Earlier this month, Avis announced that it will acquire Zipcar. On paper, the combination of a traditional car rental company with a car-sharing service sounds like a win-win deal. Unfortunately, many of Zipcar’s customers think they’ll end up as losers. Here’s just a sampling from the hundreds of comments that concerned Zipsters have posted on Facebook since the acquisition announcement.

  • “Avis is horrible. They ‘lost’ a car I returned not that long ago. It was in the parking lot the entire time but was recorded as being a different color. And they were insanely ignorant and seemed [to] revel in my panic . . . ”
  • “I've had the worst experiences with Avis, repeatedly :-(”
  • “I've had nothing but terrible experiences with Avis. I want to believe that Zipcar will not change, but I'm very skeptical that this will turn out good . . . ”

As customers publicly threaten to ditch their memberships, media outlets such as The Washington Post have focused on how Avis will ruin Zipcar: “The only way for Avis to realize its over-promised cost savings will be to force Zipcar to consolidate the two operations and become more like Avis in everything it does.” In return, Zipcar has gone on the defensive, promising on its Facebook page: “We will never veer from our core value of ‘obsessing about the member experience.’” And yet, it’s hard to believe that the staid 67-year-old company with a less-than-stellar reputation for customer experience won’t negatively influence the operations of its 10-year-old startup.

Here are two pieces of advice for Avis and for any other companies looking to make similar acquisitions in 2013:

  1. Don’t disrupt the Zipcar experience. An Avis press release from January 2nd says, “We expect to apply Avis Budget’s experience and efficiencies of fleet management with Zipcar’s proven, customer-friendly technology to accelerate the growth of the Zipcar brand and to provide more options for Zipsters in more places.” But customer-friendly technology is just the tip of the iceberg. Over the past 10 years, Zipcar has developed an entire customer experience ecosystem of employees and partners who routinely put customers at the center of their actions and decisions. As a result, they’ve developed “customer-friendly” technology, yes — but also processes, policies, and a culture that positively influence every single touchpoint. At a bare minimum, Avis needs to keep that experience intact. Why? Because when people sign up for Zipcar, they are buying more than a car-sharing membership — they are buying an experience. And, whether Avis realizes this or not, that experience is a corporate asset.
  2. Encourage Zipcar disrupt the Avis experience. Doing no harm to Zipcar is just the start. To reap the full potential of its new family member, Avis needs to learn from Zipcar’s customer-centric ways to change the way its own employees work, make decisions, and interact with customers on a day-to-day basis.

And therein lies the question: Can you buy your way to a better customer experience? Many companies turn to outside agencies and technology vendors in an effort to do just that. They believe in the promise of a magic pill — like a new mobile app or CRM system — that will suddenly create unwavering customer loyalty. In the process, these firms overlook the fact that they need to change the way the organization does business every single day. Acquiring a customer-centric company for the same purpose seems, on the surface, to be equally (if not more) unrealistic.

However, many people seem to forget (or, perhaps, just didn’t know in the first place) that office-furniture maker Steelcase at one time owned a majority stake in IDEO, the design and innovation firm that was recently featured on 60 Minutes. I can only imagine that Steelcase used the arrangement to routinely inject IDEO’s design practices into its own organization.

For companies that are seriously interested in transforming their organizations from the outside on, getting in bed with an obsessively customer-centric company might be the jumpstart they need.