By Chris Barnett
October 16, 2014 -- Enterprise Rent-A-Car has always been the leader of the pack in my eyes. Chief executive Andy Taylor hires young, personable people, outfits them in pressed white shirts and ties and grills them on the art and science of customer service. The free pick-up and delivery service is a nice brand bonus.

But I've had some encounters at Enterprise rental counters lately that have me wondering if the world's largest car-rental firm--Enterprise's parent company also owns National and Alamo--is now too big for time-sensitive, deadline-driven business travelers.

The most recent saga began on a Friday night when I was running late for a meeting in Long Beach, California. The flight landed at the city's small airport and I dashed to the oversized trailer housing the car-rental firm. The Enterprise counter wasn't staffed. Instead, there was a sign telling customers to go directly to an office in the parking lot. Which was fine, but the sign gave no directions.

When I found the office, one of two agents on duty, who was not all that welcoming, eyed the printout of my confirmation, which was generated by Enterprise.com, not a discount site nor a third-party travel channel. She punched in my driver's license number and gave me a decidedly unwelcome look.

"Sorry," she said, "you're on the 'do not rent' list. I can't rent to you."

"That's impossible," I said. "It's a mistake and your manager in Las Vegas got the same notice, made a call, apologized and told me, 'Don't worry, it's been corrected.' "

She wasn't impressed or sympathetic--and insisted there was nothing a manager could do at 8:30 in the evening. If I wanted to solve the problem, I'd have to do it myself and only during business hours because the Enterprise bureaucracy in charge, the Damage Recovery Unit (DRU), is only open between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays.

"Call Monday," she said dismissively and handed me a green sheet with the station manager's name and the DRU's phone number. On the sheet, in bold type, were the words: "Our goal is to exceed your expectations."

(The backstory: In 2004, I rented an Enterprise car at Dulles Airport in Washington and didn't take the collision damage waiver. I got a gouge to the left fender in a parking lot and forgot to point it out when I returned the car and ran to the catch my flight. I was notified two months later and billed for the damage. I sent them a check. Case closed--or so I thought. Over the years, whenever the "do not rent" issue came up, I explained the situation and I was green-lighted to rent with an apology and assurances that the ban was lifted.)

Since Enterprise wouldn't rent to me, I moved down the trailer to Avis, the only agency that had "available cars." I wound up with a Ford Focus at $68.50 a day plus fees and taxes-- more than double Enterprise's $25.95 a day mid-size rate. The Avis agent was friendly and helpful, clearly "trying harder" than Enterprise.

On Monday morning, when I tried again to square things with Enterprise, things went downhill almost immediately. I called Matthew Charney, the Enterprise manager at Long Beach airport, but he wasn't there. He'd been promoted and the little green papers with his name on it had not been updated.

The new manager, Jim Bunson, was busy with a customer. I quickly explained the situation and was told, in a perfunctory tone, to "call back." No empathy, let alone an apology, to salve my frustration or inconvenience.

When I called back, I recounted my tale to Bunson and was about to ask him to verify my "do not rent" status when he said he had a customer issue and needed to get off the line. I gave him my mobile phone number and he said he'd call back. He never did.

That's when I called the Enterprise Damage Recovery Unit. It was slow to answer and then I got the standard recorded message: "All recovery specialists are assisting other customers." When it did answer, I was bounced around a couple times before I reached Carline, who was accommodating and efficient.

Inputting my driver's license, Carline instantly found my original file from a decade ago and saw that I had, indeed, paid my debt to Enterprise two months after the rental. What's more, while she could not explain why the "do not rent" ban was still on my record more than a decade later, she vowed that she was eliminating it permanently.

That was fine as far as it went, but Enterprise's error cost me more than $100 above and beyond my Enterprise quote when I needed to rent from Avis. I told Carline I wanted to be reimbursed for the difference.

Carline insisted the Damage Recovery Unit didn't have the authority to approve refunds. I would have to call the Enterprise office at Dulles Airport, where I originally rented the car in 2004, and discuss it with them.

The agent at Dulles who answered the phone turned chilly when I related the story to her and requested a refund.

"You have to speak with Derrick, the manager, and he's busy with a customer," she said. "Call back later today."

His last name? She wouldn't give it to me.

When I finally reached Derrick, who has five years experience with the company, I have to admit he sounded like the old Enterprise I knew and admired.

He apologized for his snippy agent and promised to have a talk with her. I told him my story and, while we were talking, he checked my profile and claimed the "do not rent" stricture no longer appeared. But Derrick would not approve the refund and said he needed to speak with a supervisor. He also asked me to fax my Enterprise reservation and a copy of my Avis invoice. He promised he would get back to me.

That was on a Tuesday. On Friday, I realized Derrick had not called me back, so I called him.

"Oh, Derrick's on vacation," said a Dulles counter agent. She didn't offer help, nor did she suggest I speak to the assistant manager, whose name, I later learned, was Ben Bagaglio.

When I asked for Ben, he was "busy helping a customer," of course. I left my office and mobile phone numbers and requested he call me back promptly. He didn't, but Jonathan Marcais, the Dulles area marketing manager, did.

A 10-year Enterprise veteran, he really personified the old Enterprise and cut right to the chase. He knew my problem and had double-checked to make certain my "do not rent" prohibition was scrubbed. He apologized sincerely, not obsequiously, for the way I'd been treated. He also told me a refund check would reach me in about a week.

Then Marcais launched into a highly professional job of damage control, claiming my experience was an unfortunate glitch and that Enterprise was not downshifting on service.

"We as a company want to do right with our customers and our future customers," he insisted.

ABOUT CHRIS BARNETT Chris Barnett writes about business-travel tactics and strategies that save time and money and help minimize hassles. He is based in San Francisco and has written for a wide variety of major newspapers and national magazines.

THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Chris Barnett in the spirit of free speech and to help encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Barnett. This material may not be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Chris Barnett.

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