentionally trying to cheat the rental company.

This leads to us a completely different solution to the problem. One that tries to address it without impacting the customer experience negatively.

  • The first action would be to provide better information. First verbally at the time the customer checks out the car. Secondly, by putting up a sign inside the car and on the dashboard informing about the fuel gauge and how to ensure the tank is full.
  • Second think to do would be to put a map inside the car showing where the nearest gas station is in relation to the car rental, making it easy to full it up right before you return it.
  • If the two above aren’t showing enough results, raise prices by a small percentage to offset the cost created by those few instances in which customers do cheat.
  • In addition, you add a clause to the contract saying that if it’s evident that the customer has intentionally tried to manipulate the fuel gauge, they have the right to make an additional charge to cover the cost.

Out of cultural context

This car rental service’s policy isn’t just bad customer service, it’s also an odd way to solve a problem in this particular part of the world. Sweden and the Nordic countries are a bit of exceptions internationally as we’re likely to trust strangers and rank highly on [international transparency indices]. In countries where fraud is more common, having a more “offensive” policy would be justified to cover the cost. But I find it extremely unlikely that this is a huge problem in Sweden.

Business owners not used to thinking in terms of customer experience will likely suspect their customers, and attribute losses of this sort to intentional fraud rather than simple forgetfulness. This results in a negative and confrontational way to solve problems and doesn’t lay the foundation for great customer service.

Regardless of what your business is, spend the time to try and understand how customers see you and what you do. When you have issues to address, do so with the customers’ perspective in mind and apply positive measures. Only use strict preventive rules (like the one above) as a last resort as the price may be higher than you think.

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This article was updated on 2020-03-01

Jakob Persson

Your host. A founder and entrepreneur since 20 years. Having worked as a freelancer, consultant and co-founder of a successful digital agency has shaped his skills in and insights into business. Jakob blogs at, speaks at events and consults with agencies and freelancers in growing and developing their companies. He holds degrees in media technology and cognitive science.