After five weeks driving a Better Place electric car in Israel, I'm gaining a deeper insight into the company's plans.
The Better Place annual subscription model, including service and support, costs more than the U.S. practice of buying an electric car outright and charging it at home.
How customers feel about this subscription payment rests on how good the extra service is.
Looking back on the entire process of evaluating and buying the car, it is difficult for me to fault Better Place on customer service.
I've never come across a car company that followed up and wanted to hear from me after I drove the new car off the lot, unless I was about to spend money on servicing.
Better Place seems to be completely different.
Pain and suffering
To call that unusual in Israel would be a huge understatement. What usually passes for "customer service" here is an experience roughly like trying to cancel a cell-phone contract with an operator in another country while having dental work done.
- My wife was assured on the phone that we were allowed four free video-on-demand movies. We watched one, it showed up on the bill anyhow, and it took half an hour of haggling to get the charge reversed.
- Having an Israeli service provider arrive during the promised half-day window is just like winning American Idol: I assume that it does happen, but not to very many people.
Any Israeli will recognize those stories, and chime in with far more. Which brings us to Better Place.
Cutaway of Renault Fluence ZE electric car used by Better Place, with battery pack behind rear seat
My first contact with the company was a well-rehearsed show at their visitor center, on a rainy January evening after work hours. It certainly didn't feel like a sales pitch--and perhaps it was more powerful for that.
Looking for the right customers
Following a comprehensive test drive on public roads, the next step was for Better Place to qualify me. How many miles do I routinely drive per day? Do I drive a fixed route? How many miles do I drive per year? Do I have my own, dedicated off-road parking spot?
Better Place is not interested in selling cars to customers who don't fit these requirements. In talking with them multiple times, I also came to understand how battery switching is not viewed as a regular way to add power to the car.
From the company's point of view, its very best customers will be high-mileage drivers who commute 60 to 80 miles each way between two fixed sites where Better Place can install a charging station (at both ends). High-mileage traveling salesmen with no fixed route, for example, are not ideal.
Inspections at home and work
Standard Better Place home charging station
Once a customer is qualified, and decides to go forward with the contract, he or she pays a $500 (₪2,000) refundable deposit. This results in an inspection at the customer's home, and for higher-mileage drivers, the workplace as well.
For me, the communication with Better Place was faultless throughout this process. Calls were returned on time; email was used when requested; direct cell-phone numbers were given if needed.
And quite a lot of communication was needed.
Persuading the committee
In urban Israel, the majority of people live in multiple dwellings, either owning or renting. Buildings all have committee of residents and owners who deal with communal issues. This committee has to give permission for the installation of a charging point--meaning there are many steps to installing each charging station.
Better Place aims to install a completely separate connection to the Israeli Electricity Company (IEC): only Better Place will receive the electricity bill for a car.
In practice, however, the IEC is a slow and cumbersome bureaucracy. In my case, it was unable to supply a new connection and meter quickly enough. In the intervening period, Better Place has promised to refund to the building--via me--an amount of money that will cover the car's charging.
2012 Renault Fluence ZE electric car, powered by Better Place in Israel [photo: Brian of London]
This often leads to a complex discussion with skeptical residents' committees. Mine was relatively easy, though I did rely on Better Place to appear before the committee with me, since my poor Hebrew meant the company would be far better at explaining itself than I would have been.
The installation of the charging box was performed over three visits. All organization related to this process was exemplary, and the end result is neat and tidy. The company made firm appointments (usually arriving at 8 am) and stuck to them: I was never left waiting for a visit during the half-day time slot.
The first time Better Place installed the box, one wire was too short. It took only a single phone call, and it was swapped for a longer one on the next visit.
At the handover ceremony (I went to pick up my car, but it can be delivered if requested), I received a comprehensive training session covering every aspect of the car and its Oscar navigation system. I'll also receive another, optional training session on how to drive efficiently, for no extra charge.
Problems: the real test
Electric-car charging station at Ramat Aviv Mall, Israel
The Oscar system tracks and reports the status of every switch station in real time. On the one occasion when I wanted to use a station marked "out of service", I phoned and was told it would be returned to service for me before I arrived. And that's exactly what happened.
The real test of customer service, of course, is when something goes wrong. I know two customers who've been delayed by a problem at a battery-switch station. Each station is equipped with two spare cars used for testing.
If a customer can't recharge his own car, he can drive away in one of the fully charged cars--and Better Place will sort everything out later. It's hard to be upset with that--it's nearly instant, and very low hassle.
In both cases I know of, the owners elected to wait (most switch stations are near a regular gas station with a café). The switch station went back into service in less than an hour, and they continued their journeys.
Response to slow charging
Electric-car charging station at Ramat Aviv Mall, Israel
The customer service center is also responsive to queries concerning the availability of public charge spots, and will provide the operating times of public parking garages if they have the info. If it's not easily available, reps will do their best to get it and then call back.
Last week I noticed, via the iPhone app, that my car seemed to be charging more slowly than usual while parked publicly in Jerusalem. I called to ask why. When they couldn't give me a definitive answer on the phone, I asked for an email instead of a return call.
One hour later I had my e-mail: Another car was charging next to me, so this meant we were both charging more slowly. (It did not affect my ability to drive home.)
The Visitor Center's video shows an owner phoning ahead to place a coffee order at a battery-switch station. I haven't felt the need to do that, but Better Place has answered every other request I've had.
In a country where "customer service" can range from disinterested to brusque, that's quite an accomplishment.
Brian Thomas ("Brian of London") emigrated from the U.K. to Israel in 2009. He now drives a Renault Fluence ZE sold through Better Place--joining David Rose and other early Better Place customers. He owns and operates his own import company in Israel with more than 15 staff. Thomas regularly blogs at Israellycool about life in Israel, technology and business topics.