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March 09, 2011

Paul Heller and Avis: A Case Study In Viral Customer Service Groundswells

By Josh Bernoff

We all know the classic cases where customer service and other social failures have blown up into enormous embarrassment for companies (Comcast Sleeping Technician, United Breaks Guitars, Motrin Moms, Dooce/Maytag, the list is endless). Jeremiah Owyang maintains a list; some have called them groundswells. When they happen, inevitably the social media experts, myself included, climb on board and talk about what a company should have done. But hindsight is easy.

We have an opportunity right now to look at one of these phenomena and figure out if it will blow up, and to talk about both what the company, and the consumer should do.

I’m doing two posts on this. This one talks about the company, the next one talks about the consumer.  This is a moderately long post, but I think it’s worth asking: what makes bad customer service stories spread?

The story

Paul Heller is a professor teaching on business topics including marketing and customer service in Atlanta. He recently rented a car from Avis in Richmond, drove it a few hundred miles, filled up the tank, and then returned it.

AVIS Heller Fuel Gauge As you can read in his post, “Avis-Budget Car Rental Fuel Scam, Unresponsive Customer Service and Environmental Dangers,” he had an unpleasant experience returning the car. Avis charges $7.98 per gallon to fill up the tank when a customer returns it less than full, nearly twice the local cost of gas in Richmond according to AAA. Avis charged him $13.99 to top up the tank. When he complained to the employees on site, there was a furious argument (see the manager trying not to be photographed, below).

Paul believes he was charged as part of a systematic program at Avis to get money from consumers on gas charges. they ordinarily charge $13.99 if you drive less than 75 miles and don't fill up the tank; he thinks they did the same for him even though he drove hundreds of miles and refilled it. So even though the charge was small, he continues to pursue it.

AVIS Manager Avis’ national customer service was slow in responding and refused to escalate the problem to a supervisor. Paul tweeted about the problem and got the attention of Ashlee, a social media manager at Avis. She DMed him the following message: “I assure u, we will make this right & I will personally 4ward this 2 our upper mgnt team 2 improve upon our field practices.” This generated a call with Joe Bartee, director of customer service for Avis, who confirmed that Avis does incent its employees around profitable add-ons like GPS and XM radio. Paul said that Joe also confirmed that there was an incentive for fuel charges. And according to Joe, if a customer says the tank is full, the policy is that Avis takes their word for it.

I emailed Avis public relations to get their side. According to Avis, local employees have no financial incentives tied to fuel charges. They also say that Paul’s tank wasn’t full, since they put more gas into it. As for the $7.98 a gallon gas, Avis’s spokesperson said “Pricing of the refueling service fee is based on a number of factors, including the cost of fuel and costs associated with running and maintaining gas on the premises.” Avis also claims its customer service is top notch and the company has won awards for it.

Will it spread?

That is the question (and yes, that’s a Blendtec reference). In my experience, these are the factors that cause viral spread of customer incidents.

  1. People can identify with the consumer. In this case, anyone who has rented a car has probably faced this issue. So yes, we identify with Paul.
  2. The company behavior is outrageous. Not just bad, but outrageous. In this case, I’m sure many of us have found paying twice the local price for gas to be a big outrageous. The idea that they topped up a full tank is also outrageous. This isn’t a modem repairman sleeping on a customer’s couch, nor is it baggage handlers throwing guitars around on the tarmac – it’s only moderately outrageous.
  3. We want to believe the company is behaving badly. For example, we (that is, consumers) want to believe advertisers are insensitive (Motrin Moms) and washing-machine companies make you jump through hoops after repeated repair attempts (Dooce/Maytag). We also want to believe rental-car companies rip us off for gas – it confirms a belief many renters have.
  4. It’s funny, quirky, or offensive. These are the reasons anything spreads virally. United Breaks Guitars is laugh-out-loud funny, for example. Dooce’s post is a hilariously vivid description of the smell of a rising mound of poopy baby-diapers. Paul’s post, on the other hand, is angry, which doesn’t spread as well. So he doesn’t get a yes on this one.

In these cases, spread happens rapidly if all four elements are true. This one gets nearly three out of four. The lack of a “hook” probably means it won’t spread rapidly, but it might – it’s close.

What should Avis do?

I believe Avis is taking a big risk here, and it doesn’t need to. Sure, it probably won’t spread. But it could, and it needs to be addressed.

Whether or not Avis is in the right is irrelevant. The question is, does this have the potential to damage Avis’ reputation, and can it be headed off?

Avis and the entire car rental industry are at risk because of their fuel policies, which seem to be a transparent attempt to tack on charges. You either buy the fuel option and then try you hardest to use up all the fuel, which is a pain, or you top up the tank before returning, or you’re in too much of a hurry to deal and you pay. Despite what Avis says, we know they buy fuel at wholesale, not retail, prices, and have pumps and employees to dispense it onsite. If a local Shell station can sell gas at $3.50 a gallon, why is it $8 at Avis? This is not a discussion that Avis wants a lot of people talking about, especially as fuel prices are rising alarmingly already.

All Paul wanted was a personal apology note and promises that Avis will change its policies. The apology is cheap, and he should get it. (When Hyatt treated me to an absurdly bad service experience, I was blown away by the way they made amends – it was truly impressive.) If a customer is unhappy, an apology is warranted, even if the company thinks it’s right – a customer who feels he got bad service must have his needs addressed.

As for Avis’ fuel polices, the company should agree to address this issue. Avis is vulnerable – a competitor could easily take this incident and create a campaign around “Fair fuel prices” – which would generate loyalty and brand differentiation in this highly competitive market, not just one-time revenues.  I think Paul would be pleased if the company made a public statement that local employees will be trained not to top off tanks that read full, and commented on his blog (and this blog) and tweeted about that.

If Avis is unwilling to change its policies about the price it charges consumers for fuel, it could at least agree to examine the economic impact of a change in pricing, and include Paul in that discussion moving forward. This could stop the spread of public discussion about this issue. Unfortunately for Avis, because of the post you are now reading, it may be too late for that.


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Jennifer Rodriguez

Thanks Josh for a great example and thoughtful analysis of what makes breakdowns between customers and companies go viral across social channels. It appears that Avis has the right social media manager in place, who positively tried to address the issue here - the main problem seems to be that the touch points were simply not integrated throughout the organization and this has made what is already a bad situation worse. Avis needs to not only address this at a customer service level but at an enterprise level.


Jennifer Rodriguez, Visible Technologies

Teresa Allen

This is a fantastic example of how corporate entities continually take actions that fly in the face of Common Sense Service!

Another item you might add to your list is the propensity and ability of your customer base to spread bad news. The customer base of Avis is in significant part made up of business people with the technology and savvy to spread bad news quickly!
Teresa Allen,Author: Common Sense Service: Close Encounters on the Front Lines

Proposal Software

The article is excellent. The insights in the article are really helpful in knowing about Viral Customer Service.


I still think that the social web is creating another level of influence. People with influence have always had their way - whether they were prominent business people, politicians, film stars ... what if Nicole Kidman was the one renting the car! unlikely though ..but the point is that the internet is just another platform to build influence ..so is there still no hope for the guy who is not a filmstar and not on twitter?

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