Zipcar was once considered a glimmer of hope in the notoriously cumbersome rental car business.
But the Boston-based car sharing service can’t shake a constant stream of online criticism from customers who feel poorly treated.
As a pioneer of the rapidly-expanding “sharing economy,” Zipcar also illustrates difficulties of growing that business model.
The Better Business Bureau gives Zipcar a D- rating for customer service, citing the company’s failure to respond to about one quarter of the total number of complaints filed against them. Business Insider contacted several Zipcar users who had complained about their experience on social media, and they related frustrations with a key part of the company’s customer service.
Zipcar works by providing rentals at designated parking spaces. Customers can rent cars for any amount of time — as little as one hour — and then return the car to the original location. Keys are left in the car and access is granted through a card.
But for this to work, there needs to be an honour system among customers. If you take a car, you’re expected to return it on time, clean, and with at least a quarter tank of gas.
The flaw that has so many customers complaining is that — unlike traditional outfits like Hertz — there’s nobody checking to be sure that customers lived up to that promise. And that means there are bound to be plenty of late arrivals and damaged or dirty cars, and none of the usual turnaround inspection and service between each rental.
Zipcar often only learns about an issue with one of their cars when the next customer calls to complain, while other overgrown “sharing economy” businesses like Airbnb or Lyft rely on peer rating systems to police users.
“Most of issues have been with dirty car interiors, gas tanks that were on fumes and cars that reeked of smoke (Two Varieties). And one lowlife who did not return the car and stuck us without one,” one commenter on Yelp recently wrote. “Were these the fault of Zipcar? Obviously not but I wonder if the offenders and warned or penalised in anyway? Probably not as I still have to deal with nonsense three quarters of the time I get a car.”
Zipcar will fine users who return a car late, dirty, or damaged, but the next customer often must call Zipcar’s customer service hotline to resolve these issues.
“Since inception, Zipcar’s core value is to obsess about the member experience. Our positive Net Promoter Score maintains that we continue to deliver on that value,” spokeswoman Lindsay Wester said, referring to an internal metric used by some companies to determine if users would recommend their service.
In its early days in Boston, Zipcar used the sharing-economy model to its advantage, giving consumers a cheaper and more convenient option while avoiding many of the rental business’s overhead costs.
But a review of Twitter, Facebook and Yelp reveals unhappiness among some customers. On Yelp the company gets 2 stars out of five from users in New York.
Complaints center on the company’s inability to resolve issues with cars or to correct billing issues without infuriating its customers.
Michael Krigsman, a resident of Brookline, a neighbourhood near Boston, has used Zipcar since soon after its inception in 2000.
Krigsman told Business Insider that in his view, the company has changed character since its early days.
The change was highlighted by his experience during a recent trip using the service.
Krigsman booked a car, only to find that he could not start it. He was given a second car, but when it came time to buy gas for it, the credit card Zipcar provides for that purpose didn’t work.
Customer service, meanwhile, was unhelpful throughout this ordeal. Because of the delay caused by the first car, Krigsman was eventually promised his rental time limit would be extended. When he was charged with a $50 late fee anyway, he took to social media to complain.
The charge was finally lifted after a friend of Krigsman’s who happened to be an executive at the company noticed his post on the Zipcar Facebook page and called him.
Krigsman said he was eventually reimbursed for the $50 charge, but he was surprised at the amount of work it took to receive it.
“Their founder really did foster this sense of community,” Krigsman, the creator of the business website CXOTalk, said. “There really was this sense of responsibility that this is a shared resource. If you are a responsible member of the community, leave the car in good shape.”
Now that the company has outgrown its local startup roots, that spirit has disappeared, Krigsman thinks.
Zipcar’s spokesperson Wester also rebuked the BBB’s rating in a statement emailed to Business Insider.
“The BBB is funded by corporations that pay annual dues for accreditation,” Wester said. “We prefer to focus our resources on adding value to a Zipcar membership and delivering a product that our nearly one million fee-paying members continue to love.”
The Better Business Bureau has faced allegations of running a pay-for-grades scheme, most notably in a story by ABC’s 20/20 in 2010. The Bureau later promised it would modify its ratings scheme to no longer consider whether a business was a paying member.
But the significantly larger traditional car rental-rival Hertz, also not a BBB accredited business, currently holds an A+ rating, though it has dealt with over three thousand BBB handled complaints in the past 12 months.
Avis, which purchased Zipcar in 2013, currently holds a rating of “F” from the BBB.