A peer of mine from graduate school recently had a bad racist experience on AirBnB. AirBnB did a very good job responding to it – with prompt action from customer service all the way to a tweet from Brian Chesky, the CEO and co-founder. I have complete empathy for AirBnB – the quality of your experience on their platform depends on the civility of your community. And, there is a lot that isn’t civil in the environment in the world today.
I only booked with AirBnB once. So, I felt I didn’t know enough about the platform to write about it then. I had a great first experience. Quick confirmation I could stay, great host experience, etc.
My second one, however, has been everything but that.
Part I – House owner association changes: In anticipation of a trip 2 months away, a group of friends and I had a booking set on AirBnB for a friend’s wedding. However, 4 weeks before the trip, we received a note from the owner that she would have to cancel. The house owner’s association (HOA) had changed the rules around having AirBnB guests. Ouch. So much for our grand plan of saving money by booking early.
Part II – No response from AirBnB. We called AirBnB on Friday and explained the situation. They sympathized and promised prompt action. No news for 4 straight days. So, we called them again on Wednesday. Again, we were assured someone was on the case. On Friday, frustrated, I sent a tweet to AirBnB saying all we had heard is words, no action.
They responded immediately on Twitter and finally followed up with an email. I asked for some sort of monetary compensation for our abrupt cancellation and their lack of response. We had to move from a net spend of $550 for the trip to a place with a net spend of ~$1000. My customer service representative said he’d manage a credit $80. But, he was also going to be off this weekend and he’d be back on Monday to help if we had more questions.
Part III – 2 declines. As we all still wanted to stay together, we decided to suck it up and attempt to secure another booking. There were 2 potential places that looked open to 8 guests. So, we sent one a request. As seems to be common with AirBnB hosts, we got a prompt response – declined.
Now, we were left with the final, most expensive option. Again, prompt response – decline.
We’ve obviously moved to looking for hotels.
As I reflect on this experience, I was left with a few thoughts –
1. At AirBnB, hosts experiencing changing HOA rules are likely not that uncommon. Why not have a blanket policy for sudden cancellations instead of treating it like a bespoke request? E.g. Maybe we given $50 credit per person who was booked on the reservation. That would help prevent this back-and-forth while acknowledging it as a cost of doing business.
Maybe another part of the response would be to actively work with the cancelled guest to find another reservation? Either way, I think the first step would be to give the customer a call and work with them to sort this out. Emails wouldn’t cut it – definitely not after having them wait a week for a note from you.
2. If I were Brian Chesky/AirBnB’s senior executive team, I would worry that a customer only got a response when complaining on Twitter. Does it take 7 days to respond to a customer without a reservation? Do we really need to resort to public shaming for that?
3. AirBnB has come under a lot of flak for racism. Friends of friends who are African American have tested this by creating fake white profiles to get around it and prove their point. Maybe this flak would reduce if it at least mandated that hosts give a reason for declining people? Calling the hosts who declined me/us as racist is the easy and lazy answer here. I would like to believe that is not the case and that there are other reasons that I don’t know or understand. A simple message explaining these reasons would go a long way. And, if it is doubts the host has, perhaps it can be a discussion? E.g. an assurance that there won’t be alcohol consumed at home or an extra security deposit for a large group?
I wrote to both hosts after the decline. One of them got back to me saying the listing was a mistake – they didn’t intend to leave it open after July 4th. I understand that. The other hasn’t as yet.
4. Beware compounding problems. The declines may have been less of an issue on another booking. But, overlay the cancellation and the lack of support from AirBnB and you can see how it all compounds.
5. I was reflecting on my intentions with this post. I realize there are 3. First, it is ask “what did I learn” from a disappointing service experience. Second, it is a reminder to myself to be grateful for the sort of first world problem this is. I am grateful to have the sort of options I have today – it isn’t something I’d have had a few years back. And, I am very grateful for that. Finally, it speaks to the power of incentives – since AirBnb only responded to my appeal on Twitter, I figure this might be the best way to be heard (see point 2).
Overall, this experience underlines the importance of that one principle – ownership. All of this could have been solved with a couple of phone calls and I do wish AirBnB had taken more ownership of the problem. It is still a fantastic idea – if I had a choice between a hotel room at the same price as an AirBnB, I would choose an AirBnB because I’d love to stay in a home when away from home. But, there is a lot to worry about when it comes to the execution.
Maybe AirBnB is doing just fine and doesn’t need to pay attention to these small misses with a customer or two.
But, then again, the true test of a business is not how things work when all is well.