3 Ways to Avoid an Airbnb Service Disaster

Last Updated Aug 2, 2011 7:21 PM EDT

If you've been watching the customer-service meltdown at Airbnb.com, which concluded with an emotional apology from its CEO late yesterday, you've probably had many of the same questions as I have.

First, how can a site that does nothing more than connect couchsurfers with homeowners who want to make a quick buck have a half-billion dollar valuation? Have people lost their minds? (The correct answer is: yes, they have.)

Second, why is anyone surprised by what happened? The Readers Digest version, for those of you who missed it, is that a woman rented her apartment to someone for a week who burglarized and vandalized her residence.

Not to be insensitive, but what part of "you're renting your home to a total stranger" didn't she understand? It's truly amazing that another Airbnb customer hasn't swiped some jewelry or left the place in less-than-presentable shape after checking out, and then gone on to create a social media supernova.

And finally, as to the apology itself: Are they serious?

"When we learned of this our hearts sank," CEO Brian Chesky wrote on the company blog. "We felt paralyzed."

Those aren't exactly the words investors want to hear from a half-billion dollar company, and they do little to reassure future customers.

Airbnb says it will now cover personal property for "up to" $50,000 for loss or damage due to vandalism or theft, offer a 24-hour customer hotline, hire more support staff and more carefully vet its guests. To which any reasonable traveler would say, "You mean, you weren't doing that before?"

A disturbing episode
There's so much about this episode that troubles me, from the detailed account by "EJ" to the fawning media coverage of Airbnb. Here's a company that, in a rational world, would not exist in its present form, and is being enabled by a largely uncritical media.

I mean, come on. Why hasn't anyone named EJ? If she filed a police report, wouldn't that be a matter of public record? (I did enough time on the police beat to know that anonymity is only granted to sex crime victims.)

Paging Bob Woodward!

Why haven't more watchdogs warned would-be customers of the obvious risks of staying in a stranger's home or renting a home to someone you don't know? Are we so fed up with hotels and their ridiculous fees and surcharges that we're happy to compromise our personal safety for a risky alternative? Apparently so.

I'm partially responsible for this lapse, because I'm a consumer advocate who has specialized in travel cases. I looked the other way while Airbnb swelled to its present size and valuation. I figured people would see the company for what it was, sooner or later. Silly me.

How to avoid an Airbnb implosion
If you're worried that a customer-service meltdown could turn you from media darling to media scapegoat overnight, here are a few thoughts on avoiding a similar service implosion.

1. Don't wait a month to apologize. EJ's first post appeared June 29. Airbnb's apology was published Aug. 1. That's way too long. When you screw up, apologize quickly. It takes the oxygen right out of the room, preventing an inevitable media firestorm.

2. Don't try to cover it up. According to EJ's blog (and again, I'm really uncomfortable giving this unhappy customer the privilege of anonymity), an Airbnb representative urged her to either shut down her site or limit access to it. Now, before you say that's an amateur mistake, remember what AT&T did last week when it invoked "privacy" to try and stop me from publishing a story about an unhappy customer. Cover-ups inevitably backfire.

3. Don't attack your critics. After the EJ story went viral, the company went on the offensive, attacking a prominent technology blogger. Wrong move. Instead, Airbnb should have -â€" and eventually did -â€" hold a mirror up to its own face, and try to address the problem.

When is an apology too late?

I guess the real question, when all the shouting is over, is: Does Airbnb's apology come too late?

I don't think so. I'm a big believer in second chances. And third chances. Although I'm turned off by Airbnb's arrogance, it's no less offensive than the media coverage of this controversy -â€" or lack thereof. If you can forgive the press for forgetting to do its job, then you can also give Airbnb a break.

Airbnb may not deserve to be valued at $500-some million, but it has its place in the travel industry. Maybe after yesterday's apology, it can find it.

Related: Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, syndicated columnist and curator of the On Your Side wiki. He's the author of the upcoming book Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals, which critics have called it "eye-opening" and "inspiring." You can follow Elliott on Twitter, Facebook or his personal blog, Elliott.org or email him directly.
Photo: Javier Kohen/Flickr
  • Christopher Elliott

    Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate and journalist. A columnist for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the Washington Post, Elliott also has a nationally syndicated column and blogs about customer service for the Mint.com. He is at work on a book about customer service issues.

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