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#136 Zipcar Nightmare
Denny Hatch -- Direct Mail Expert Denny Hatch -- Direct Mail Expert
For Immediate Release:
Dateline: Philadelphia, PA
Wednesday, September 15, 2021



 #136 Blog Post - Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Posted by Denny Hatch

How Brilliant Technology Morphed into
A Gawd-awful Back-end Nightmare

Peggy and I are pensioners. Six years ago, we downsized from a center city rowhouse to a center city 2BR apt. We sold our big, beloved ten-year-old sedan and saved $12,000 a year—garage space rental ($W250/mo), insurance, gas, servicing and yearly wear-'n'-tear repair costs. For starters, public—a great bus system plus subways—here in Philly are free to seniors. Uber, taxis and Enterprise per-hour carshare for grocery shopping were a tiny fraction the cost of car ownership.

Alas, Covid-19 hit. Enterprise axed its carshare system We were still way ahead of the car ownership game. We relied on the kindness of friends to take us shopping, ordered groceries to be delivered and I often schlepped to stores with a market bag on two wheels.

A friend of Peggy's in the building mentioned the Zipcar carshare parking lot was a half block away. Cost: $9.00/month membership plus an hourly rate depending on the car—gas and insurance included. Peggy joined instantly, mainly for routine shopping trips to the big grocery and wine stores.

• We reserved a Toyota Corolla ($14.75 per hour) for two hours starting 2:00 p.m. this past Sunday. The first hour was magical.

•  We walked the half a block to the parking lot and instantly spotted the pristine new white Toyota Corolla.

•  The car was live, online and in contact with Zipcar computers.

• Peggy turned on her iPhone and went to the Zipcar App, tapped on drive, then tapped on Unlock. The doors instantly unlocked.

• The keys were in the small tray next to the gearshift. The deal: never take the keys out of the card. When stopping for an errand, stick the keys in their little home, exit the car and go about your business. Use the Zipcar App to lock and unlock the car..

• On returning to the car with full shopping cart, simply unlock, load the trunk and drive off.

We made two stops—state liquor store for a three-week supply of red and white wine plus some beer. At Philly's Famous 4th Street Deli, Peggy waited in the car while I picked up dinner. Whereupon we headed for home.

We continually marveled at the magnificent technology and the pleasure of having a lovely little Zipcar on beck-'n'-call just half a block from our apartment. Brilliant. We had fallen into the cream pot.

By three o'clock we were ready to turn in the car. "Do we need anything from Acme?" Peg asked. "Yogurt, Windex, oatmeal and ice cream" I said. Peggy pulled into the parking lot of the small Acme supermarket three blocks from our apartment and exited the car. 

The S**t Hits the Fan 

In Peggy's sign-up e-literature, she was told a special Zipcar membership card would be mailed to us for use in an emergency. For example, if the iPhone battery dies and we can't enter our pass code, we can tap on the upper left windshield with the care and the car will respond enabling us to get in and out.


Peggy's iPhone was fully charged. The system had been working flawlessly.

We pushed the Acme shopping cart of groceries to our Toyota and Peggy tapped Unlock.

Zip. Zero. Nada. Niente. Nothing.

A message from Zipcar appeared on her tiny screen. "Out of range."

We were standing next to the car.


She tried it again and again. Four times.

Same message each time.

It was 3:00 p.m. Bright sun. 87°. We made our way back to the bench outside the Acme entrance. We had one unused hour on our rental.

Peggy called Zipcar.

"Use your personal card," Peggy was told. It'll unlock the system."

"We're brand-new members," Peggy replied. "We have not received our card in the mail."

The Zipcar lady directed us to return to the Toyota and and said she would try to unlock the car from her office. No dice.

"The message says the car is out of range," said the lady. "Get closer to the car."

"I am standing next to the car."

Suffice it to say over the next two hours Peggy was on the phone eight or nine times with five different Zipcar people. In every instance Peggy was required to give her name, date of birth and last four digits of her driver's license and then repeat what had happened.

The TSRs were uniformly nice, polite and, alas, utterly unhelpful.

"The car is offline," said the Zipcar woman. She told us to expect a call in thirty minutes.

We waited. After 30 minutes had passed Peggy called Zipcar.

"Okay," expect a call from roadside assistance in a few minutes.

Peggy got a call saying Zipcar was extending the rental period one hour and we should be happy to know we would not be charged for the extra hour.

In another call were told the ETA for roadside assistance would be 30 minutes. They will tow the car and then deliver all the groceries to our door.

Twenty minutes later we received a text saying Bob's Auto would be arriving. His ETA was 180 minutes. There was a number to call Bob's Auto and Peggy called.

"My husband is 86 and I'm 76. There is no way to start the car. We are three blocks from home. We are not going to wait in this parking lot for three hours.

"You can't start the car?"

"No. We're locked out. We can't start the car."

"I can't tow the car if it's not running," Gus said.

Peggy and I were prepared to ditch the car in the Acme parking lot and forfeit the wine, beer and groceries just so we could get home.

It was getting close to six o'clock. We had been in the parking lot nearly three hours. Another call to Zipcar. Name. Date of birth. Last three digits of driver's license required.

"Oh," said the woman in mid-conversation, "The car is back online. You can start the car."

Mirabile dictu! Peggy opened the car door. The car started. We got home. Wine and groceries were saved. (Ice cream not so great.) Car was delivered to its parking space.

Takeaways to Consider

• Many of today's direct marketers are besotted with technology. The once-huge Direct Marketing Association (née Direct Mail Association) changed its Unique Selling Proposition (USP) to "data-driving marketing." Within two years the DMA was deader than Kelsey's nuts. Literally outta business.

• Alas, when technology goes awry, relying on an A.I. fix is seldom the answer. Old-fashioned, low-tech, person-to-person, Keds-on-the-ground physical contact and hand holding is the only way to deal with a screw-up.

• "Zipcar was co-founded by Antje Danielson and Robin Chase based on existing German and Swill companies in January 2000." —Google

• The company—in business for over 20 years—treated us as though this were the very first time this ever happened to a new customer.

• "Times of adversity and customer screw-ups may be the only times when you can really show your customers how much you love them." —Malcolm Decker

• Who the hell knows where on the globe the Zipcar customer help phone bank was. All the TSRs had slight accents but not identifiable. Mumbai? Aruba? Beijing?

• We needed a capable Zipcar person here and now to come to this Acme parking lot and let us into the car so we could salvage our purchases and get an Uber home.

• Okay, back-end marketing is not as sexy as creating direct mail promotions or jazzing up websites and watching the traffic. Back-end marketing is the guts of direct marketing and the key to profitability.

• Put another way, treat a customer poorly and...
  1) You lose the customer.
  2) All the money spent acquiring that customer is wasted.
  3) All projected revenue from future sales is lost.
  4) You can expect blistering reviews from Yelp, TripAdvisor, Amazon, etc.
  5) No referrals from delighted customers.

• Consider hiring secret shoppers—people with no connections to your business.  Have them order goods and/or services and purposely make mistakes to put your customer service people through hoops. Whereupon they report exactly what happened—the good and the bad—and the names of the perpetrators.

• Zipcar should include this caveat in its membership fulfillment material:
It is recommended you wait to receive your personal Zipcar ID Card in the mail before renting for the first time. It's your backup.

• IMHO when a car goes dark and offline, I absolutely believe tapping the windshield with a little plastic card will not bring it to life. I further believe Zipcar is operating under a deeply flawed system.

• Will we ever use Zipcar again? Put it this way: if you walked into a dark room and got whacked on the head with a baseball bat, would you go back into that room?

• Peggy wants to use Zipcar again. I'll be using Uber and taxis. Plus my two feet.



Word count: 1474


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At age 15, Denny Hatch—as a lowly apprentice—wrote his first news release for a Connecticut summer theater. To his astonishment it ran verbatim in The Middletown Press.He was instantly hooked on writing. After a two-year stint in the U.S. Army (1958-60), Denny had nine jobs in his first 12 years in business. He was fired from five of them and went on to save two businesses and start three others. One of his businesses—WHO’S MAILING WHAT! newsletterand archive service founded in 1984—revolutionized the science of how to measure the success of competitors’ direct mail. In the past 55 yearshe has been a book club director, magazine publisher, advertising copywriter/designer, editor, journalist and marketing consultant. He is the author of four published novels and seven books on business and marketing.


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