Great Expectations

May 1, 2003
Reams of research exist about how the Internet has changed consumer behavior for better and worse. How deep is the Internet's impact on traditional consumer

Reams of research exist about how the Internet has changed consumer behavior for better and worse. How deep is the Internet's impact on traditional consumer behavior, and does that impact extend beyond simple statistics? A DePaul University study has taken a look at exactly that issue, and describes how customer experiences on-line contribute to customer service expectations off-line. In our industry where online shopping for rental products and services is not yet the norm, there are lessons to be learned about serving customers in more traditional ways.

The DePaul study found that a person who has low to moderate Internet experience develops “increasingly high expectations of off-line service transactions.” To relate this directly to our industry, homeowners, contractors, caterers, party planners or other customers who use the Internet only moderately at home or work are developing ever-higher expectations of how well you will serve them on the phone and at the rental counter. The study also found that one of the key customer service expectations is responsiveness.

To understand the concept of responsiveness as it applies to the rental transaction, look at these five points of customer interaction. Your rental computer's capabilities are the cornerstone of these five points.

Telephone inquiry and reservation

The telephone inquiry represents business that's not yet in hand. Speed and availability are the two main issues here. How quickly can you look up the items the customer needs and check these items against the dates needed?

If an item isn't available, why not? Perhaps the equipment is in your shop for service, or is off rent and waiting to be picked up. Or, maybe it's due back from a rental just after the caller wants to take it out. It's possible that all of these scenarios can be adjusted to meet the customer's need. Barring that, can you get the equipment from another store? Can you suggest a slightly different model instead? Powerful rental software informs you of all of these options instantaneously.

A good example of enhanced customer service at the inquiry stage is the ability to suggest supplemental items. For example, if your customer intends to refinish a wood floor and requests a floor sander, you might also suggest an edger, various grits of sandpaper, floor finish, a shopvac and an extension cord. Rate flexibility goes hand-in-hand with this service. A customer confronted with additional suggestions will want to know the total price, may already have a special price arrangement with you for certain equipment, or may ask for a discount. Will a few keystrokes give you the answers you need without putting the caller on hold?

As a consumer yourself, you've probably asked a salesperson, “Are there any additional charges I need to know about?” In the rental transaction, there are always charges in addition to the rental rate — taxes, for example. By making customers aware of taxes, delivery and damage waiver charges, special rates on bundled kits and other price considerations at the time of inquiry, you help ensure customer satisfaction later on.

In-store customer pick-up

When a customer arrives at your store to pick up a rental item, the computer should automatically determine whether a reservation is already in place. If it is, the conversion to open contract should be very fast and very painless. Typical contracts written from scratch should take no more than 25 seconds to write and print. Customers are used to being served instantaneously at the supermarket, gas pump, bank and virtually every other point of transaction, and they will assign these same expectations to your rental counter.

In this world of increased expectations, the rental contract has become more than a simple transaction record — it's an extension of the service you provide. A good rental system will automatically print safety and warning messages on the contract, as well as operating instructions. You should also be able to enter free-form text that applies to that transaction alone — the cell phone number of a specially-trained service technician, for example. Pricing is normally printed on the rental contract, but some commercial customers such as caterers prefer that pricing not be shown. Your rental system should be flexible enough to reasonably support the way your customers want to do business.


Contractors and other trade customers who depend on timely deliveries also expect certain benefits from the delivery documentation. A good rental system can create delivery tickets with all the flexibility of the contracts described above: operating instructions, safety and warning messages, special notations, etc. Delivery tickets are far more likely to have the pricing suppressed, but this shouldn't be mandatory.

Off-rent request

The flip side of deliveries is off-rent pickups, and both can pare down your revenue if not handled well — but pickups are far more likely to slip through the cracks. The off-rent point of interaction is usually a phone call from the customer, and may occur when the counter is busy and the salesperson is distracted. If the off-rent isn't recorded promptly and the pickup isn't immediately scheduled, you can harm both revenues and customer service. A machine that could be out on rent is sitting idle, and the customer may inadvertently be overcharged.

A rental system's handling of off-rents is one indication of the system's overall strength. Your system should be able to record an off-rent the moment it's phoned in and generate some form of verification: a control number or code for example. This works in the same manner as a hotel's code for a cancelled accommodation — it assures the customer that the request is on record. Furthermore, the creation of an off-rent notation in the system should automatically schedule a pickup that will return the equipment for service and make it available for the next rental.

Close contract

If the customer has no complaints or questions at the end of the rental, the rent is calculated and the customer receipt or invoice is printed. As with an open contract, customers expect that closed contract service will be quick and the paperwork accurate. Account customers will apply this same criteria to your monthly billing procedures, and may have increasing expectations of your ability to provide e-statements or automatic faxing.

The contract close should be simple, but often is not. A customer may complain about a machine's operation, or request rain-day credits or other adjustments. When these requests are valid, your computer system should be able to make immediate adjustments (assuming the operator has a sufficient security level). All overrides and adjustments should be automatically recorded for management's review. Rental equipment that failed to perform up to snuff should be assigned a “maintenance status” in the system so that the problem can be checked.

The economics of poor service

While customer expectations often extend beyond the areas described above, these five points of interaction are fundamentally important to virtually all rental operations. How damaging is it to fall short of customer expectations in these areas? Business economist William Anderson notes in his article, “The Economics of Bad Service,” that customers are “sovereign individuals who are free to make choices that please them,” and in his opinion, their choices have never been better. In other words, let the supplier of poor service beware!

This is not to say that every customer expectation is reasonable, but all must be reasonably addressed. Jack Sheehan, owner of The Costumer rental business in Schenectady, N.Y., has found that, “the Internet has imposed a sense of urgency. Where a customer might normally give us several weeks' notice on a large order, that time frame has been watered down. The ease and speed of e-mail and the Internet has led customers to expect immediate response in other aspects of our business.”

Customers ultimately determine the direction of our industry, and it should be the role of every rental computer to keep pace with changes in customer expectations. Your rental business will be measured by how well you meet customer mandates for speed, responsiveness, information availability and accuracy — all within the context of the moment. Customer service is a concept that's constantly under construction, and your rental computer must rise to the level of each new tier.

Jack Shea is president of Solutions By Computer, Springfield, Mass.