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Company: Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group
Contact: Keith Adams, Sales & Marketing Manger, New York Metropolitan Area
Location: Tulsa, Okla.
Industry: Retail, B2C
Annual revenue: $1,700,000,000
Number of employees: 8500

Quick Read:

Dollar Rent A Car is one of the top US rental car companies; its parent, Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group (DTG), is traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

But many don't know that Dollar is also the nation's fourth-largest parking service. Most of its parking customers are business executives who use the company's frequent-parking programs at 26 airports. Some parking facilities offer benefits such as car washes, oil changes, and replacement wipers.

In late 2006, Dollar's business was slowing at New York's LaGuardia airport. Faced with larger and better-funded competitors, local sales and marketing manager Keith Adams needed a tactical solution. He hired a survey company to develop and imprint a survey on every customer's email receipt.

Adams and his managers used the information from the surveys to pinpoint Dollar's weak points at La Guardia and to quickly collect customer complaints so that he could address their concerns, educating customers about parking procedures when necessary.

The surveys and the related efficiencies gained helped Dollar grow its parking-related business at La Guardia: Revenues grew 24% in 2007.

The Challenge:

Demand for parking at New York's La Guardia airport was falling at the end of 2006, and Dollar Rent A Car had to increase prices to offset the slowdown. At the same time, its main airport competitors had larger facilities with more buses to transport passengers from the terminals.

"I had a goal of growing sales by 20 percent in 2007," Adams recalled. "Several things had to be in line for us to hit our goal: All of our people needed to be onboard, frontline workers had to be empowered to make decisions, and we needed to speed up delivery of cars to arriving customers."

The Campaign:

By mid-2007, Adams noticed that one of his problems at La Guardia was that he had no real-time customer feedback, which is crucial for identifying customer problems, responding to them quickly, and locking in repeat business.

He decided to hire marketing firm Survey Advantage to design a customer-service survey that was to be integrated into Dollar's e-receipts, which were emailed to customers right after they left the parking facility. The survey had just five questions, the first of which was whether the customer satisfied with the service received.

"If any survey response falls below a rating of satisfied, it is automatically forwarded to me, complete with contact information. Within three hours of filling out the survey, the customer receives a call from me," said Adams.

"I let them know that I hear their pain," he said. "I can't comp their parking or fire my employees, but I let them know that their comments haven't fallen into a black hole."

Also, Adams receives an online report daily via email with a link to all of the previous day's survey results." I can look for trends, read all of the comments at once, or click into individual surveys to read individual comments," he said.

Within days of implementing the surveys, Adams began getting a clear picture of Dollar's weak points.

For instance, complaints consistently pointed to unusually long waits on Sundays and Mondays. Knowing that enabled managers to take corrective action: "We identified one common denominator on both days, made some changes, and the long delays went away immediately."

Feedback on other delays provided the opportunity to educate the clientele. For instance, customers complained that while they waited at the terminal they might see competitors' buses several times before they would see a Dollar bus. That gave company managers the chance to explain that Dollar is a smaller company and "while we don't have as many buses, our size allows us to keep rates competitive and to provide more personalized service," explained Adams.

With a better understanding of where and when delays occur, Dollar can educate customers about what they can do to help speed service. "We now encourage customers to call us only after they have their baggage and to give us their ticket number so we can have their car ready and waiting when they get off the bus," he said.

The Results:

Even with a shrinking market and strong competition, in the first four months of the campaign Dollar's revenues at La Guardia were up 20% compared with the previous four months. Revenues in 2007 grew 24% year over year.

The surveys have also enabled Adams to initiate an ongoing dialogue with customers to discuss Dollar's strengths and weaknesses. Customers have told him that Dollar's willingness to hear and respond to their needs is impressive, and that it has led to a more loyal client base.

"I've landed three corporate accounts that resulted from my calls to people complaining about our service—they were so impressed that I was responding personally to their concerns," said Adams.

Lessons Learned:

Keep customer surveys short and easy to access. Dollar's five-question surveys get sent directly to a customer's email address, attached to the e-receipt, making it relatively easy to view and fill out.

Make the customer feel special. "An automated email response thanking the customer for filling out the survey doesn't make them feel special," noted Adams. "A personal call asking their opinion does." If warranted, Adams even makes second calls to customers, informing them of the results that he has discovered during follow-up of their complaints.

Involve employees in your efforts. Virtually all surveys, with good or bad findings, are posted in Dollar's employee lounge, letting workers see the direct effect they are having on customers.

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