Airbnb’s Surprising Stumble and Save

A couple weeks ago I was ready to write a short reflection on customer relations gone super-sour, featuring Airbnb. Luckily, I have a black belt in procrastination, which gives these situations time to spin out some more and to make a more interesting story.

The background: a few weeks ago a woman named Emily in San Francisco rented her place through Airbnb and had it thoroughly trashed by a renter in what seems to be a fit of gleeful nihilism by a person bent on bringing as much destruction and pain into a home as possible. The victim had been working things through with Airbnb and decided to blog about her experience, cautioning others and, I think, just venting.

In the days that followed, Airbnb’s actions and lack of actions painted a picture of a company caught in a vortex of legal paranoia and public relations handling from the 6th circle of hell. Fast forward ten days and we find they’ve managed to really turn it around. The missteps as well as the fixes make a fantastic case study in how to do wrong, and then right, by your customers.

The Wrong Stuff

After the victim’s blog post about took off, CEO Brian Chesky posted the first public response from Airbnb on July 27, and made a number of promises about changes to come from the incident, some vague and some concrete, but none of them particularly great: algorithms, social graphs, systems, flagging, “tips”, and a bunch of other code-driven hoo-ha that was going to do nothing to address the gut-level fear that Emily’s blog posts were sowing. Sometimes you don’t have all the best answers, but the other big misstep here was where the response appeared: on TechCrunch. When you’re trying to clean up your image, don’t go to the tabloids to do it. Moreover, the AirBnB blog and homepage were cheerful and chipper and had not a word about the incident. This was the bigger misstep, and it made AirBnB look like they were in denial.

Meanwhile, Airbnb had stopped helping and started pressuring the victim to take down the blog post or to put some kind of positive spin on it to ‘complete the story’ because bad press hurt investment opportunities. You need to be a sociopath to make that kind of request. It was a bad move; she posted an update that made AirBnB look self-centred and uncaring. This fanned the flames even more, and it didn’t look like it would get better any time soon.

The Right Stuff

And then it did. On August 1st, Mr. Chesky posted again, this time in the right place: the AirBnB blog. More promises, but this time more substantial, with a singular great step:

Starting August 15th, when hosts book reservations through Airbnb their personal property will be covered for loss or damage due to vandalism or theft caused by an Airbnb guest up to $50,000 with our Airbnb Guarantee. Terms will apply to the program and may vary (e.g. by country). This program will also apply retroactively to any hosts who may have reported such property damage prior to August 1, 2011.

I call out that item over all the other changes he talks about because this it’s the least abstract and the one that will go the furthest in repairing trust in the brand. He also posted his personal email address with an invitation to contact him if customer service let anyone down.

The Best Stuff

Then AirBnB did even better. Somewhere inside, somebody woke up and realized this was a human problem that needed features to support, not replace, human judgement. The writing and video production on the announcement have plenty of marketing varnish, but past that are three smart moves: voice connect, video profiles and references.

With Voice Connect, AirBnB brokers a voice call between a potential renter and host. This keeps contact info private and gets people talking. Real talking, not the text-based stand-in we usually get by with for conversation through the web. Video Profiles, currently only available for hosts, people renting their places out humanize themselves and can make a warmer pitch to renters.

What’s great about these two features is that they use some of our most evolved human traits: evaluating each other by voice and sight. We communicate so much better with these natural faculties, and make better judgements about each other with the rich information they convey, because we’re naturally tuned to those methods of communication. It’s easy to lie in text, but much harder to deceive a realtime voice conversation or a video that shows your face. Filtering out a sketchy renter or host is likely to be much faster and easier by voice and video than it ever can be with social graphs and algorithms.

References bring in a before-the-fact reputation system, supplementing reviews that could only be left after a rental happened. Working together, bad contacts are likely to be filtered very efficiently.

None of this is foolproof: someone can build fake references and act well on a video profile or voice connect, but the safety net past that is the insurance, and together all these changes strengthen the experience by a lot.

By banking on human judgement of human qualities and not digital replacements of the things people naturally do well, AirBnB has made a great stride forward in building a better business through happier customers. The personal relationships that happen between renter and host is one of their selling points, and they’ve returned to that theme with vigour.

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