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Marketing Strategy

Customer-First: How ZipCar Competes With An Iconic Dream

May 7, 2012

As part of our series on what makes a "Customer-First" company, I recently spoke with Carla Archambault, General Manager for the Seattle Region for Zipcar, a Boston-based company that is shaking up the old rental car model with a new approach defined by it's urban self-service model and it's tagline of "Wheels When You Want Them".

How do you create a "Customer-First" business culture selling a product most customers don't know they want? And more importantly, how do you create demand by competing against the dream once held by every 16 year-old American? By now the "Zipcar" name and snappy green logo has become a familiar sight to most of us in many urban areas. They have, in a sense, revolutionized the car rental business by creating an entirely new "Blue Ocean" market that focuses NOT on travelers visiting other cities, but on the occasional driver who needs a car for short-term use in their own neighborhood or beyond.

From a marketing strategist's perspective, this would mean that Zipcar is banking on the trend towards higher-density dwellings and improved public transportation to convince more and more people that they can get by without owning a car. Zipcar places self-serve cars in urban neighborhoods that you can rent for a short time to make up for gaps in your local public transportation options. This means that Zipcar's main competitor is the concept of car ownership itself. Audacious? Perhaps. But when you stop to look at the trends referred to above, absolutely sensible. And by all accounts, a market that is set to grow and grow beyond any timeline a Wall Street analyst would care to think about.  As one Zipcar customer commented, "Zipcar is the piece of the puzzle that makes living car-free work".

Carla Archambault has been at Zipcar for three years, and brought with her a wealth of "customer-first" culture from her thirteen-year career at Starbucks where she also served as a Regional Director and was part of another great "Customer-First" culture that she took with her to her new role in Seattle.  While I was aware of many of the cool things Zipcar did for its customers as just a matter of standard practice, I was surprised to find out just how committed they are to putting the customer first in ANY set of circumstances.

Carla, first of all, why Zipcar?

"When I moved into the City itself a few years ago, it made me realize I did not need a car as much as before. Zipcar was also a fun new Brand that interested me, and without realizing it, I had become part of the target profile."

Describe the Service Culture at Zipcar.

"Well, we are generally obsessed with the member (Editor's note: their word for "customer") experience. There is a very member-centric culture that starts at the top. We even have a VP of Member Services who oversees not only our call center, but our local member services as well. We believe the key is to respond quickly and efficiently to members and ask ourselves how we can help them right now. A
few specifics I can share about our infrastructure for doing that include weekend hours for our call center, and a great social media team based in HQ that often spots member's service issues and sometimes solves them even before they are known to the local offices. We strive to respond to our members in 24hrs for all communications."

"Another aspect that we drive locally is our "Wow!" service. We look at our long-term members and see how we can "Wow!" them. This is a very grass-roots effort that uses ideas from our team here. For example, we might surprise them with a greeting card, offer a free upgrade, offer a $10 credit for some feedback or even just doing some small extras, like leaving a note in a brand new car to let the driver know they will be the first to drive it. We even once left a gift certificate for a local cupcake shop in our cars around Valentine's Day. This is our way to continuously create a "Wow!" factor for our members."

What are the tangible benefits do you get back from being "Customer-First"?

"Aside from the more obvious outcome of member loyalty, this approach is great for our employees too. When you do something good for someone else, you feel good yourself. Aside from all the brainstorming our folks do on providing "Wow!" to our members, we also get involved in the community here. We adopted a street in our Capitol Hill neighborhood and once a quarter or so, sponsor a clean-up day which many of our members participate in as well. This along with our yearly member party included bowling, food, drink, giveaways, etc. gives a lot of direct exposure to our staff with our members. They always come away from these events talking about how much they learned from our members. Mixing up the environment like that always sheds light on new insights.

As for the members, we believe we have huge benefits from the word-of-mouth marketing they do for us when they talk about their experiences in person or on social media."

What are a few specific examples of going "above and beyond" or just fixing a mistake?

  • We had a member who loved Jazz, and as a member "Wow" we sent him a gift certificate to Jazz Alley (a local Seattle hub for live Jazz performances).

  • We had a case of another gentleman who needed to get his membership processed in time to reserve a car to see his grandchild born - on his own birthday. We expedited his Zipcar membership processing, and then mailed him a small baby photo album with his new granddaughter's name on it so he could have something to keep his photos in as a keepsake.

  • A member told a story on Facebook about how he talked his young daughter through a "Superman-like" rescue of his wife when the family car broke and he was able to "save the day" and rescue Mommy by using Zipcar. We sent him a gift package with a mug, a card, and some other goodies....along with their very own super-hero cape with the Zipcar logo!

  • When the 2012 "Snowpocalypse" here in Seattle resulted in many members having to cancel reservations, we gave them $10 driving credits to help them reset their plans

  • A member left an iPod shuffle in a car, and when he was unable to access the vehicle again to retrieve it, sent him a new one and we delivered it to him with a personalized card.

"Basically, this approach is just part of the culture, it's not just a campaign. We meet every week to invest time in being creative, and working on ideas to touch each member personally."

How else do your employees become empowered by this culture?

"Basically, it is very typical for the employees here to think that 'I can do whatever it takes to take care of a member.' or 'I don't feel I have to ask, I just do it".  As part of that spirit, it also means we cover for each other as well. Some of the office team recently took it on themselves to go out and help the field team shovel out some of our cars that were covered in snow after a storm. They ran into a member who had showed up prepared to shovel themselves out and was pleasantly surprised to see our team there. They came back later that day saying "It was fun helping out our members today".

Why is this type of culture so unusual in most businesses?

"I believe it is because many companies don't see the value of the payback in the long-run. You can not run a business only on the financials. I was fortunate to experience this at Starbucks, and could quickly recognize at Zipcar the culture and leadership that really values that Customer-First perspective. If it does not start at the top, you won't see it happen."

I'll wrap with a few last thoughts that I found impressive about the Zipcar Brand:

  • They have created a genuine "Customer-First" culture, because it starts at the top and by virtue of doing so, provides every employee a wide scope to be creative - in the customer's interest.

  • Carla mentioned "You need to think differently when you are an online, self-service business", which is after-all two big thoughts in one. First, isn't the online,self-serve aspect another source of convenience and ease of use for a customer? What are you doing to improve this?  AND, how do YOU think different for your business (self-serve or not)?

  • Their core values really keep it simple for their employees - who wouldn't want to work with values like these? (link here)

What Zipcar is doing is thinking about their customer first, NOT their competitors or the "market". By virtue of this focus on the customer, they have, in a sense, created their own market.

If you have somehow never heard of Zipcar before and are just realizing you no longer want to own your car, by all means become a member by visiting their site them www.zipcar.com.  If you are looking for ways to develop your business to be the best "Customer-First" business it could be, then by all means contact David at david@fennec.co