If you thought comparing financial products presented some challenges, consider the car-rental game. Excesses, collision damage waivers, the fine print – there’s enough complexity in it to take the better part of a day to work out the best deal for the trip you want to take.

I thought the customer service standards of some fund managers also left something to be desired. But I’m pleased to say that here, too, the car-rental business makes funds management look good. It’s not so much the unexpected charges that are the problem – although they are bothersome – but the brick-wall nature of the ‘client service’ department, along with the big question marks about whom you’re dealing with when you contact it.

After a day of reading, surfing the ’net and making phone calls, followed by more calls, confusion, incorrect reservation details, even more phone calls and some more surfing, I rented a car. I won’t name the company, except to say you’ll find it quite near the beginning of the White Pages (if you remember what the White Pages are).

It was a great car and we had a great holiday, and dropped the car back at the appointed time and the appointed location. It all went well until I saw a charge on my credit card that bore no relationship to any estimate or quote that I’d seen up to that point. I approached the rental company to ask them to review the charge.

It’s a story I won’t bore you with here, but after some back and forth they declined to review the charge, naturally. However, the thing that caught my eye was a disclaimer at the foot of the emails from the company’s customer service consultant.

“IMPORTANT,” it read. “The contents of this message are in no way the opinion of or endorsed by [the company].”

I didn’t know what that meant. Who was on the other end of these emails, if not the car-rental company? Was it some sort of freelance customer service team? A maverick team detached from any actual corporate body, kind of roaming cyberspace, seeking disgruntled customers to disappoint? That certainly sounded exciting – a bit like Robert De Niro’s rogue heating engineer in Brazil. (“I came into this game for the action, the excitement. Go anywhere, travel light, get in, get out, wherever there’s trouble. A man alone.”)

When I get overcharged for something, and a refund or review is declined, I demand some sort of entertainment as compensation. I derive entertainment from trying to waste an amount of executive time at least equivalent to what I’m being overcharged.

So I thanked them for making it easier for me to decide which car-rental company to use next time. And I asked the customer service representative to let me know on whose authority and on whose behalf they were speaking and acting, if what they’d told me was “in no way the opinion of or endorsed by” the company.

Several weeks passed, with no reply. I thought that was the end of it, until an email popped up from my customer service representative, stating: “Please know that that statement, which has since been removed from outgoing responses, bothered me as well. After careful review, management has removed that from the signature. I assure you that I am an employee of [the company], acting on behalf of [the company] when responding to your email.”

I like to think that the time it took to raise this issue internally, bring it to management’s attention, convene meetings between management and (hopefully eye-wateringly expensive) lawyers, devise a policy and then roll it out across their customer service operations cost [the company] significantly more than the amount I thought I was overcharged for my rental.

As a rental-car consumer, this incident has been less than satisfactory for me. But as a source of light entertainment, the experience has been well worth the price of admission.

Dixon Bainbridge is fanatical about any number of inconsequential issues. contact him on [email protected]

Dixon Bainbridge may be contacted by email only since his phone was disconnected - and it's best to try in the mornings. The views expressed in this column are not necessarily those of Professional Planner, and not even necessarily grounded in reality, to be frank.
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