Though smaller than its rivals, National Car Rental has given Hertz and Avis Budget Group something to be concerned about.

National took the top spot from sister brand Enterprise and widened its lead over other car rental brands favored by business travelers, including Hertz and Avis, in J.D. Power’s 2013 customer satisfaction rankings in North America.

National notched relatively large jumps in cost and fees (28 points), the pick-up process (24 points), and the reservations process (45 points), although the factors are weighted and the reservations process only accounted for 5% of the score.

The J.D. Power 2013 North America Rental Car Satisfaction Study uses a 1,000-point scale to assess customer sentiment about car rental companies at airport locations and weighs, in order of importance, cost and fees; pick-up process; return process; rental car; shuttle bus/van, and reservations process. Even a 15-point swing is considered significant.

Here are the rankings:

J.D. Power 2013 North America Rental Car Satisfaction Study
Customer Satisfaction Index Ranking (1,000 Point Scale)

Company2012 Score2013 Score
National788809
Enterprise804799
Alamo773782
INDUSTRY AVERAGE769775
Hertz771773
Avis766770
Budget753764
Thrifty733761
Dollar738743
Source: J.D. Power 2013 North America Rental Car Satisfaction Study

Rick Garlick, J.D. Power’s global travel and hospitality lead, says National showed the most improvement of any car rental brand in the survey, and was particularly strong in costs and fees, car rental pick-up and return, and the reservations process.

National’s Emerald Club Aisle service, which enables members to reserve a midsize car, then get off the shuttle bus, proceed to the Aisle or Executive areas and select any vehicle while paying only the midsize rate, is a true differentiator, Garlick says.

Unlike with at other brands, the Emerald Club Aisle service enables renters to grab the keys in the car and head toward the exit without having to proceed first to a specified parking spot to select the car.

For business travelers, this sort of experience is often superior to even sister company Enterprise’s, which emphasizes customer service and routinely asks renters to take the time to walk around a vehicle and inspect it “even if I have a loss-damage waiver,” Garlick says.

“Sometimes because the focus is so much on customer service, they (Enterprise) do so at the expense of expediency,” says Garlick, adding that there has to be a balance between customer service in the form of inspecting the vehicle, for instance, and “respect for the customer’s time.”

The 2013 J.D. Power rankings shows Enterprise Holdings (Enterprise, National and Alamo) separating itself from the likes of Hertz, Avis and Budget.

“We still say they [Hertz and Avis] are in the upper tier of companies,” Garlick says, adding that although they still are preferred brands for road warriors, they’ve been passed by in customer satisfaction sentiment by National, Enterprise and Alamo.

Hertz and Avis appear to some extent to be coasting on their reputations as they have “carved out their niche for years,” Garlick says.

In that regard, he notes that although price is the number one factor behind renting from a particular brand, past experience comes second, and lots of travelers rent from Avis or Hertz because they have historically done so.

“You can ride that for some time, but it certainly puts you in a more vulnerable position,” Garlick says.

In an announcement about the survey, J.D. Power Survey cited the following as key findings:

  • More than one-third (35%) of customers cite low price as a top reason for selecting their rental car company.  Yet, overall satisfaction is lowest among customers who select based on price (756 on a 1,000-point scale). In comparison, overall satisfaction among customers who choose a rental car company based on good customer service is highest (828).
  • Overall customer satisfaction with their rental car experience averages 775 in 2013, a six-point increase from 2012 and the highest satisfaction score since the study’s current methodology was adopted in 2006.
  • Customers on personal or leisure travel are slightly more satisfied, on average, than are business customers (777 vs. 771, respectively). Personal or leisure customers are more satisfied than are business customers across all factors except the pick-up process.
  • A critical factor associated with rental car satisfaction is expediency of pick up.  Among the 20 percent of customers who use a counter bypass service, satisfaction with the pick-up process averages 820 compared with 770 for those that use the rental counter.
  • A smile from the rental car staff can have a huge impact on overall satisfaction. Overall satisfaction among customers greeted with a smile from one member of a rental car company’s staff is 58 points higher than among those not greeted with a smile (693 vs. 635, respectively). Satisfaction among customers greeted with a smile by four staff members is 200 points higher than among those not greeted with a smile (835 vs. 635, respectively).
  • National ranks highest in customer satisfaction among rental car companies, with a score of 809, performing particularly well across all six factors. Enterprise ranks second with a score of 799, followed by Alamo with 782.