AAA: I pay you membership dues. Now please send out your minions.

When I say “roadside assistance,” what company comes to mind? AAA Auto Club! They have branded themselves as the group that will help you out of a broken-down car bind and help save the day you run out of gas or have a flat tire or have any kind of car trouble. Whenever I’m looking and planning toward a road trip, I make sure my AAA membership is up to date.  In the same way, it seems that everyone around me also asks if my AAA membership is up to date.

I recently had a co-worker tell me that someone else in the building called him a “bad dad” because he didn’t have a AAA membership for his family. He has kids in college, and the name caller felt my co-worker was doing his traveling children a disservice in not making sure the AAA minions were standing ready to charge out and save his children from roadside problems. That obligatory feeling is good business and great branding for AAA.

I have been sorting through all of the memberships I pay for on a regular basis and evaluating whether they are actually worth my money.  My AAA membership is an old standby worth evaluating because that obligatory element really makes me start to wonder if I pay them solely for the name and emotional experience or for their actual value of service.

Is AAA Auto Club a membership worth my money?

Over the years, I have waffled over whether AAA is actually a necessary part of my life. I have not been a consistent customer. Yes, I admit it: I am AAA fickle. I have toyed with my auto insurance’s roadside assistance rider on my insurance policy. I paid my auto insurance company a small fee for “roadside assistance” but it really boiled down to just a reimbursement plan. There were no insurance company minions at the ready charging to my rescue. (Only AAA has the minions.)  I had to do all the work of finding a tow truck myself and then submit receipts for reimbursement. The AAA approach is much more service oriented.

When I started traveling more for work a few years ago, I jumped back into a AAA membership. Every time I book a hotel for work, I can get a discounted rate if I have a AAA membership number.  Those discounts made AAA worth the fee the annual fee. And, yes, by paying that simple fee, I suddenly had AAA minions at my fingertips when needed. A double benefit!

I have also discovered over time that I can get shopping discounts with AAA if I pay attention at malls or surf the AAA website or app. What used to just be an auto club now offers many other services that I probably don’t even know about. They now offer insurance and more, and they would love to replace that auto insurance company who offered me a non-AAA roadside assistance option. Overall, it seems worth the annual charge to my debit card to keep AAA around. Heck, I even became a premium member a few years back, paying a little more each year for some added benefit.

Where the rubber (or the transmission) hits the road

First AAA tow with my roadside assistance auto club membershpWe recently took a several hours trip away from home, and on the way there, the transmission on our family car started having troubles. The further we got from home, the more concerned we got as the transmission started having obvious problems shifting and accelerating. Then, very quickly, the issue because a real problem as we started losing gears and could not fully operate the car.  We found a small town convenience store to pull into and started making calls.

What was most ironic in this roadside moment was that I forgot I had the AAA minions at the ready and that the primary purpose of having a AAA membership is emergency roadside assistance. I pay for AAA membership year over year, and I use its discount benefits when traveling to get better rates at hotels, but in the moment I needed emergency roadside assistance, we called my wife’ dad first for help. Thankfully, during that phone call, before he headed our way with a trailer, he asked, “Do you have AAA?”

Oh, yeah. I guess I do pay for that every year for this exact purpose.

The first call to AAA

I called AAA. A very nice lady helped me through the process and dispatched a tow truck to my location. She even set me up for text updates of the tow truck’s status, which was very helpful. She informed me that since I’m a premium AAA member, I am entitled to one 200-mile tow each year in addition to 3 other 100-mile tows. Wonderful! Hooray for paying for upgrades!

I told the very nice lady that since home was within 200 miles, I would prefer to tow it home so I could then figure out which shop I could use to do the repairs. She set up that information in the system, and we were good to go. I was ecstatic because, honestly, I came away from that call feeling more confident and secure in my roadside situation than when I started. Isn’t that the point of paying for a AAA membership anyway?

In a short time, the tow truck arrived and loaded up my poor Suburban and hauled it away. Several hours later when my family and I arrived home with the help of extended family, my car was safely parked in my driveway, ready to go to a shop the next day. Great success! Thank you, AAA! I’m so glad I pay for this membership!

Then came the next day …

The second AAA call

Once I determined the proper transmission shop to do the repair, my wife convinced me that I shouldn’t try to drive the transmission-torn Suburban across town. She asked:  since we still have 3 available 100-miles tows this year, why not call AAA to take the Suburban to the shop?  That sounded like a very good idea compared to being stuck on the side of the road again two days in a row.

I called AAA again to set up the tow from my house to the transmission shop. Another helpful lady was on the other end of the line, but she wasn’t as helpful as the first. She gave me bad technical details of my plan.  Although my membership allowed for 3 other 100-mile tows this year, I could not tow from my house to a shop. What?!?!?

This second lady said that I should have been informed of this by the earlier very nice lady.  I was not, and I was now not very happy.  Apparently, AAA will allow you to tow from roadside to an auto shop, and then if that shop can’t do the work, you can use another tow to get it to another shop.  But once your car lands at your house, you have to break down again before they will allow you to use up another tow. What?!?!?

I asked the now not-so-helpful lady on the other end of the phone if she understood the real-life repercussions of that policy.  I explained that their policy would require me to make an attempt to drive a broken car to a shop, break down, and call them on the side of the road for a tow.  Instead, wouldn’t they rather I skip the breaking down step, call them upfront and have them tow from my driveway without my breaking down in the first place?  She said she understood the issue, but that AAA wouldn’t let me use a tow from my driveway.  She confirmed that I would need to break down again before they could tow the car.

Suddenly my membership benefits weren’t so glowing ….

Second AAA tow with my roadside assistance auto club membership

The third AAA call

I drove home over my lunch hour to start the long, slow, gearless journey across town.  I anticipated that I should probably drive with my hazard flashers on due to the missing gears.  Having no idea what to expect, I actually brought along a granola bar and a bottle of water due to the late summer heat.

Departing from my house, on the first set of hills, my transmission couldn’t keep up almost immediately. Once the car hit a certain speed going down the hill, the transmission lost all traction and couldn’t engage again until I coasted up the next hill far enough that it slowed down to catch a gear. It was disheartening. After the second hill like that, I pulled over. There was no way I could make it all the way across town missing at least two gears.

As directed, I called AAA from the side of the road, less than half a mile from my house.

The AAA app experience

This third time, I used the AAA app instead of calling.  I wasn’t in the mood to talk to another helpful lady. The app on my iPhone was a little glitchy, but it finally worked to send out the bat signal that I needed help. The GPS feature on my phone pinpointed my location, and I received notification on my phone that help was coming.  Forty-five minutes later, the tow truck arrived. All was good in the world again … Except that the entire third call to AAA was unnecessary.

I understand that AAA, at its heart, is an insurance company. But as a “member” who’s paying extra for their “premium” membership, I’m not paying to be cited insurance-like policies. I’m paying to have access to tow trucks that get my car out of a bind, no matter where the car is parked.  Skipping over the part where the first helpful lady never actually disclosed that I might run into problems if I towed to my house, I struggle to discern why someone I pay a membership fee (and never really use, year over year) actually told me to go out and break down on the side of the road before they’ll help me with a service that I pay for.

Did my AAA benefits pay off? Yes. Was it a positive membership experience? In one way, yes, but the totality of the experience left a bad taste in my mouth.

What can we learn from this AAA experience?

I don’t write all this to gripe about AAA — really. Overall, my AAA experience has been positive with that one big exception.  The whole point of this article and series is to look at what we expect when we pay for a membership.  We’re paying for memberships and monthly commitments left and right, but as members, are we getting the benefit of our membership fees?

As a business person, if I’m going to provide a service, my customers need to feel that the service benefits them. And if I’m going to provide a service under an ongoing fee membership model, I need to consistently provide the service for which they’re paying when they need it.  My minions must be ready to charge out and help no matter what without citing technicalities because I’m debiting their bank account every month.

Ongoing memberships innately create a sense of entitlement in the mind of the customer.  Those membership fees are departing their bank account monthly (or annually). When the customer shows up to get the benefits for a service they pay for monthly, they want white glove, membership-privileged service.

Bottom line:  Keep the promise

In this particular situation, he first AAA call felt white glove. The second AAA call did not. That second AAA call felt like they were taking my membership fees but holding back in the moment when I called them to utilize their services.

Sure, AAA gives me travel discounts, and that feels good.  And AAA gives me all kinds of travel discounts and will sell me insurance.  But when I pay AAA, I’m really paying for the minions who rush to my aid.  That’s the promise of the AAA Auto Club brand.

Minions are no good when they cite a provision in their contract that keeps them from helping.  When the AAA minions are not sent to my aid due to a contractual provision, I don’t feel like AAA has kept their promise.  The end result is I feel let down, not like a special “premium” member.

What can we learn about providing services to people who are paying us money? We all want to feel pampered. We all want to feel special. And we don’t want anyone making money off us to cite unnecessary rules at us in our time of need.

Stay tuned.  I’ve got more membership experiences to come.

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