Euphemism of the day: Airbnb admits they 'hacked customer happiness in the wrong direction'

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on March 26, 2014

From The News Desk

Airbnb has had its ups and downs with handling customer happiness, an early down being the notable meth lab incident that the company totally botched.

The company learned from its mistakes, and in more recent years it has mastered the art of customer service. A woman discovers fanny-pack clad male prostitutes renting out her place? Airbnb pays for the eight day stay and a cleaning crew. A man finds out a his apartment is being used for an orgy? Airbnb wires him more than $20,000, changes his apartment locks, and gifts him a week long hotel stay.

On the surface it seems like Airbnb has it all figured out.

But at yesterday's Habit Summit conference, Airbnb behavioral economist Matthew Pearson revealed that paradise is not always perfect. He told the story of the most recent time Airbnb flubbed up with its users and -- as Pearson put it -- hacked happiness in the wrong direction.

"Airbnb is a company that runs very fast -- a good problem to have -- but it's hard to scale to keep up with user growth," Pearson says. "One area that has to scale is customer service. It's imperative that it scales at the same rate as user growth to maintain that level of quality."

This past summer, Airbnb rearranged its website to make its phone number more difficult to find. The goal wasn't to piss off customers -- it was to create a more scalable customer service operation. If people were forced to search potential answers for their question on the website first, that would lessen the number of phone operators needed to field the same questions over and over again. Those who couldn't find answers to their questions would be directed to email, and the truly persistent people would eventually find an "Urgent" button that they could click to get Airbnb's phone number.

As you might imagine, this brilliantly thought-out plan blew up in Airbnb's face. "Around this time our social media team started to say, 'People are really pissed off on Facebook and Twitter,'" Pearson says.

Instead of sorting out the new system, users wanted to resort to old habits. They wanted to be heard. It didn't take long for the consumer anger to trickle into Airbnb's ratings on a website called Trust Pilot, which shows up first in a Google search of "Airbnb reviews." With the trust pilot star ratings projected behind his head, Pearson says, "You can see that that rating is not…." he trails off, long enough for the audience to start giggling, "super."

The anecdote showed that even a company with as stellar a customer service track record as Airbnb faces its own challenges in scaling service operations and adapting to consumer expectations. "Wanting to be heard is an itch that can be scratched with [Trust Pilot], posting a review in three clicks," Pearson says.

He went onto explain that the bad reviews could be traced right back to June 2013, when they rolled out the new website design hiding the contact number.

"Even if your product is a new thing, a new service, a new way to get something done, you can bet that there already exist other habits which, however imperfect, are substitutes for the ones you want to create," Pearson concluded.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]