Sunday, February 10, 2008

Adventures in Customer Service

I just got back from Mountain View, CA, which is increasingly becoming one of my favorite places to teach. The training center has brand-spakin' new computers that run like a dream. They're easy to PXE-boot, they have wide-screen monitors, and I will never come close to maxing out their resources during lecture or lab. The office manager there is great to work with, and I always have an interesting variety of silicon valley students.

This trip seemed to be going especially well. No problems with the flight out, and I'd been there enough that I knew my way around the area. I still used a GPS to get to and from the airport, but I never had to turn it on the rest of the week. I was getting worried about my car rental, however. My car this time was reserved at Enterprise, whom I had never before dealt with. I usually rent from Alamo or National, which are essentially the same place. Past experiences with places like Advantage Rent-a-Car had left me nervous of other rental places. Alamo wasn't bad, so I usually stayed with them.

When I got to Enterprise, there was no line at the counter. I walked up and started the ritual of pulling out my drivers license and credit card. The man behind the counter was friendly as he asked me a few questions. He even offered me a bottle of water for the road, which I gladly accepted. When he was finished, he told me how to get to the Enterprise booth outside, making sure to mention that he had just sent a message to them on the computer to let them know that I was on my way. This is where things started to get different from the usual car rental.

Before I even got to the booth, a man was walking towards me from it. As I got close, he extended his hand to greet me with, "Mr. Hall?" I shook his hand and he started asking me about what car I was going to rent, after offering me another bottle of water for the road. I confirmed that I was indeed expecting an "economy" car, and was already hoping for a Corolla or an Aveo. They had been my favorite economy cars in the past, and I now start to look forward to them. He pointed to a few cars, noting which ones were economy and which ones I could upgrade to for another $5 a day more. Since none of them were the Corolla or Aveo, I selected the Kia Rio. I'd never driven a Kia before, and I thought I might as well check it out.

By this point, I was already amazed. The closest I've ever come to actually picking out my model was along the lines of the man at the counter telling me where the economy cars are, and that the keys were in the door or the ignition, have fun. This guy was already giving me personal service. He went to grab the keys and returned a few minutes later to inform me that he could not locate them. He offered me a free upgrade to either a PT Cruiser or a Dodge Caliber. Since I think that PT Cruisers are uglier than sin, I went with the Caliber.

When he returned with the keys, he went around the car with me to inspect any current damage, making notes on the clipboard. This is always an event left to me to perform myself, and I was surprised when he noted little things that I might not have even bothered with myself. He then offered to pull the car out of the stall for me while I initialled everything on the paperwork. When he came back, he made sure to write his name on my copy and point out his phone number, emphasizing that if I needed anything, that I shouldn't hesitate to call him. Even without the free upgrade, I was already more impressed with Enterprise than with any other rental company.

At this point, I had thought to spend that evening writing up a review of the experience. But then I thought better of it, and decide to wait and see how they handled the return on Friday. I'm glad that I did. When I pulled into the return area, there was no line. It also seemed remarkably small compared to the usual return line, which tends to seem more like a parking lot where rental companies store returns until they can service them. The man that came to help me out this time did the usual walk-around, and printed my receipt. He then offered to drive me to the terminal in my rental car, so that I didn't have to take the shuttle bus.

We had a friendly conversation as we drove, and talked about how Enterprise had bought out Alamo and National last year, and how Avis and Hertz were both owned by Budget now. He dropped me off precisely where I needed to be, and helped me get my bags out of the car. By this point I had already changed my travel preferences at work from Alamo to Enterprise, and I had grown increasingly happy to have done so. My upcoming trip to Ohio already has a reservation with them, in fact. Never before have I been so impressed with any car rental experience as I have been so far with Enterprise. I look forward to renting from them in the future.

My trip wasn't all daisies and rainbows, however. I mean, my room at the Comfort Inn was decent, and the people I met were generally very friendly. But I couldn't help but notice that almost none of the really good restaurants on Castro Street (which is where the training center is) take American Express. Remember the snide Visa commercials they used to have that proclaimed that "so-and-so does this, but they don't take American Express"? Back then it seemed like an anti-advertisement for those places, a warning to keep me from getting disappointed when I got there and tried to pay. Now those commercials reverberated in my mind, as I made mental notes to avoid certain restaurants in the future. By now it feels like if I want to pay for food in Mountain View with my AMEX card, I'm stuck with Boston Market.

One experience in particular that struck me was on Wednesday night when I discovered a Subway restaurant right next to the Caltrain station. There were two oriental girls working the counter. I don't mention their ethnicity here because I'm racist. I think that in any other circumstance, I would have just referred to them as "two girls". But the way they handled things kept reminding me of myriad travel shows, were a tiny crew of workers behind a food counter somewhere in Asia somehow managed to handle dozens of customers at the same time. In this case, they had four customers, and they seemed to have no intention in serving them in the order in which they arrived. In fact, I was the last person to place my order, and the first person to pay for and leave with it. And despite the fact that I frequently pay for meals at Subway with an AMEX card, do you think I was surprised when this one only took Visa, Mastercard or cash?

The customer service didn't stop there, of course. Normally when I leave San Jose, there's a direct flight back to SLC around 6 o'clock or so. The last one this time left just before I would have gotten to the airport, so I was stuck with a 2-hour connection in LAX between two different, unaffiliated airlines. Because they were unaffiliated, I was told that I couldn't check in for the second flight until I got to LAX. The first flight was American Airlines, which I had never flown on before, but I'd heard bad things about. They didn't disappoint, because when I got to the gate, they had already posted that there was a half hour delay. Before long it had turned into a 50-minute delay, which I was actually okay with; that meant an hour in LAX instead of two.

We boarded, and the flight attendant seemed friendly enough. After beverage service, she even went down the aisle to see if anybody had any connections that they needed information about. When I told her that I was headed to Salt Lake, she started referring to things from memory instead of from her paper. She told me that since it was a United flight, I would need to get onto Bus 5 which would take me to Building 6, from which I would need to walk to Building 7, where I would need to go through security again. Sometimes, she told me, if they weren't too busy, the bus drivers would take me to Building 7 if I asked, so that I wouldn't have to do security again.

When the plane got to the terminal, it took almost 20 minutes for a gate agent to drive the walkway to the plane and let us out. When I got to the bus area, I was told that I needed to wait off to the side for my bus. After about 10 minutes, my bus showed up. The driver was unwilling to take me to Building 7, and the tone of his voice allowed no argument. Those of you who have ever had to scramble to make a connection can see where this is going. Leave it to American Airlines to turn a 2-hour layover into a mad dash for the gate. That's when I started trying to call United Airlines to let them know that I was coming. I never found their phone number or anything else helpful on their site, and eventually called Expedia instead.

Expedia told me that my flight was actually in Building 8, and that it was the last one out of LAX to SLC that night. When I got to Building 6, I checked the terminals and saw that I needed to get to gate 88 post-haste. The Expedia agent assured me that I had almost half an hour, and should be able to make it in time. As I got to the security checkpoint I asked the guard how to get there, and he told me to follow this hallway to my right, and no, I wouldn't have to go through security again. When I was out of his sight, I started running.

I got through Building 7, and then continued onto Building 8. Gate 88 was at the very end of the concourse, and I ran to it, becoming increasingly worried as I noted that the boarding area was suspiciously empty. The display at the gate didn't even have SLC listed on it and the boarding door was closed, so I asked the agent if it was too late to board for SLC. She gave me a confused look and told me that the SLC flight wasn't leaving from that gate. I must have looked suddenly anguished, because she looked suddenly helpful. She told me that I needed gate 84, which I had just run past. She also assured me that it had not yet left. I asked if she could print me a ticket anyway, which she did. Now that I was checked in, at the airport no less, I knew I had much less of a chance of the plane leaving without me.

I ran back to Gate 84, and discovered that my flight had not even started boarding. Happy day! I sat down to finally rest, and wait. A few minutes later, the passengers started boarding, and I happily boarded with them. After the plane door had closed, the captain got on the horn and apologized for the late departure, as they had been waiting for the plane to arrive. Who knew I could be so happy for United Airlines to be late?

At least Enterprise managed to do things right, even if nobody else could be bothered. I'm glad that my next trip includes no connections, even if I get stuck on a Canadair jet both on the outbound and return flights. You know what I always say, nothing says fun like 3 1/2 hours on a cramped regional jet.

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