No one hears you scream on the Easy route to e-mail hell

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The Independent Online

Forget easy booking, forget cheaper prices; my brush with Stelios Haji-Ioannou's Easy Empire shows that sometimes, the internet is just an irritant which makes you want to punch someone.

It is said that in cyberspace no one can hear you scream. And after my recent experience with easyrentacar, the online car rental service, I know this to be true. In fact, no one can hear you at all. Forget easy booking, forget cheaper prices. My brush with Stelios Haji-Ioannou's Easy Empire shows that sometimes, the internet is just an irritant which makes you want to punch someone.

I recount some elements of my encounter here because it illustrates two wider issues about e-commerce. The first is the limitations of internet-only operations. The second is the negative aspects of dynamic pricing, where prices are raised as demand increases.

At the start of my brush with easyrentacar I had high hopes. I was looking for a week's car rental starting from Nice airport. And I quite fancied buzzing around the French Riviera in one of their funky little Mercedes A class cars, even if its colour was likely to be the Easy group trademark orange.

The website was well designed and easy to navigate and the price displayed was by far the cheapest I'd seen, at £101 for the week.

The site specifically stated that bookings should be made fast, as the stated price may not be available later. But I needed to check that I could reserve a child seat. This question was not answered under the Frequently Asked Questions section. And going to the "How to Contact Us" area for further information supplied only e-mail postal addresses. But by this time it was past 4pm on Saturday afternoon and I needed an answer quickly.

To save time I contacted easyJet, another part of the burgeoning Easy group. This yielded no joy either, as I was told that the easyrentacar helpline only operated Mondays to Fridays.

I decided to wait until Monday morning but, just out of interest, logged into the site again on Sunday. The price had risen from £101 to £181, an increase of 80 per cent and the most expensive quote I'd had from half a dozen companies.

At that point I gave up. I made a phone booking with a rival firm at £120. They could supply a baby seat, no problem, at 80 francs (£8). The whole process took only a few minutes.

By this stage, though, I was intrigued by easyrentacar's workings so I embarked on a sequence of events which can only be described as e-mail hell.

I sent messages asking questions. But the answers always came back slightly off kilter, missing the point or answering a question I hadn't even asked.

I was told I was misinformed about the helpline, with one e-mail telling me it is open from Monday to Sunday until 10pm. They also claimed I was wrong about the car seat. This information is available under the "Our Locations" section, easyrentacar said. Again I went back to the site but could find nothing.

I was now quite keen on speaking to a human being. This too proved a challenge. It turns out that there is no helpline at easyrentacar, it is a pure internet service. Worse, the phone at the Easy Empire nerve centre in London is not answered by a real person but by a voicemail machine. If you don't know the extension you require, or the person's name, there is no way of making personal contact.

By chance I found a direct-dial number from a colleague and finally entered the real world. I was told that easyrentacar runs a "yield management" system. Prices start low but rise as demand increases and supply falls. There is nothing wrong with this practice, which is common in the airline industry. But dynamic pricing, as some dot.coms call it, must be managed carefully. Huge price rises can deter customers. They are also clearly incompatible with websites whose whole raison d'être is to offer good value.

As for the limitations of an online-only service, easyrentacar says it does not want to offer a telephone helpline during the booking process because this would increase costs. It maintains that by pushing people to book online it can strip out the costs of call-centres and offer the lowest possible price to customers.

This approach to maximum automation means that even e-mail responses are standardised with computers picking out key words from customer messages and sending pre-prepared replies. This explains why the answers sent to me were often slightly "off message".

Easyrentacar claims its approach is working because it has won 26,000 customers since it launched in April. Also, it claims its "fleet utilisation level" is 98 per cent, though it admits that this is partly because it has a small fleet.

But how many customers are websites like this turning away because they are failing to offer back-up services? It is a question every online bank, retailer and booking site should consider. If traditional companies are increasingly moving towards offering a "multi-channel" service which enables consumers to order via the Net, telephone and mail-order catalogue, perhaps dot.coms should offer some service features rooted in the physical world too.

On the child seat issue, by the way, it eventually emerged that easyrentacar doesn't offer any, so if you're going on holiday with young children don't even bother logging on.

Perhaps I should close with a telling final word from the "Easy" Empire. "Whilst we try to automate as much as possible we do realise that a degree of customer service is required." Quite so.