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When FlightCar launched in 2013, the goal was simple: provide a way for people at airports to rent their vehicles to incoming travelers and make some money. In the next couple of years, the company appeared to progress, even overcoming regulatory issues. It expanded operations so that it was available in 12 airports around the U.S. and saw cars listed on its platform for more than 1.3 million days collectively.

It seemed like it was all rainbows and unicorns, but, in 2015, multiple events caused the company to rethink things — no, not its business model, but its failure to provide the right experience. Today, FlightCar wants to tell you that it has learned from its mistakes, implemented reforms to “rethink the customer journey,” launched an Android app so the service is more widely accessible, improved employee training, and much more.

Its message now? Give us a second chance.

FlightCar website -- booking a vehicle

Out of the ashes of ‘restructuring’

A look at Yelp reviews for FlightCar’s San Francisco operations highlights issues that people have had with the company. As early as last month, one reviewer complained: “Yet another startup that truly lacks customer service fundamentals. I can’t wait to see these guys go under so a competitor can provide a more customer-focused business.”

Similar feedback rippled throughout the company, causing a shakeup at all levels of management and resulting in the departures of the chief operating officer, senior vice president of finance, vice president of guest experience, vice president of engineering, vice president of marketing, and “roughly half” of the full-time employees, the company said. Two of the three cofounders were even ousted from the company.

FlightCar called this period a “restructuring” and used the opportunity to do some soul searching — and market research. A customer survey revealed that while people liked its model, FlightCar just wasn’t delivering on the experience every time. Chief marketing officer Julie Supan summarized the point with this quote from a customer: “FlightCar, we really like you, but you’re making it hard to.”

Robert Gash, FlightCar vice president of product and engineering

Above: Robert Gash, FlightCar vice president of product and engineering

Image Credit: FlightCar

So the company temporarily shut down its marketing efforts to figure out what it needed to do to offer a service people would be proud of using. Chief executive Rujul Zaparde said that one step was bringing on board new leadership, which is why the company hired Robert Gash, former vice president of software development at Good Eggs and longtime manager at Amazon. As FlightCar’s vice president of product and engineering, he’s been tasked with getting systems in shape so the company can continue expansion in the future.

“How do we scale and do it consistently?” he asked. To Gash, much of what he did was informed by customer research: “What were people saying? What resonated for me was that cars are a different type of beast. It’s something you need to enable your life, and if you don’t have it, it can impact your life. People are sharing their primary vehicle with us, so they don’t have a fallback option. Where we’re not consistent, such as late to return vehicles, not doing repairs — these are opportunities to go back and do it better.”

And Zaparde and Supan readily admit areas where the company failed, such as being clearer about the expectations for car owners and renters on its platform (FlightCar has since rewritten its policy to make it simpler), establish fairer rules around damage and mileage, formulating benchmarks to understand transaction time from driver pickup to dropoff at vehicles, and realizing that a community had been formed around the car-sharing service.

Rethinking the customer journey

To overcome its mistakes, Gash said the company reexamined the customer experience, from the booking process to the feedback: “How should it work if we want to aim for consistency and convenience?”

FlightCar has rebuilt all of the customer touchpoints, including the website and mobile apps, and enlisted the help of creative firm Argodesign to help it better understand how to be a company people want to use. Gash said that the old design required too much work. Not only has the company launched an Android app, but its iOS app has been updated to make things simpler to understand and use.

And it’s not all technological changes. FlightCar has also redone the look and feel of each airport station, including improving amenities and lobbies. It redesigned its employees’ uniforms to look more professional, while improving training to back up that impression. To display quality service at each station, the company has installed more site-level leaders and empowered teams to make more decisions and better assist customers.

“It’s about visibility and accountability,” Gash explained. “We can now measure how long precisely it takes for a customer to get from the airport curb to the car. We didn’t have consistent visibility to that before. We can say how long did it take and whether that was good enough. [This update] facilitates that conversation.”

All of these moves are intended to show FlightCar’s acknowledgment of how it failed customers. It has realized that having an Airbnb-like service for car rentals at airports is one thing, but if the overall experience isn’t up to par, is the service really disruptive?

FlightCar's San Francisco International airport station

Above: FlightCar’s San Francisco International airport station

Image Credit: FlightCar

Despite the growing popularity of Uber, Lyft, and other on-demand services, Zaparde thinks there’s still an opportunity for his company:

The [car-sharing] space is an evolving one. We’re finally getting to a point where it’s maturing and becoming mainstream. Consumers are getting comfortable with the idea of sharing. With work that we’ve done, we’re working on the experience, removing friction. We have a foundation today upon which we can build. We’re in the middle of the transaction, so it’s our responsibility to take better care of our customers.

The expectation is that if these changes win over the hearts and minds of customers, FlightCar will pursue expansion to more airports not only throughout the U.S., but also internationally. Zaparde declined to cite specific locations, saying only that there are “airports that are supportive of this effort.”

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