Independent rental dealers take on the big boys with customer service initiatives

Marcia Doyle Headshot
Updated Sep 24, 2018

Komatsu ForkliftDon’t discount the small independent rental dealers, even in this age of multinational players in the rental space. These dealers have a deep knowledge of their customer base that allows them to initiate customer service innovations – directed at both professionals and weekend warriors – that can take on the big boys.

Take Doug Haas, president and CEO of Crown Rental, a three-location general rental dealer in the Minneapolis area. Haas is implementing a kiosk-based system that would allow customers 24/7 access to such tools as chain saws and sewer augers. Customers would rent the equipment online, review an online operational safety video, then get a code to unlock the kiosk, which activates the rental charge. When customers return an item, they put it back in the kiosk, key in a code, and the item is off rent.

“We’ll probably be able to get something going next year,” Haas says. He’s working with his software vendor Point of Rental and a locker provider to implement it. There are still onsite and online credit card security issues to work through, but “it’s going to happen,” he says.

These kiosks would first be positioned at Crown Rental’s facilities. But he also realizes a bank of kiosks could be placed at any location convenient to his customers. Eventually, this concept might expand to include compact equipment, although it would involve more coordination. “But with today’s touchpad codes to start a machine, it could happen,” Haas says.


The quest for a customer-centric facility

Two hours north of Minneapolis, Brainerd General Rental is located in a summer destination area with most rental activity occurring April through October, says President Steve Mau. Mau’s company serves a 60/40 mix of small-to-medium contractors and residential do-it-yourselfers.

With the explosion of high-tech customer-touch possibilities, Mau has an interesting challenge as he plans a new facility: how best to design a building that reflects how today’s customers want to do business?

“Many customers don’t want to spend time at a rental store, so we’re looking at what’s the best way to design things so that after they reserve it online, they pull up and the equipment is ready for them,” Mau says.

Brainerd General Rental

This doesn’t discount the need for the expertise behind the rental counter, however. “Customers may think they know what they want, they’ve watched a YouTube video, but if they talk to the counter person, they find they might actually need a different piece of equipment with all the sand we’ve got around here. So we still need to connect with the customer and yet move them efficiently through the rental process.”

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So Mau is homing in on the customer pick-up and drop-off experience with the new building. Right now, working in an older building that was adapted from a restaurant supply store, Brainerd General Rental’s customers return items by hauling in dirty tools to the rental counter, where they are then transferred back to the service area.

Since a retail showroom is in the plans, “We don’t want dirty equipment in the showroom,” Mau says. So equipment flow – pick-up, return, service and storage – is under consideration, as is customer flow. “Where do we want our customers to go?” Mau says. “What is the most efficient way for them to pick up and return equipment?

“Our job is to get customers in and out as quickly as they want to be. If folks want to visit, we want to make that connection.”


Eliminating a payment hassle

All Star Rents, with 13 locations in California and Nevada, is currently rolling out an online payment process designed to make things easier for its mix of contractor and DIY clients.

“Many times, our clients are running their businesses out of their pickups, and keeping up with bills can be a challenge,” explains John Wooten, All Star Rents CEO. “They also want to have the ability to send a crew member into a store and have the payment already be handled.”

Traditionally, to authorize a credit charge, customers have had to receive a form, fill it out and fax or scan it back. “This means that they have to be near where they can print a doc and copy and scan it back to us, which can be difficult on the jobsite,” Wooten says.

All Star Rents is now instituting a system where customers can reserve equipment and pay for their rental on their phone. “We’re rewriting our whole payment policy around this feature,” Wooten says.


Employee support undergirded by customer surveys

With eight locations in the Chicagoland area, RentalMax has about 90 employees serving its mix of contractor and homeowner customers. “This is an immediate business,” says Terry Hagy, RentalMax president. “Our customers need it now.”

In this turn-on-a-dime environment, Hagy is emphatic: “Customer service starts with your employees. When I treat them with dignity and respect, that will transfer down to the customer.”

There’s also a recognition that in construction, things don’t always go smoothly. So he tests how well his team is doing with a tried-and-true customer survey, asking specifics about delivery, the courtesy and knowledge of his counter staff and equipment condition. These surveys get close to a double-digit response rate. “We go the old-fashioned route, mailing it with a return envelope. It’s now unique enough that people respond.”

He then reads the responses – good and bad – to his employees and ties it to incentives. Since the surveys are dated and identified by location, it helps RentalMax isolate and deal with any challenges.

“Every position here is mission critical,” Hagy says. “Airline pilots earn their pay when the red light goes on in the cockpit; we earn it on how well we react to problems.”