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Sunday, March 09, 2008

About Geckos and Dollars

I'd never associated the Gecko with rental cars, and didn't even know where Buscerias is -- so how did we end up doing business with Gecko Rent a Car? The answer provides some important marketing insights.

As we made our plans for the Punta de Mita visit, we needed to choose a rental car service as the place we are staying at is a little off the beaten track and a car is essential. My first instinct: Get the best price, go on the Internet and select a car from whichever Expedia came in at "lowest"; then cross check to see if there are any negative observations through a secondary search. Dollar Rental Car, one of the less widely known but still recognizable "brand names" came up -- so I booked on line.

Then Vivian forwarded me an email from correspondence she had with an Internet forum (which led her to choose the relationship/destination club we chose.). The other forum member, in a personal email, recommended we try Gecko Rent a Car in Buscerias.

Now, I've never heard of a rental car company named "Gecko", and had the foggiest idea of where Buscerias is, but I hoped they would have a solution to a problem we had with our vacation.

Outbound travel: No problem, we would pick up a car at Puerto Vallarta Airport in mid afternoon in the conventional manner. But return was proving to be another challenge. To get the best fare (in fact maybe the fare proved to be 'best' because of this problem), our flight departs at 7 am. Trouble is, the place we are staying at is a 30 minute drive from the airport, and to allow for international flight connections, this means we must be on the road at three a.m.

I've never been to Mexico before. I read scare stories about driving at night in Mexico, and we were perplexed about what to do. So, instead of dealing with some robotic call centre or "reservations agent" I typed an email to "Dear Gecko" and explained my concerns.

This is the response I received:

Hi Mark we do have a Jetta available for that time frame. The price after all insurances and taxes is 360usd Visa or Mastercard or 325 cash. We can work out your departure. We may have to send a man out there to drive you to the airport. If you want to book this vehicle please send your arrival time, name of airline, flight number, departure time and the number of people in your party. I need this in order to book the vehicle and arrange transportation from the airport to our office which is half way to Mita. Regards Denis

The price seemed competitive, and the service -- well, if they are ready to send someone out to us in the middle of the night to help us return our car, these guys are obviously not following by the rule books I associate with conventional rental car companies. So we signed on.

And so far, the client experience/engagement has been impeccable -- and a lesson for marketers anywhere.

In confirming the rental, Denis told us that we should watch for a kiosk calleed "VIP Service" after clearing customs, but before entering the "mandatory" room where time share shills hawk their wares. Indeed someone had a sign with my name, and directed me forward. And indeed, I ran into the Timeshare gauntlet, where two sales guys asked me "Do I have the hotel voucher" as if we had some kind of relationship with them, but really to get us to some rip-off time share deal or another. Out the door, and then the very visible and well furnished VIP Room, where Gecko had arranged a private driver to take us to Buscerias.

Our driver engaged us as we drove 40 minutes, dropping us off at a hole-in-the-wall place we would never haver found (or even considered) if we were choosing based on the supeficial "advertised" brand rather than real experience and first-hand recommendations.

Denis -- turns out his father is from Montreal, where my wife grew up -- said unfortunately the Jetta hadn't been returned by the previous client, but not to worry, we would get aother, less expensive, car and they would drive up to replace it. He gave me simple instructions about the rules of the road in Mexico. He didn't force me into CDW insurance waivers, "fill up the tank" and other gimmicks. But a hand written sign said they had cellular phones for rent for $20 for the week -- and when he told me the cost of using the phone compared to my Canadian cell phone's overpriced roaming rates, I took the offer.

I asked about the return procedure. Denis said by the time we had been here a week, we probably would be comfortable driving at night. In that case, we could come in the day before, settle up the account, and then drive the car to the airport, and leave it in the parking lot, door unlocked, with the key under the mat. But if we were unconfortable with that option, he would arrange for a driver for us. I thought: "leaving a car unlocked at three in the morning in Mexico... well he knows his business and the local area better than me, and I'm sure he woldn't set up a situation where he felt he would lose his car"

So we got our car; a downgrade, something that would normally annoy me, but we found the lower priced car quite suitable and, with the clear instructions, arrived at our destination. In fact, I thought, why not save some money and keep the cheaper car.

Then I heard the ring on the cell phone -- the one they had rented me. Their driver would bring out the proper car; I couldn't keep the less expensive model because it had been rented to someone else. Within half an hour, with minimum interruption, we had the new car and it looks like it will be a pleasure to drive (no charge for the gas for the temporary downgrade, of course.)

Now, I'm dwelling on this experience at some length, because it teaches some rather important marketing lessons.
  • If you can build relationships with customers to the extent they will refer you personally, you don't need a big brand name, expensive advertising campaigns, and huge sales budgets. Nor do you need fancy offices, "convenient locations" and sophisticated "call centres."

  • If you can build flexibility, trust, and humanity into your business, you can overcome client fears -- often valid -- and keep things simple. So, yes, we'll probably drive back at 3 a.m. to the airport (but it is reassuring that if I don't feel comfortable with that option, an alternative can be arranged.)

  • You still need to deliver the basics: In this case, a clean, reliable car, at a price that is in line with the competition but you can also sell the extras -- in this case the cellular phone service -- without pressure or hype.

  • Little things count a lot: The warnings about the "time share salespeople" allowed me to navigate that maze at the airport, and the driving service to the rental car office helped to overcome the off-site location (which is actually more convenient to us where we are)
Note also that while we may return to this area in the future, we are not likely to be big, loyal, long-term clients; and while of course we would really listen if Denis had other rental car suggestions elsewhere, that is unlikely, as this is a local business. So Gecko has overcome many limitations that smaller businesses must encounter, and done it with class and ability.
These are lessons worthy of remembering for the future.

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