I hate dealing with most companies. But I loved Flexcar.
Last October, Flexcar announced it was merging with the larger Cambridge, MA-based Zipcar--an occasion I wrote about, optimistically but with some trepidation, for this site. The merger came about in part because neither company was turning a profit, and in part due to increased competition from traditional rental-car companies like Hertz and Enterprise, which are threatening to chip away at carsharing's customer base. (Hertz is even offering standalone cars at different locations around Manhattan, a service that's virtually indistinguishable from carsharing. At the time, I called Flexcar a "scrappy little challenger to the big bad auto industry, offering infrequent drivers like me an affordable, ethical alternative to buying a car or renting from one of the big car rental companies."
I loved just about everything about Flexcar. I loved the fact that their customer service representatives picked up right away, and were, well, flexible with members. I loved the fact that they let me use a friend's Flexcard when I lost my wallet, and that they had an official "grace period" of 15 minutes as long as nobody else was waiting for the car. I loved that they always got me where I was going for a reasonable price, that they had special deals for coop members and members of environmental groups, and that they only charged premiums for truly premium cars, like small SUVs. Most of all, though, I loved the fact that belonging to Flexcar felt like being part of a community—a community that filled up the tanks for each other (bonus: A $2 usage credit), kept the cars clean (a $4 credit), and recruited new members ($40).
My experience so far with Zipcar has demonstrated, if nothing else, that it's a very different company. As one of its very first moves in Seattle, Zipcar shut down service entirely over the three-day Presidents Day weekend to "transition" the Flexcar fleet to Zipcar technology—leaving thousands of new Zipcar members without transportation on one of the busiest weekends of the year. People who contacted Zipcar for help were put in touch with emergency operators who often had little or no idea what was going on. Even after the transition, many Seattle members reported that they had not yet received their “Zipcards,” the electronic swipe cards that open Zipcar vehicles. I've talked to several members in the area who already say they've canceled their service because of their experiences during the transition.
Not a good way to start a new relationship. And it gets worse. Here are some of the changes Flexcar members will have to decide if they're willing to live with:
• Zipcar is substantially more expensive than Flexcar. Annual fees for people who use cars occasionally went up from $35 to $50, and hourly rates increased from between $8 and $10 an hour (in Seattle; rates elsewhere start at $5 an hour) to $9.50 or $10.50 an hour with no special rates. The higher price is for cars that are deemed "premium"--a category that includes not just luxury vehicles like SUVs, Minis, and BMWs, but hybrids—including the same old Honda Civic hybrids that were considered standard vehicles by Flexcar. On top of that, here in Seattle members must pay a rental-car tax imposed last year by the state Department of Revenue--despite the fact that Washington State's governor, Christine Gregoire, created a fund this year that provides carsharing companies a $225,000 grant. (Flexcar waived the rental tax while awaiting news from the governor.) In addition, all reservations must now be made in hour-long increments, meaning that a half-hour trip that used to cost less than $5 now costs $12 or more.
• With Zipcar, most systems have been automated (sorry--they're now "self-service"), meaning you have to make reservations online or by phone. Although that's usually no big deal, if there's a problem with the online reservation system, you have to call the reservation line--and unlike Flexcar’s system, Zipcar’s reservation line automatically confirms reservations as soon as you confirm which car you're interested in reserving, with no opportunity to go over the reservation. If you want a real live person, it’s $3.50 a call--for a service Flexcar (and, for that matter, rental-car companies like Hertz and Enterprise) provided for free.
• instead of incentives for good behavior, Zipcar offers harsh punishment for the slightest infraction. If you return a car even a few minutes late Zipcar will charge you $50, plus another $50 an hour for each hour you're over your allotted time. (Your best option is to extend the reservation--at a minimum cost, in Seattle at least, of $11 or $12). If you leave the gas tank less than a quarter full, forget incentives to fill up—you’ll be paying Zipcar a $20 fine. If you're in an accident, unless the other driver was at fault, that’s a $500 deductible--even in situations where no fault is assigned. There’s no coverage for collisions with uninsured motorists, either. On its web site, Zipcar encourages members who have concerns about its insurance to “consult with a licensed agent and put them in touch with us if needed”—a “solution” that could cost members hundreds of dollars a year, eliminating much of the financial motivation for carsharing in the first place.
• Philosophically, Zipcar is miles away from its carsharing roots--an understandable evolution for a for-profit company, but a shame from a corporation that purports to care about "the significant, positive environmental impact of car sharing" (and that brags on its web site that each Zipcar takes 15 privately owned vehicles off the road.) In Los Angeles, the company's very first act was to remove all Zipcar vehicles that weren't based on college campuses--leaving loyal Flexcar members without transportation. It's hard to reconcile removing cars in a major market with a mission statement that appeals to environmental values. Combine that with the fact that Zipcar charges more for hybrids--ostensibly because they cost more than regular sedans--and the fact that they specialize in flashy, fuel-guzzling cars like BMWs and Ford Mustangs, and it starts to look like Zipcar is more concerned with its own bottom line than its environmental mission.
Here at Worldchanging, we recognize the almost revolutionary potential of product-service systems. Because it's one of the best demonstrations of that potential, we've been vocal supporters of carsharing, and we want to see it work.
But in order for it to work, the companies who bring us shared products need to recognize that they are more intimately connected to our lives than other companies tend to be -- that when they're working, they become more than mere companies, they become communities... and they need to hold themselves to a higher standard.
With 180,000 members and 5,000 cars in 50 US markets, Zipcar is a product-service behemoth. But it knows its members are what keeps it going. If you're interested in improving Zipcar service -- and bringing Flexcar values back to the company that absorbed it -- now's your chance.
Tell us (and Zipcar's leadership) what you think in the comments. We're interested in your experiences with Zipcar or Flexcar, and your suggestions to make carsharing better. How should Zipcar operate? What standards should it hold itself to? What can it do better?
They took all my cars away here in Santa Monica, CA - and decided not to tell anyone until we all started complaining. Their customer service leaves a lot to be desired as well. Overall, they are much worse than Flexcar ever was, and now a bunch of us don't have cars anymore, which will lead to us buying more cars ourselves, which leads to more traffic in L.A.. What a shame.
I've been a Flexcar member since 2002, and have not had occasion since the switch-over to reserve and drive a Zipcar. But from the beginning, the tone and look of Zipcar communications has been all about marketing, not so much about service. What you write comes as no surprise, and I will proceed with caution in the new era. The penalties and fines sound a lot more like the philosophy of a credit card company than the community zeitgeist of Flexcar. I've always felt proud to be a Flexcar member -- but Zipcar so far does not stir my heart. I hope they will listen to their members!
It sounds like the author is upset about the pricing but he also notes that these companies were losing money. Its better that these companies charge a little more and drop unprofitable areas than go out of business all together because then everyone will be back to buying their own car and that would be the biggest shame.
I would suggest to ZipCar that making money should not equate to 'screwing the goose'
It certainly sounds like ZipCar has a major customer relations problem brewing (but have any old ZipCar members noted any change?)
Raised prices, and automation are an acceptable means of improving productivity, and I suspect the increased rigidity is a side effect of the automation. This can be adjusted, if there is a will to do so.
However, simply replacing incentives with penalties is a mindset that needs breaking. There's no reason why caring clients who take pains to be good community members shouldn't still be rewarded.
Assuming the hire fee + servicing is calculated at 8+2=$10, then it's really down to how you say it:
"Return the car with a full tank and we will reduce your fee by $2 to $8."
"Failure to return the car with a full tank will incur a penalty of $2, increasing your fee to $10."
I suppose it boils down to which way ZipCar likes to say it, and which way it's customers like to hear it.
When Zipcar took over, they canceled reservations we had made (without warning us!) and took away the car we used. There is now no car close to where we live, so we can't use Zipcar any more.
We bought a car the next weekend.
I miss Flexcar. It's a shame.
This may be quibbling, but were both companies *losing* money, like operating at a loss, or just not reporting a profit because they were plowing their revenues into new growth?
If they were both in trouble, then some price hikes could be o.k. but they should still work harder to serve the core customers who made them what they are. If they're doing fine and just looking to grow more quickly to beat the competition (at the expense of customer service), that stinks.
Maybe we need some not for profit competition to keep them honest?
It's not just how ZipCar likes to say it, and how customers like to hear it - people actually respond differently to the same economic proposition depending on how it's stated.
It does sound like most if not all of these changes are economically motivated, and if the companies were losing money they had to change. A lot of the things that make Co-ops feel nice are, unfortunately, also frequently the things that make them fail financially. A feeling of community and good customer service are certainly worth something, but if they're more expensive to provide than the premium that people are willing to pay for them (vs. Enterprise, or Hertz), then they shouldn't be provided.
Hopefully they'll work on bringing the cost of providing a community vibe and good service down.
as a boston zipcar user, a city that's only been a zipcar city... things have been quite smooth sailing thus far. Never had a problem getting cars (except once, and that was because the previous user left the lights on... zipcar had me in another car down the street in 15 min). In terms of pricing, at least here, the fleet favored hybrids are the prius, and they cost the same as the upper tier cars, a $2/hr difference.
There are variations in prices from location to location, but it has to do with parking and taxing fees based on those locations (which actually leaves me preferring parts of my native somerville to cambridge... cambridge cars cost more/hour... of course, parking costs zipcar more unless it's provided by someone else... in one case a gas station).
I try to fill the tank and tend to get at least a half full tank every time, and I've never been penalized. There is a 10 min grace period before and after a reservation... and you can still access the car for 30 min after the end of the reservation in case you've forgotten anything. The lost and found boards on the site are fairly helpful too (i lose stuff all the time).
I've split reservations with a friend to make an art installation trip a 5 day affair, with no problems from the company. They've increased mileage allowed for full day rentals, and there are so many deals on the membership fee it's ridiculous. (my employer offers a discount)
Still, I'm a low-intensity user and care shares are sort of made for me... but overall as someone who's only been with zipcar, it's been all wins. The number of hybrids have increased, the addition of more lower end cars has increased... pretty much nothing bad to say from my end. Phone service is slower on Fridays at say 6 or 7, but everything in this city is stuck and slowed down then anyhow.
It's not just how ZipCar likes to say it, and how customers like to hear it -
Uh, Zane, I agree with you. If you look at the paragraph preceding my concluding statement, you will see that it *was* referring to the same economic proposition stated in two ways.
One way is the carrot: we'll only charge you $8 for doing $2 worth of work for us.
The other is the stick: we'll charge you $8 plus an additional $2 to pay for work we have to do.
Either way, the company stands to make $8 from the transaction. If ZipCar prefers to provide sticks and customers prefer to have carrots, then ZipCar has a marketing problem.
I have used ZipCar 2 or 3 times. In the Boston area at least it seems pretty well run. I can understand that there is likely integration pains for the West Coast FlexCar folks. As a few others have mentioned, you can't bemoan them losing money and then bemoan them raising rates in the next breath (at least not honestly). One of the big issues discussed on WorldChanging is accounting for externalities. Seems like they are not even account for internalities (yet)! They should probably add a mileage carbon tax to the rates as well. [or maybe that's your "bonus" for not owning a car the rest of the time]
Maybe it's an issue of transparency? Maybe they haven't put the case well enough to their Flexcar users that these are financially needed steps? Maybe opening up their books would help?
The only Flexcar anywhere near me in West Seattle vanished during this transition to Zipcar. No notification or anything, it just looked like it was booked all the time, and then it disappeared completely. When I called customer service, they were baffled because they had no record that there had ever been a car there!
I got my new Zipcard in the mail, but have no plans to use it.
Wow. I didn't realize how bad Zipcar could be. It entered the Vancouver market last year, but I'm not sure how well it's doing. It's competing against a co-op (The Co-operative Auto Network) that has been around for a long time. I've been a member of the car co-op for over a year, and I don't think any of the gripes you've outlined about ZipCar apply to it at all.
Rates are increasing March 14th in DC. I think we all saw this coming. I might as well be making car payments with the new day rate close to or over $100 for "premium" vehicles.
I had a very tense few hours the other day trying to get everything done and get the Zipcar back. I used to really enjoy getting Flexcar for the entire day and cruising around :(
Just to clear something up -- providing a $2 credit is quite different, from a member's perspective, from charging a $20 penalty. The penalty is ten times what the credit used to be. So it goes far beyond "how you say it."
I just talked to my company's Employee Transportation Coordinator about this. Anybody else whose employer (or grocer, or bike club, or credit union, or...) offers Zipcar membership as a benefit may want to do the same.
I would add that here in Seattle, Zipcar is still lobbying for special tax treatment as a car-sharing service. I would suggest that if they want more of the support they've been asking from us, they should act more like that kind of service, and less like the rental car agencies they're railing against.
Boston Zipcar user here of 1.5 years, averaging a trip a month or so. They're not perfect, but I'm grateful that they're around when I need them.
Flexcar sounds like it was a very friendly company, but one has to wonder how financially sustainable that was, given that it was Zipcar doing the acquiring and Flexcar being acquired.
ECB: my example was just that, an example. Making the numbers $2 or $20 doesn't affect the case it makes.
However, it does occur to me that the 'carrot' example is a little more open. To say that you are willing to refund $2 (or whatever) for the client providing for a service is to indicate that you're willing and able to live with a base operating fee of $8. OTOH, a fee suggests that you'll take the $8 plus whatever else you can get (shades of 'master of the 'ouse' Thenardier!)
(...Wow, look at the comment count! Erica, you seem to have touched a nerve here!)
I've been a NYC ZipCar user for the past 3 years. My employer has us all on a Z2B plan, for which the company covers the annual dues. I've never had any real complaints, other than a lack of car availability (especially during holiday weekends and the summer months).
For users having difficulties, I'd try getting in touch with your local ZipCar office. Whenever I have an issue, I contact them directly (as opposed to the general ZipCar hotline), and usually speak with a person who'll assist me.
I do miss the XM satellite radio (NY Radio stations suck). Fees here are pretty high, and for day-rates its usually more economical to go with Hertz or Avis, though you generally get better cars with ZipCar.
Anyway, I'm glad the two companies merged... I think they can accomplish more together than they could separately, and hopefully they'll make it through this transition period without alienating too many customers. Hang in there, folks.
I wonder why they don't charge per mile depending on how much fuel you spend. There is a car sharing company called "Mobility" where I live in Switzerland. They are really successful as you can get cars at every train station. And for those who have never been to Switzerland be said that the country has a really grate train infrastructure and culture.
Mobility, which is an association, charges an annual fee of $270, which gets as low as $180 if you have got some season ticket for the swiss trains. Then the charge you per hour and per driven mile. Which for me as a customer who wants to save money and use a car in a bit more "ecofriendly" way is great, because I only use a car if it's really needed and pay less if I drive not full throttle all the time.
I only got in on the tail end of Flexcar in Pittsburgh before it was acquired by Zipcar, but the couple of times that I got a vehicle, it was a far better experience. Maybe it was just because Flexcar was still a relatively new service around here, but the cars were spotless, both inside and out, and the overall feel was a lot better, not to mention less expensive.
When Zipcar came to town, all of the hybrids that were close by disappeared as well. The standard Civic is no slouch, but for the type of driving that one does around here, a hybrid would seem to make a lot more sense.
I'll still use them, but like you said, it's a different company, and one I can't get as excited about.
I've been a pretty happy customer in Chicago, but the one time I really needed live customer service (my reserved car wasn't there, and I needed a replacement) the service was just terrible. The rep wasn't local, had no idea where available cars were, and took 25 minutes to find a car - an eternity when you're on a tight schedule.
A car-sharing service lives and dies on reliability and service, so I hope they clean up their act.
i live in boston and have been a happy zipcar customer since the beginning. i use the online booking as a preference, always get a real person when i've had an issue with a car, and extend my reservation a half hour when i'm running late (didn't even consider that zipcar should pay for my misjudgment). i want carsharing to stay and am well-aware that this is a profit enterprise and have no expectations that zipcar will stay if its constantly loosing money.
recycling and public trasportation, too, can be inconvenient on occasion but what is the other option? owning a car? no way.
Yeah, here in Toronto, Zipcar has been phenomenally well run. As a UofT student, we do not have to pay the annual fee, and there are at least 50 cars within walking distance. In this part of the world Zipcar is very efficient and I have not experienced some of the problems others have had. But, maybe if flexcar was here, I might likke it better, who knows. There is also an alternative in Toronto called Autoshare, and I will have to try it out to make a better comparison. I like Zipcar, maybe because it is run better in this city and near the university, and/or because I don't know any better.
Zipcar is going about this a different way; which I think is a valid experiment. In the DC market at least they have tons of cars tucked away in residential neighborhoods. Their model is to move towards transactionless rental. I can call on my phone and reserve a car I'm standing in front of immediately, easily, and without them having to pay for a human call center. Likewise, their website reservation system is easy and gives you lots of info; and the overall system's just simple and effortless. I lost my zipcard halfway through a rental (moving), called zipcar, ended up with a human for this problem (no charge for that, but the replacement card was $15) -- they have spare cards hidden in the car, so I got that and it was immediately assigned to my account and worked.
Someone noted that it's good that Zipcar has made these changes, since it had been losing money. But it IS possible to maintain your commitment to customer service and reasonable fees (in short, the benefits of carsharing) while making money, as many of the smaller regional companies are (or will be in so few years time).
I totally agree with all the comments about ZipCar not being anywhere near the experience that FlexCar was ... being carless and living in Belltown, Seattle I can survive fairly well without a car - thank goodness cause my driving is going down significantly now that I am dealing with ZipCar - I admit too I am lucky that my company has an HR benefit that reduces my annual fee - but that still doesn't begin to deminish the added costs I am now paying for ZipCar over FlexCar.
I live in Boston as well and am a card-carrying member. I've never had an issue with Zipcar. We live in a capitalist society, that means companies must make money. Maybe Zipcar should adjust their rates in some cities according to the cost of living, but they are a national company now. However, that would probably be bad for Boston & NYC. In short, don't demonize them for trying to be successful, tell more friends about them in order to take more cars off the road. Think of the greater good.
I live in New York City and have belonged to Zipcar for about a year. My experience has been mixed. If you book cars in advance or during the week things are not a problem, as far as that goes.
Customer service wise, they need to hire a new consulting firm. I once received a strange email from them telling me they were doing a damage investigation on a one day rental and I never heard anything from them again, no follow up of, "Hey, so looks like we made a mistake our damage investigation was for naught. Sorry." Nothing like that. It seems their policy is to bully customers if they think there has been damage rather than setting up a transparent and open line of communication with them in the first place. Certainly most people that use Zipcar in New York City are aware of the importance of reporting damage when/where it happens.
Also on another occasion in Long Island City, the City Light's building parking attendant wouldn't let me leave the garage because he said Zipcar had not paid their monthly parking dues and of course I was running late to pick up someone, and the last thing I wanted to deal with was trying to explain to the parking attendant that this was a rental car and I wasn't the one paying the monthly parking.
So no. They are not running a crack operation, at all. And the insurance situation was disconcerting as well. Since acquiring FlexCar they carry a 300k$ policy on drivers over the age of 21, but before the merger liability was state minimum, and it was very easy to be misled by their website and statements that they actually included some sort of policy beyond the personal $500 deductible you'd pay in an accident. That being said I'm curious about coverage now in accidents with un-insured drivers, and what is covered.
I would say that there is some sort of top-down indifference by Zipcar to the customer's experience. And while certainly the automated setup is efficient, ultimately retaining customers and gaining new customers through positive word of mouth is something they are simply not working hard enough on.
This reminds me of a few years ago when the big impersonal corporation from elsewhere (Flexcar) took over our beloved Carsharing Portland. I found Flexcar's customer service to be spotty: sometimes fine, sometimes not.
Now it's Zipcar, and at least it looks as if the rates have not gone up here. As an original Carsharing member, Flexcar had grandfathered me in with no annual fee, but I assumed that would end with the merger. But when I activated my Zipcard, it said no annual fee, which was a pleasant surprise. So far so good.
However, I have not used it yet...
First, Zipcar moved all the non-premium cars in my neighborhood, so now my rates are at least $10.50/hr. Not too happy about that. Profit driven.
Second, I used to pay $9.99/mo with Flexcar and get 3 hours' drive time free. Zipcar doesn't offer that plan. Zipcar is all about getting the most profit off its customers.
Third, Flexcar used to charge no annual fee for members who drove at least twice a year. Moneygrubbing Zipcar doesn't offer that plan either.
Fourth, Flexcar used to charge U-Pass holders (members of the UW community) just $7.70/hr and $25/yr annual membership fee. I didn't used to be on this plan, but it was my second choice after the plan that I was on. Now it is no more!
After talking to the UW's transportation department about any discounts they were able to negotiate with Zipcar, I found out that they've 'negotiated' $20 off the annual fee and precisely no hourly discount.
I contacted Zipcar to ask about why students and state employees get the shaft.
Zipcar's reply, with my comments in italics:
"The good news is two-fold. insert eyeroll here
First, Zipcar's pay-per-use hourly rates are actually lower than Flexcar's pay-per-use rates. Instead of rates starting at $10 (Flexcar) they start from $9.50 per hour. And Zipcar reservations include 30 more miles per day. Zipcar appears to be trying to convince me that a 37% increase in my rate is really a decrease.
Second, UW Transportation Services has arranged a lower annual fee for UPASS members over the next 12 months. The $25 annual fee is lower than the UPASS annual fee with Flexcar ($35) and lower than the annual Zipcar rate of $50. Notice they said 'over the next 12 months'. No commitments there.
Also, Zipcar continues to honor Flexcar's early members' (prior to November 2003) free lifetime membership. Which does me Jack Squat. Gee, thanks Zipcar! There's nothing I like so much as hearing someone else is getting a free ride when I just got my rates jacked!
So, while you're [sic] hourly rates will now be the same as all members in Seattle, UPASS members will still enjoy discounted join and annual fees. not that I need a discounted join fee
We sincerely hope you will continue to find value in car sharing despite the change in hourly rates - just like the other tens of thousands of members in Seattle who are not associated with UPASS. kinda snarky, I think
Zipcar Member Services"
After doing some digging on their website, I found that Google-Seattle employees, astonishingly, are afforded $8.25/hr and no annual fee. That was the only organization I checked, which was only to confirm that indeed, at least one organization was able to negotiate a better rate than the standard $10/hr. So not only is Zipcar jacking rates, removing cars and penalizing members, they're patently lying in their communications ("you're [sic] hourly rates will now be the same as all members in Seattle...").
Give it a rest guys. Yes, there will be integration issues - but it will be worth it in the long run (ie they'll be able to stand up to Hertz etc). And yes, they do need to make a profit... that's how companies survive and how the world works. No profit = no company = worse for the planet.
I've been using Zipcar for almost two years, and the service is great. In time, I'm sure you'll get used to Zipcar if you give it a chance.
All of these comments are great...but is anyone actually doing anything about it? ...Like sending the comments to Zipcar?
I hate to brag, but Vancouver has a hugely successful car-sharing co-op that doesn't rip-off it's members because it's members own it. Any profits are reinvested in new cars, so you can be certain that the price they're charging is what it costs.
I hate to brag, but Vancouver has a hugely successful car-sharing co-op that doesn't "need to make a profit". It doesn't rip-off its members because its members are the owners. Any profits the co-op makes are reinvested in new cars, so you can be certain that the price charged is only what it costs.