Learning CX by Doing: Reflections from our Ozark AirBnBs

Julius Caesar once said, “experience is the teacher of all things.” Sadly, those that are experienced don’t always teach and more worrisome is that those that teach aren’t always experienced.

We have consultancies advising large corporations on how to launch CX systems that they have never launched one before. There are institutions of higher education providing classes in entrepreneurship with professors who never worked in a real company let alone started their own. In some cases, we have software companies providing tools to solve problems they never have (or still haven’t) solved themselves.

In short, we have people pontificating and providing guidance on topics where they have enormous theoretical expertise, but very little in the way of practical experience.

I have to admit; it’s been a while for me too. While I can talk indefinitely about CX in B2B from my business experience, if I’m honest, the last time I dealt with a retail customer was around 1989 delivering pizzas to drunken college kids.

I recently took corrective action for this blind spot with the acquisition of a couple of Airbnbs. It hasn’t been easy, but we have learned quite a bit along the way. I wanted to share these learnings as they are equally applicable to both small startups and large global companies.

1. Design Your Experience for Your Customer

Bentonville has a surprising number of visitors for a small town in Arkansas. Some are business visitors, some are visiting family, some are in the midst of a relocation, and some are just people needing a place to stay for a while. While we have and do cater to all these categories, we wanted to focus in a specific visitor; the mountain biker.

Bentonville is blessed with hundreds of miles of hard packed and off-road trails. As such it has become a hot spot for Mountain Bikers through the country (and world). We established the Trailhouse to cater to these folks specifically. 

We made sure there was a bike stand out back for repairs, a place to secure bikes inside the house, a tool set, a hose to clean bikes and place to chill. Acknowledge our guests as newcomers, we also provide an extensive hard copy guidebook with brochures tailored to that adventure mindset persona.

2. Listen to Your Customers

To know your customer, you must listen to them. Ironically, my best source of feedback is not from Airbnb (although it is a good source), it is from asking my guests just one question “What’s missing that would make your experience better?” This has yielded some good insights. 

First serious mountain bikers have many of their own tools and pump, so that’s a nice to have. Bikers do like having a secure place to store bikes (inside) so bike stands are helpful, having some wash rags and a place to hose off their bike is helpful, and a gas grill is a must. Things will get dirty, so invest in some durable towels and avoid carpet if possible. Customer feedback doesn’t need to be hi-tech to be effective. It’s listening and taking action that helps improve the experience.

3. Create a Brand

While it might seem odd to create a brand for a few small homes in Bentonville Arkansas (we have our eye on expansion though), it has worked remarkably well in creating a modest but noticeable buzz amongst our guests. I am lucky enough to have some very talented creatives in my life who were kind enough to create a logo for us. From there we created stickers, floor mats, and other collateral to help promote our brand. Ever the researcher, I even tested several logos before arriving at the winner. 

Sound expensive? Not really, there are many resources such as Sticker Mule, Vista Prints, and others that can make this happen relatively. While the Trailhouse has a website (bvilletrailhouse.com) via WordPress (we are upgrading now, don’t judge us too harshly), Airbnb also has an easy to use and simple interface to help us market the Trailhouse brand. Also, while Airbnb does offer photo services, we spent a few dollars to have professional photos shot, which helps us stand out in the lineup.

4. It’s Not A House, It’s an Experience

This was our guiding principle in establishing the Trailhouse brand. Some hosts just post their condo on Airbnb or VRBO and list the facts…this many bedroom rooms…this many bathrooms, etc. We don’t do it that way.

We are not providing a place to stay; we are providing the experience of being in an incredible community and ensuring our guests get the most out of the short time they are with us. We are helping find them the right trails, right restaurants, right museums, and right stores to go to. We are recommending grocery stores or places to go swim or kayak. We are helping them make steaks on the BBQ or just relaxing with some beers after a day of hiking, biking, or just exploring the area. 

We have customized the inside of our homes to have photography of local landmarks. We have games for kids and adults. Guests can spin a few old school LPs on the vintage turntable. We have a variety of guitars hung throughout the property and amplifiers which we encourage guests to play. In one location we have a few skateboards and bikes to ride gratis.

The point is; its more than a nice bed to lay your head. We provide a place to live.

5. Be Responsive

Erin and I respond to all inquiries usually in minutes. People have many choices in where to stay. I have found that if you are quick to answer questions and inquiries this results in bookings. Also, avoid robo-responses if possible. People have specific inquiries, you want them to understand you know them and are responding to their specific questions.

This isn’t just for booking, guests have simple and complex questions during their stay. Make sure you are on top of it. They are strangers and that lag time between problem and resolution, no matter how small the issue, is a source of anxiety. Anxious customers are not returning customers. Be fast, be personal, and be helpful.

6. Don’t Skimp on the Little Things

The secret of great customer experience is that it is not usually the big things that matter. It’s the little things. With an average booking of around $300-$500 per stay, we can afford to spend a few bucks on our customers. For multi-day customers, we try and provide little surprises upon arrival (a trick we picked up from the Four Seasons and the Palmilla). Bunch of dudes coming = 6 pack of local craft beer waiting in the chill chest. Gal’s get away = some local chocolates from our local chocolatier Kyya. These are items under $10 that remind them of the great time they are going to have and also offer a nice surprise. This small investment can provide some degree from the inevitable problem

7. Manage Problems Aggressively

Which leads us to problem resolution. Things will happen. Our first tenant we had a bit of plumbing issue. I got notification late at night and was over there in the morning. I was mortified, the toilet had backed up and things were not good. 

Our tenants (about 8 20 something girls) were very gracious and understanding. After unsuccessfully trying to remediate the problem myself, I got a plumber over there to resolve. I refunded the full amount of their stay without them asking. To me, it was worth it.

They were extremely gracious and appreciative and rated us thusly (preserving our perfect score!). Bad things will happen, its how you deal with it that counts. Get there fast, be empathetic, get a short-term solution, and do everything you can to make it right.

8. Create a Trusted Network Of Partners

I have a new appreciation for hotel and property managers. There is a LOT to do. Fortunately, we have orchestrated a reliable set of folks to help us out. While we do much of the day to day stuff ourselves, we have outsourced lawn care, cleaning, and maintenance to others and are in constant contact with schedules and compensation. We pay them well and we get consistent high service in return. Takeaway: Don’t skimp on your partners. Treat them well and they will treat you well.

9. Trust Your Customers

Starting off we were nervous about people rallying the house or stealing stuff. To date, this hasn’t been a problem. In fact, it has been quite the opposite. People regularly leave behind their unused bottled water, clean up after themselves, and generally leave the place in great condition. One younger guy even took it upon himself to organize a storage shed out back. If you provide a great experience and people feel part of your brand, they will not only not damage it, they will sometimes take steps to improve it.

Good CX Does Result in Business Success

To date, it has a been a great experience for us. Sure, we could make more money if we didn’t provide little gifts or skimped on branding. In the end, the investment has more than paid off. Many of the learnings above don’t cost you a nickel to do well. You just need people who care about your brand.

While we aren’t getting rich, our efforts have resulted in some KPIs any hotelier would be envious of; we have 75%+ occupancy, perfect customer ratings, and revenue above average for our market. That’s after 6 months of business.

For years many clients in large organization have been anxious to see hard and tangible proof that CX results in strong business outcomes. As odd as it seems I have met people who simply didn’t believe investing in customer experience was worth it. Now I can tell you as a practitioner andproprietor; it works.

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