The name Hertz used to be synonymous with excellence.  It was such a gold-plated brand that Avis, number two in the car rental game, had to devise a clever ad campaign to compete (see here for a brief overview).  That rivalry started in the 1940s after World War II ended and was raging over much of the five decades of my world travels.  I regularly rented from both companies and still did through last month.  But after what happened to me and my family in Seattle in July, I won’t be reserving any cars again with Hertz, at least not until I read that they have fixed their fundamental problems.

Here’s the story:  My wife and I were spending a week on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary, and we took the kids with us.  Our 6:00 AM departure from RDU required a 4:00 AM wake-up, so by the time we got to Sea-Tac after connecting through LAX, we had been up for 12 hours and were exhausted.

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Arriving on the shuttle at the huge Seattle Airport offsite rental car facility on Saturday afternoon in mid-July about 3:30 PM, I hurried down to the Gold board to locate my minivan, which I had reserved three months earlier in April.  My name was absent.  Usually the big Hertz Gold boards are full of car assignments, but there was no need to check it twice that day because only a few names were listed at all.  I should have guessed then that I was in trouble.

Perplexed, I went to the adjacent Gold counter downstairs (the main reservations counters are upstairs), which was manned by one person, with my wife and kids in tow.  Two and a half hours later we left in a Hertz vehicle, though not the one I had reserved.  What I experienced was almost word for word this famous Seinfeld skit about a car rental company from a 1991 episode, the key lines of which are:

Jerry: I don’t understand. Do you have my reservation?

Rental Car Agent: We have your reservation, we just ran out of cars.

Jerry: But the reservation keeps the car here. That’s why you have the reservation.

Rental Car Agent: I think I know why we have reservations.

Jerry: I don’t think you do. You see, you know how to *take* the reservation, you just don’t know how to *hold* the reservation. And that’s really the most important part of the reservation: the holding. Anybody can just take them.

Except that in my case the counter agent was a moron, and he was itching for a fight.  I was very tired from the long trip and lack of sleep, and I was upset because we had commitments in Olympia, Washington 90 minutes south.  I also had my wife and two kids with me, and I was protective of their well-being. I had fulfilled my duties in reserving the car, but Hertz had not fulfilled theirs.

Unlike the Seinfeld episode, the demon-possessed Hertz agent claimed that they had no cars at all, not even the compact that Jerry ended up with.  He could not tell me, either, how long the wait would be.  The nutty counter agent intimated, though, that it could be many hours, and the guy seemed to take pleasure in goosing my frustration.  He then easily provoked me into a heated argument during which I asked what happened to Hertz, once the greatest car rental agency in the world.  When I raised my voice to make that point, the agent threatened that he could have me arrested if I wasn’t “nicer” because “we are in a federal building.”  Doubtful that the ugly pile of concrete and steel miles from the airport was actually under government jurisdiction, I nonetheless took his threat seriously, since I knew he had the power to cancel my reservation–arguably a worse fate than spending the night in the hoosegow.

After an hour I chose to seek out a manager upstairs to complain about both the absence of my reserved van and the insane Hertz employee downstairs.  Two managers, a man and a women, explained that the agent down below had contacted them to say that I was a trouble-maker, and the two remonstrated me to wait my turn.  In other words, they didn’t believe me and had no better explanation for why I did not have a car or when I might have one.  Checkmate!

So I prowled the entire rental car complex, asking for a car to rent–any car–at every agency. Nothing. They all bragged about hoarding cars for customers holding reservations.  Too bad Hertz didn’t understand that critical business premise to their industry, I thought.

Spiritually defeated, I went back downstairs and dejectedly sat, mute, awaiting the car, whenever it might come.  I sent my family to get soft drinks and a quick snack.  The madman hired by Hertz to interface with their best customers like me, however, wasn’t satisfied that he had beat me.  He came out from around the counter and engaged me in conversation, repeatedly attempting to antagonize me.  I didn’t take the bait, and I asked him not to speak to me, just to leave me alone.  He kept it up, though. When I raised my voice to repeat that he should “stop antagonizing me and not speak to me,” he claimed I was the one causing trouble.

I left to go upstairs again to seek out the managers and got a call from my wife, still down there, saying the Gold counter idiot had gleefully informed her that he had canceled our reservation and to “have a nice day.”

This time my discussion with the two managers went differently.  It began poorly because they were very defensive about their cuckoo employee, who they said had just called them to report I was the one causing a ruckus.  I was humble, and my tone and explanation sounded that way, calm and flat.  I asked the manager to please review the video from their downstairs cameras to verify facts.

Long story short, they did study the video of the lunatic downstairs, after which one of the managers apologized profusely to me and quickly found a car for us.  No, it wasn’t a van, but neither was it Jerry Seinfeld’s Ford Escort compact.  It was instead a new Dodge Durango SUV with all the bells and whistles.  Though we really needed the extra seats in the van, I would have accepted even Jerry’s Ford Escort at that point.

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I had already instructed my family to come upstairs after the nutcase had told my wife that he’d canceled our reservation.  Now I asked the apologetic manager to please keep us away from their psychotic employee.  He did so, bringing the car to a distant location and offering to carry our bags to it.  The manager also took $100 off the rental as a token apology from Hertz.  While I appreciated the discount, I just wanted to leave by then, having waited more than two and a half hours and having been subjected to the worst customer service representative I think I have ever seen.

It’s hard to fathom that this event could happen in a developed country, let alone in America and at Seattle. But it did, and Hertz squandered 45 years of loyalty in one afternoon.  How can I ever trust them again?

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