Hire or lower?
24 August 2018
Author: Jack Carfrae
BusinessCar asks what it's really like for fleet operators employing the services of rental companies and mystery shops with the big brands.
Jack Carfrae reports.
Around 15.5 million rental transactions take place in the UK each year, according to the British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association (BVRLA), so it's big business, and the appeal for fleets lies in its quick-fix nature: those who need a temporary set of wheels are sorted out there and then with minimal fuss.
When everything goes to plan, it's among the most convenient forms of transport, and the non-committal element of rental also gives it an edge in such uncertain times. With the hullabaloo of WLTP, cloudy future tax policy and the wider economic concern of 'I'm sorry, I haven't a clue', some are hesitant to sign up to traditional leases and purchases, so mini-lease and long-term rentals slot in rather nicely. The industry also prides itself on its quick turnaround, as many companies are said to offer availability or deliveries in timescales of less than two hours, depending on your proximity to the nearest branch.
As much as rental firms like to position themselves as simple, flexible and eco-friendly (they're often billed as a good replacement for grey fleet on the grounds that vehicles are newer, cleaner and safer), there are some discrepancies between marketing and reality, as revealed when BusinessCar quizzed John Pryor, chairman of the Association of Car Fleet Operators (ACFO), about the issues fleets face when renting vehicles: "Some suppliers will take any booking and then the car won't turn up, so that's a big problem. The condition of these vehicles is not always as you would expect and the companies are 'terribly sorry, but that's the only vehicle they had'.
"When the condition is questionable, you lead into pre-existing damage and the charges that obviously come in afterwards. The handover is not always as clean as they'd like to promote - we've had incidents where the car has been dropped off and the keys have been put through somebody else's door or drivers drop the car off and then put the keys through the letter box with no signature. It doesn't always suit them to come when you want to arrange it, so they say 'we'll leave the keys under the flowerpot', and that's when the problems start.
"There is never an excuse for a vehicle not being in good order at the point of rental."
"If there's any damage, they'll just invoice, and you can't always quantify if that damage was at the point of delivery to my driver, or maybe it's a previous driver's damage. Then you ask for proof - 'who's signed for what?' - and nothing comes back."
Other issues are said to include vehicles that fail to match previously specified criteria - for example, fuel types and transmissions - while the size and type of car can allegedly vary dramatically from what appeared on the form, even when a registration number has formerly been assigned; this creates issues for P11D, P46 and CO2 reporting, while larger, dirtier vehicles null and void the eco-friendly argument.
We're told similar issues occur when vehicles reach the rental firm's defleet mileage and agents are dispatched with a replacement model; this can mean employees end up with multiple vehicles during long-term loans, which often isn't communicated to HQ. Finally, it is apparently not unheard of for fines accrued during a loan to reach "at-court" stage before the customer has been notified.
In response to the allegations, the BVRLA issued BusinessCar with a statement credited to director of member services Nora Leggett, saying, "Like with any business, sometimes things can go wrong. Some issues are unavoidable, like a particular vehicle type not being available at short notice; however, there are some things that are completely inexcusable. There is never an excuse for a vehicle not being in good order at the point of rental.
"We would always encourage customers to thoroughly check and sign a pre-rental inspection report to acknowledge any pre-existing damage to the vehicle and avoid dispute upon return."
The organisation advised fleets employing rental companies to implement a service-level agreement (SLA) to confirm a certain level of quality, availability and responsibility ahead of a contract.
"Fleet managers have a right to expect that the conditions within an SLA are adhered to and any failings should be reported to the rental operator with serious breaches being raised as a formal complaint. Those who fail
to keep customers happy, will fail to keep customers," the statement continued.
Such an initiative is not a guarantee of quality, but it at least provides
a binding fallback. That said, fleets
often utilise blanket suppliers with multiple rental firms at their disposal and, even if that involves pre-agreed standards, it's questionable as to whether the company from which you actually receive the vehicles will operate to the same level.
To further assess the real-world performance of rental companies, BusinessCar phoned five of the most well-known brands and asked them the following questions:
- Where is our nearest branch?
- How does the booking process work for business vehicles?
- Will the vehicle we receive match the one we book (fuel type, transmission, registration number)?
- What is the procedure for deliveries, collections and recording damage at the start and end of a loan?
- What would happen if a vehicle were delivered and no one were available to sign for it?
- What is an approximate daily figure for a diesel, manual Volkswagen Golf or closest equivalent?
Where available, we called the business or corporate number listed on the companies' websites.
Each of the four companies we reached was able to provide us with the location of our nearest branch, but answers to our other questions varied. Companies are ranked from one (best) to five (worst) based on the quality of their responses bearing in mind business users' requirements.
The agent went out of his way to check answers to our questions. Exact models are not guaranteed but, once a registration number has been assigned, the vehicle will not change. Fuel type and transmission are usually guaranteed if specified, but branches are said to contact customers in advance to offer alternatives if they lack availability. Customers receive an email with photos of the vehicle, highlighting any damage prior to delivery; drivers also have a mobile device that includes the same photos, presented to the customer when they sign. Keys will be posted through the letter box if no one is around. One-day hire is £42.20, three-to-six days costs £33 per day excluding VAT; delivery is £10 each way.
Hertz's agent was the friendliest and very helpful. Automatics are guaranteed from the point of booking, but other elements are not; however, account managers will attempt to sort specifics if you contact them within 24 hours of delivery. Drivers photograph the car prior to delivery, email the pictures to the customer and do the same on collection, though it is "the responsibility of the customer" to check the car on arrival. Delivery drivers are said to act on prior instructions if no one is available to sign, and send an email informing the customer of the delivery and that the vehicle is now their responsibility. Delivery/collection costs £1 per mile and the agent offered to send us vehicle rates.
The agent made no guarantees about the type of car available, but said business customers would receive full details of the vehicle, including a registration number, on the day of delivery. However, he stipulated that if the vehicle were swapped during the rental period, only the driver would be informed - not the fleet manager. He was unspecific about where and when inspections take place. Cars will not be delivered if no one is available to sign for them, unless the company has a fleet insurance policy and keys are left with security or reception; however, exceptions could be made for regular/familiar customers. One-day hire is £85.95, £32 per day for three days, delivery is £4 each way, all excluding VAT.
We tried the two business rental lines for the south east and London six times but couldn't get through, so we called the generic customer service number. "No, it won't be" was the answer to whether or not the vehicle would match what was specified at the time of booking, and no element was guaranteed. Vehicles arrive with a condition report, conducted at the rental site, and the customer has 12 hours to flag any damage not listed on the form. Delivery drivers "usually have a prearranged place to leave the vehicle" if no one is available to sign for it
and they'll put the keys and the documents through the letter box. They were unable to provide costs.
The poorest by a serious margin. There is a solitary, generic phone number on the website - an 0871 line that costs 10p per minute in addition to standard charges. Call it and an automated message does its best to redirect you to the website. We persisted and were eventually given the option to "dial one if you have a corporate account" and two if not. We dialled two, and an automated voice said "sorry your call can't be completed". Although it didn't disconnect, the line went silent. We tried again with the same result. Worth noting is the summer 2017 scandal, in which the company was accused of systematically overcharging more than half a million customers for repairs.