Don’t get mad, get evidence

By Christian Nielsen

Companies which miss the opportunity to learn from a mistake compound it. For customers, high horses are tempting to ride, vindication is better. 

Wednesday 27 January 2016

These are two obtuse conclusions I reached after a recent experience with me in the protagonist's role of ‘irate customer' and the manager of a car rental company reluctantly (it seems) playing the antagonist role.

It started with an e-mail on a Monday morning from the rental company thanking me for my custom but regrettably informing me that I had caused some damage:

Unfortunately, there is a new small¹ damage on the car that was not there before your rental. It is a bump/skratch on the left backdoor, see pictures.
Rental company

The pictures in question revealed a neatly manicured fingernail pointing to the said scratch. After some choice words and audible huffing, my indignant reaction went as follows:

It's amazing what you can find if you look close enough, and when the insurance companies are paying […] The fact that you have documented the dents from previous users and not actually repaired them shows that this little extra money spinner will continue until you write off the car after 200,000 km […] I know which rental company to avoid like the plague now. The attendant at the counter was very sweet and I'm sorry that she has to for such an operation. So, an unpleasant start to the week all round.

I'm not proud of the sniffy tone and it is probably one of those mails you should write because it makes you feel better, then delete because you'll feel worse for sending it… but (What can I say?) in this case I had to send it, and I didn't even expect a response, let alone any chance of escaping the fee.

Not long after firing it off, curiosity and the prospect of a 350 euro surcharge got the better of me… I remembered I'd taken photos of the dents pointed out by the attendant when I rented the car and a few when I dropped it off. Maybe they would reveal something, I hoped. The pick-up pictures were at night and there was dew on the car, so the quality was dubious. Still, I thought it was worth a try, and sent ‘before' and ‘after' shots to the office manager. Shortly after, I received the following:

I am very sorry that you feel like you do. This is two other pics of the car, you can see the dent, but from another angle and better daylight so that you can see that the dent is on the left back door. But with an mobilecamera and with a Llttle distance, the damage is harder to catch on picture. Also thank you for the pictures you sent, the light is unfortunatly not so good and it is taken quite far from the car.

Salutations say it all

The salutations during the exchanges were firmly on the ‘sincerely indignant' end of the spectrum, on my part, whilst my antagonist remained polite and mostly apologetic about the surcharge. I was starting to waiver on the scam theory that was running in my head. Maybe it was just over-diligent dent-spotting but I'd have to pay up regardless.

Then it occurred to me that the company had handed me a trump card in the second set of photos. Now I could compare ‘like with like' on the panel in question. So, I went CSI on the photos and cropped close-ups of the dent they were accusing me of making and the one I had documented at pick-up. It was clear to me that they were the same triangle-shaped mark. My slightly trumpeted mail to the company followed:

I have attached the photo of that piece of damage as a close-up with your colleague's red nail polish, and you can see that it matches the one you just sent (also attached for the record), especially when you examine the cropped version embedded below. Note the way it comes to a triangular shape on the left and tapers off to the right […] Again, can you please reconsider processing this claim.

An hour passed before a reply came through – the one every frustrated customer wants to receive:

You are absolutely right! […] This is a huge mistake and something I take very seriously. Theese kind of conversations is not exactly anything that I enjoy and nevertheless you as our customer. I am deeply sorry for this mistake. And I am glad that took these photos and I can also use this to show my collegue. I cannot say it too many times that this misstake is extremly serious.
Rental company

I asked for confirmation that they would not take the additional charge and explained that I understood her predicament. But had I not taken steps to record the state of the vehicle myself, no amount of haughtiness would have gotten me out of paying the fee.

I think the moral to the story, if there needs to be one, is that you can be wrong for the right reasons in and customers may be willing to forgive you, especially if the circumstances play out in their favour. Of course, the ultimate test of customer relations standing up to a challenge is whether a client is prepared to use the product or service again.

So will I use their service again? Absolutely not. But it's not really because someone made a mistake or possibly falsely documented damage. It is more because the company is under the impression this is a one-off (or nearly a one-off) and that there are no mitigating circumstances, such as the systematic over-documentation of piddling damage that any rational being would put down to wear and tear, and that the damage is documented in words (a language that the customer might not understand) and not pictorially. Had there been a pictograph of the car in the vehicle condition report, the mismatched information between the physical examination and the documented damage may have been spotted earlier.

And perhaps the last piece of evidence that this is not a ‘learning' company: the manager blamed the operator for not properly documenting the damage in the first place. And despite heart-felt apologies from the company, there was no offer of compensation or other remedies. For example, I pointed out in one of the first exchanges that I felt they had also unfairly charged me a late pickup fee (an amount that was about 1/3 of the total rental fee) because my flight landed 20 minutes after the cut-off! This would have been a prime opportunity to claw back some credibility by reimbursing that amount. Alas, it was not to be.

I could have got on my high horse and threatened to take the case up the chain or named and shamed them into submission on social media. In the end, though, all I wanted was to be treated fairly. Sure, the money was quite significant, but perhaps more important was knowing that the care taken in a transaction like this – indeed, in any social exchange like borrowing a book or collaborating on a project – is reciprocated, that there is mutual respect and understanding.

And vindication doesn't fully cover that. Yes, I proved my case but the best outcome would have been for the company to have recognised that this was likely not a one-off – others have surely fallen foul to the systemic problems but not had the material evidence to prove otherwise. This company has clearly let a learning experience slip through their fingers.

And the lesson for rental car customers? However annoying it is for your travelling companions to wait while you photograph every scratch and panel on the car, their moaning is tolerable in the end when you save a few hundred euros in (potentially) bogus excess fees. Everyone should collect the evidence and hold car rental companies to account. Some good tips and information here.

1. All typos in these exchanges are SIC


  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in , on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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