Wednesday, September 15, 2021

#136 Zipcar Nightmare

 #136 Blog Post - Thursday, September 16, 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 ($250/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 card 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 three 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-driven 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! newsletter and archive service founded in 1984—revolutionized the science of how to measure the success of competitors’ direct mail. In the past 55 years he 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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  1. Yikes! Glad it twarnt me, Ida been steaming. There are advantages to living in rural Wisconsin (as long as Ann and I can drive!)
    We do plan to travel your way--hopefully the "variants" will go away!

    1. Hey David,

      Thanks for taking the time to write.

      Always great hearing from you!.

      By all means, do travel our way! Philly is pretty safe. Most wear masks. Not a Covid hotspot (at the moment).

      And do keep in touch!

      Love to you both!


  2. reminds me of the time I tried to send a fax at a hotel (feel free to use as you wish)
    Vance tries to send a fax
    Before the first session of my convention, I had gotten up early to get some work done. At about 5:30 am I went down to the front desk of this VERY UN-Disney hotel to send a one page fax. The Front Desk Person refused to send a fax for me "Cause the business office is closed".
    Me: "So you mean to tell me the only time I can send a fax in the hotel is between 8 and 4:30? I asked incredulously.
    So I tried a different tact:
    Me: "Can you at least tell me if you have a fax machine".
    Her: "Yes, Sir, right here under my desk."
    Me: "Do you know how to use the fax machine?" I prodded.
    Her: "Of course, sir"
    Me: "Since the business office is closed, could I give you a dollar for your troubles and have you send this one page fax?"
    Her: "Ohhh, I don't know.  I don't have any way to ring in the dollar into our system."
    At this point I am ready to slap myself a la Homer Simpson and scream DOH!
    Me: "Is there anyone in this entire hotel that has the power, juice and authority to operate the fax machine sitting between your legs?
    Her: "Yes let me get my manager"
    In comes the manager...
    Her #2: How may I help you sir? 
    Me: I would like to send this one page fax with your fax machine. 
    Her #2: "Well, sir, guests are only allowed to use the fax in the business office".  "Security Reasons", she #2 continued.
    Is there a defibrillator in the house?
    At this point I am apoplectic... As my blood begins to boil, I grit my teeth and strain my lips a little song starts playing in my mind ("Beauty & The Beast's Be our guest, Be our guest, Put our Service to the test)
    Me: How much does it cost you to send a fax?
    Her #2: "I have no idea"
    Me: “Can we agree that it would be about a buck?"
    Her #2: “Well, of course... That seems like a lot of money to send a fax.”
    Me: “Well, if I give you a dollar, and you agree that I am OVER paying for this service, could you please send the fax?  Your hotel is definitely making a profit on this transaction"
    Her #2: "Well, I don't have a way to ring up this sale, so I don't think I can do it."
    WOW!!! A hotel company would risk losing the business of a client over the sending of a ONE PAGE FAX!
    Do you have ridiculously stupid rules, regulations or policies that get in the way of serving your clients?
    NOW is a good time to start rooting them out and eliminating them.
    Do you give your team the flexibility and latitude to make decisions on their own that will only enhance your level of service?
    Or…. Do you have a couple of “Hers” working for you? Go and find the “hers” working in your agency and do something about them.

    1. Great hearing from you.

      Thank you, thank you for sharing your fax saga. Whew.

      Do keep in touch.


  3. Customer service is a dying, or perhaps dead, art.

    Witness, if you will, the number of posts online complaining about "self-checkout" at various retailers, including grocery stores. And now, Whole Paycheck, sorry, Whole Foods (now owned by Amazon) is going in that direction "So we will have more clerks to serve you..." Is that what is called an oxymoron, or just a moronic statement they hope customers will believe?

    1. Cindy,

      Many thanks for taking the time to write.

      I Love buying gas in New Jersey; state law dictates no self-service at the gas pumps. A person has to come fill you tank and take your money (credit card).

      The system keeps lotsa people employed.

      One of my current pet hates is self-driving cars. The idea gives me the Willies. Car makers are nuts…. And customers are crazy… to even think about that.

      What’s next? Self-flying jet airliners?

      Do keep in touch.


  4. Good afternoon, Denny!

    There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that in early days, Woolworth made every store manager fill out a form describing how they handled a customer service issue. They compiled these into bulletins and sent out recommended procedures to be filed in loose-leaf binders at every store.

    Eventually, each binder grew so thick that no one had time to look up the recommended solution, and Woolworth issued a directive to discard the binders and use your own best judgment.

    It is idiotic that you had to wait all that time, and your lifetime value as a customer would probably have been saved by sending out a real human being to solve your problem.

    The other issue is our over-reliance on our technology. A simple technical failure can cause a catastrophe like the one you experienced. That's why I still carry my car insurance ID card in my wallet, and not on my phone.

    Best regards!

    Tim Orr

    1. Tim,
      Always great to hear from you.
      Love the Woolworth story.
      Thank you for sharing!
      Here’s my take on “customer service”:
      The word “services” (as in “financial services”) reminds me of a story told by the late Barry Gray, the mellifluous-voiced fixture on New York talk radio for 50 years.
      On a late-night broadcast, Gray did a riff on the boyhood of the great American humorist and trick rope artist Will Rogers and the meaning of the word “service.”
      When Rogers was 10 years old, he was sitting on the split-rail fence of his family’s 400-acre spread located on the shore of Lake Oologah, Oklahoma. He looked up and saw an immense, blue-ribbon-prize bull from the adjoining ranch being led across his property. Its destination was the adjacent ranch where he was scheduled to service a prize heifer.
      “Since then, every time I hear the word ‘service,’” Rogers said years later, “I know somebody is going to get screwed.”

  5. An exchange between the legendary Drayton Byrd — longtime colleague of David Ogilvy — and DH:

    I'm still recovering from what one bank did to me ... but being utterly useless can't find he relevant email.

    Drayton, Thanks for taking the time to write. If you ever recover your bank saga, I’d love to run it in the blog. Cheers.

    Here you are, Denny.
    How corporate masturbation kills your business
    • And here’s what to do about it.
    If you start with the wrong perspective you get the wrong results.

    And an amazing number - maybe most businesses - start by looking in instead of looking out.

    One symptom is silly slogans.

    One bank I deal with - one of the most incompetent I’ve come across - has a terrible slogan.

    “Tomorrow Begins Today”

    WTF does that mean? Why on earth would it make you choose that bank?

    Bitter experience has taught me you will surely regret it if you do.

    My colleagues, I and the distraught recipient wasted many hours of our lives simply getting that bank to send money to an account in another bank.

    That's because they suspected fraud - for no sane reason I can imagine,

    Nobody had the basic commonsense to contact me and ask.

    The transfer of a measly £4,000 took several days. The bank, as a warning, is NatWest.

    The employees we dealt with were all helpful. They are just working for wankers.

    How do you get things the right way round?

    By looking at what you do, how you do it, then doing it better.

    Take the NatWest. It usually takes over 40 minutes, to get them to answer the phone.

    Another bank, Halifax, takes about the same.

    The only bank I don't mind dealing with, First Direct, is far quicker.

    If you have even half a brain managing something as simple as answering the phone is more important than silly slogans.

    Why isn't that clear to overpaid banking buffoons?

    My colleagues and I spend a lot of time thinking about these things.

    They’re all important.

    No matter what aspect of your business concerns you we can usually help.

    That's because we have all worked in real businesses, not just ones that advise.

    Even my manager, Kelly, has run a hotel.

    So we don’t just give you better words and pictures - we give you something more important.


    1. Drayton: Thank you for sharing! Here's my favorite banker story:

  6. That's a good story. Thank you. I compliment you for your willingness to embrace technology. I'm not there yet, albeit a few years younger. I just don't trust these "foreigners" and their computer schemes. What ever happened to the old-time personal merchants? Maybe someone brave might try that. Keep up the good work with your articles taken from life.

    1. Jeffrey,
      Alas, the techno-geeks are brilliant …. BUT… the secret of making technology work for all the people all the time is to hire “Secret Shoppers.” These are smart folks who have no connection to marketing, strangers to your business. Tell them you are going to send them your offer — by email or Direct Mail or a space at—and ask them to order… to use your stuff, to see if the instructions are crystal clear and easy peasy to interact with. If problems arise, have them explain exactly what happened. This may cost you a bit of time (and modest payment to the secret shoppers, but will save you grief if you catch a glitch early, rather than upsetting a slew of prospects/customers later on.
      Do keep in touch!

  7. That was a great story, glad I read it. Technologies evolve each passing day and I love your point of view. Let me know what you think about marketing, will technology totally take over traditional marketing? Found this amazing article on marketing automation in gaming industry that uses AI to identify players psychology while deploying bonus offers.

    Bonus in Gaming

    1. Steven, thank you to taking the time to write. Check out my reply to Jeffrey above. I think you might find it helpful.
      Do keep in touch..