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Sunday, March 1, 2015

Hans Litten, Why I hate Car Rental Companies (except 1) and a quote from Luke Johnson

We went to see a West End play in the beautiful Theatre Royal Haymarket on a difficult subject. It was not a joyful evening, particularly when you are staring at a stage with Nazi swastikas and Gestapo officers, acted out so brilliantly that you felt like a silent observer back in 1930’s Berlin. Penelope Wilton (known most famously for her role in Downton Abbey) played the mother of Hans Litten, a brilliant German lawyer who had the chutzpah to subpoena Adolf Hitler to appear in court. This story was little known until about five years ago when some Mark Goucher, the producer, commissioned Mark Hayhurst to write this play following on from his BBC drama on the same subject. The story had been hushed up on both sides following the war. The Germans didn’t want another terrible story from this period emerging; the allies had kept it quiet because Litten had been too friendly with the socialists and the communists. And a hero with left leaning sympathies was not what they were looking for as the Soviets took over Eastern Europe and we entered the Cold War. Hans Litten was a brilliant young lawyer who represented people who were increasingly being brutalised by Hitler’s regime as he rose to power in the early 1930s. Inevitably, most of them were left wingers, intellectuals or just ordinary poor people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Litten provided his services for free to many of them. He described himself as a Lutheran atheist who had converted to a Jewish atheist. The conversion was largely to shock his father, the sort of rebellious thing many young men would do. But you will be getting the picture now; a left wing Jew who upset Hitler. The upset took place in 1933 when Litten was defending a bunch of people who had been together when the Nazi party’s Sturmabteilung (SA), the paramilitary wing of the party, came and broke up the gathering wounding a number of them. Litten called on Hitler to appear in court and cross-examined him, making him look foolish. Hitler attempted to defend his party, attempting to portray his officers as non-violent. Litten outshone him in court and according to witnesses and surviving documents was brilliant. Of course this would not do him any good as Hitler rose to power. Litten had wanted to show the German people what this man was really like but it was probably too late by then as Hitler had everyone he needed in his control. Litten was imprisoned, first in Sonnenburg camp in Berlin and then was dragged from one concentration camp to another. He was very badly treated and regularly tortured, losing the sight in one eye and the use of one leg. His mother spent this period of nearly 10 years approaching the various authorities and trying to get her son, the lawyer, released. Amazingly, she probably would have succeeded if it wasn’t for the fact that Hitler loathed him so much. Various people (including the British Lord Clifford Allen and other distinguished individuals) appealed directly to Hitler but he threw into a rage at the mere mention of Litten’s name. He threatened to send anyone who mentioned his name to a concentration camp. In the end Litten is thought to have committed suicide at Dachau rather than inform on his friends – and I am sure he knew the fate that awaited him anyway. His mother moved to the UK after the war and continued to campaign for recognition for Hans. One of the places where Litten was recognised rapidly was the Berlin law courts where a plaque and a number of awards were set-up in his honour. The plaque in the Langericht Berlin (Distrct Court) reads ‘Hans Litten, fearless fighter for humanity and peace, attorney and defender of the oppressed, murdered at Dachau concentration camp in 1938’. Another example of a man fighting for what he knows is right in the face of extreme difficulty rather than just keeping quiet like most people do. We need more people like Hans Litten and the world will be a better place.
Memorial plaque for Hans Litten at the Landgericht Berlin (Berlin District Court), Littenstra├če 14-15. Unveiled in 1974. The plaque says, "Hans Litten, fearless fighter for humanity and peace, attorney and defender of the oppressed, murdered at Dachau concentration camp in 1938"
Hans Litten

Why I hate Car Rental Companies (except 1): It is not often that I am stunned by exceptional customer service. Of course there is the element of peer comparison; in an industry where service is traditionally atrocious, piss-poor, bordering on charlatanesque, someone a bit good really stands out. In this example, although we are talking about a sector where a smiling employee looks so out of place that you suspect something is up (are they trying to con me, pull a fast one, slip in an extra insurance charge…), I must admit that this example is actually pretty good by any standards. 
25 Years of Piss-Poor Service: With a French family, I travel to France several times a year and usually rent a car at the airport as it is both the most convenient and least expensive form of transport. Over the last 25+ years I have rented cars from Hertz, Avis, Europcar, National, Budget, Easycar, Alamo and others that probably don’t exist any more. I have had a range of experiences ranging from uneventful to bloody awful. The former are too boring to mention, the latter make for quite good stories. 
No more cars: For example, the time I arrived just before midnight to pick up my pre-booked, pre-paid car from Avis only to be told at the counter that they had run out of cars because they had made a mistake and ordered too few cars (yes, Avis had run out of cars); I had no choice but to go next door to Hertz (the only one still open at that hour) and take their last remaining car at about 4 times the price; Hertz were clearly taking advantage of the situation rather than trying to win me over. Or the time my Toyota Yaris rental car was scratched in a supermarket car park (bumper scratches) and I ran down the road to stop the woman who had just done it (she was driving off and would not have stopped if I hadn’t stood in the road) and got her to sign a document with her insurer present (I went to her broker’s office) agreeing she was responsible and her insurer would pay. I then presented this document to Avis when I returned the car, but despite this they still insisted on making me pay the €850 excess because of the scratch. As I was arguing, a trainee came to collect the car and asked his boss if the car needed to be sent for repair before being put back in the rental pool. The boss laughed and said don’t be stupid nobody’s going to notice that scratch. I couldn’t believe my ears and they still made me pay the excess! Well what followed was a 3 month correspondence which I escalated and escalated until I finally got a full refund and a €50 apology from the MD of Avis Europe. But the letter he sent me highlighted their problem. Apart from the typing errors, he basically blamed the local staff and said words to the effect that they would get a kicking. But it required months of hard work and persistence to get my money back. I shan’t mention my one and only experience with Easycar which involved baked on eggs, 2 hour queues, inability to find the car, major vehicle damage, lots of misery, etc. So you can see that my expectations from car rental companies are low. Very low. 
With a Commodity Product all you have to play with is Service: Since then, I just go for the cheapest deal on the basis that the cars are all the same and the service will be just as crap wherever I go. I forgot to mention the queue at Europcar during one period. It was so long they had to build an airport extension to accommodate it. This photo doesn't do it justice as you can only see half of it. Not sure there is wide angle lens available that would capture the whole queue; bear in mind 10 to 15 minutes to process most customers: 
The front section of the Europcar Queue at Toulouse Airport

Arrival of the White Knight: Last year Enterprise opened up at the airport. Their prices were good and I had had some very positive experiences using them in the UK for replacement vehicles and to rent vans for moving. My last four rentals have been with Enterprise, and it just gets better and better. To start with, they are polite, smiley and actually seem interested to talk to their customers. Last time when I returned the car, they shook me by the hand and thanked me for my business. This latest rental involved Remy (at Enterprise the employees have names) who introduced himself and showed us round the Renault Clio when we collected it and then provided his number for us to call at any time if we need to. Imagine my shock when my telephone started ringing 24 hours later and I could see the call was from Enterprise. As I took the call I was wondering what on earth could be wrong? Well, they were just calling as a courtesy to make sure I was happy and that there were no problems with the car! As I drove back to the airport I actually started to wonder what the return of the car would be like (as opposed to the way I used to dread the traps that might await me). Would it be in line with the overall experience or would it be a bit mundane, disappointing? Well I am pleased to say it actually exceeded expectations. I was greeted the moment I pulled up, the car was examined with courtesy and I was asked if I was happy with the rental and if they could have done anything to improve it! No prizes for guessing who I will be using next time! 

But how do they do it when the others fail so miserably? What makes for great service? People of course, as in this instance the product you are buying – a car to drive – is an identical commodity regardless who you rent it from. To start with there has to be a real passionate desire at the top to provide great service. And I am sure that is not the case in many organisations; just a desire or a wish or lip service. Once that hurdle is overcome, it is about company culture, company values, training, motivation, reward and recognition. It is about creating the right environment in which your employees understand the importance of great service, enjoy their work, and are proud to provide the best service to their customers. This is a culture where service really matters, hard work and going the extra mile are all OK, and where doing the best (within reason) for your customers is the norm. Customers will feel this and will come back for more. I am a great example myself! Loyal employees and loyal customers will make for a much better bottom line and everyone, including shareholders, will feel better. 
“If Labour gains power it will be like giving a petrol bomb to a convicted arsonist.”

Luke Johnson, British serial entrepreneur, responsible for the creation of thousands of jobs across Pizza Express, Strada, Patisserie Valerie and many others, writing in the Sunday Times in February.


  1. Thank you Adam. Last night I watched a show about the rise of the Nazis on PBS in the United States. That is when I learned about Hans Litten. Your essay provides further illumination. I appreciate the photo of the plaque, and it's translation to English. I'll check in with your blog again. Mary Ann

  2. Thanks for your comment, Mary Ann, much appreciated.

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