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.

The New Formula for Disruption: CX>4Ps

In business school we were all taught about the 4 Ps: Price, Product, Promotion, and Place. I remember teaching graduate level Strategic Marketing and the author of the book had decided to also throw in an “S” (Service) to salute the experiential flag. While the four Ps are certainly important, an over reliance and focus on them may have forced entire industries down a myopic product centered hole.

In the hallowed halls of consumer package goods (CPG) where the magic Ps were first conjured and codified we are finding this particular potion, no matter the alchemy employed, lacks the potency it once possessed.

On all sides ‘Big Food’ is under assault and they and the associated adjacencies are suffering. Disruptors on all sides are sourcing more local, organic, and relatable products and brands. Customers are no longer shopping in the middle of the store as much as they are around the edges, if they are shopping in the store anymore at all.

Why?

Many reasons, but the focus on the Four Ps created an overly atomistic and reductionist approach to product development, design, and marketing. It is a formula to be optimized with customer input as the test subject. Like Rhesus Monkeys in some subterranean laboratory, customers are used as stimulus-response subjects to help hone and refine the product. Does this taste sweeter? Does this taste saltier? What do you think of this package? Blue or Red? Do you like it? Why or why not?

Admittedly this approach created some very addictive chicken nuggets and pork chop coatings, but this 1960s approach where the brand manager played the role of the beneficent product god and customers were his flock of “consumers” misses a very important point.

People do not buy products; they buy experiences.

Customers do not buy cereal, they are looking for how to feed their kids in the morning and keep them happy and healthy. They don’t buy dolls or toy cars they buy the experience of playing with that doll or the creative endeavor of creating a make-believe city out of the living room carpet.

This product myopia is not relegated to CPG by any means. Insurance companies are struggling as to how to sell life insurance policies to millennials who fail to see the point. The hospitality industry is trying to assert its relevance over aggressive boutique experience providers. The automotive industry is about to be turned on its head as product planners continue to plan products while young people are increasingly delaying getting a licenseand would rather not own a car if they didn’t have to. It affects almost every industry.

The evidence was in plain sight for a long time, but accelerant has been thrown on experiential fire by millennials and newer generations of the “sharing economy” who view owning stuff as a needless investment when money could be much wisely put toward hiking the PCT or hang gliding in Belize.

So what do we do?

The first important step is we all need to take a step back. Hold hands and chant “we don’t sell products, we sell experiences.” We need to radically re-think how we “do” product development and marketing from the ground up. It is coming to terms that we are not providing a product with features, we are providing an experience.

So how do we proceed from there? The steps are familiar, the substance of doing them may not be.

Who is Your Customer?

First, we need to define who it is we are talking about as customers. Is it one person or many? Is it retirees or school children? Men or women? Defining your customer is more accurately done psychometrically then demographically as one is typically just a surrogate for the other, but nonetheless some kind of profile is better than none as experiential desires vary greatly by individuals. Getting crisp on “who” is very important before we start talking about the what…however, those conversation invariably possess a recursive quality.

What do they Want?

If you ask people what they want different in their Ketchup they will tell you things like size, taste, color and so forth. These are the tangible product attributes that people get their brains and around and we, as researchers, have trained them to talk about. If you get lucky you might have an eureka! moment and find out they want to get the ketchup out of the bottle easier. However, the conversation is always about ketchup.

Reframe

In order to really get to what people want we need to reframe the problem. What is the underlying experience they want to have? How do we get to it? Is it really about ketchup? Or is it about picnics or baseball games?

Customers have a very hard time expressing this in the abstract. The famous quote of customers wanting a faster horse buggy is spot on; customers can’t project their future product needs; that’s our job.

Getting To Experiences

Over the years researchers have come up with different ways of getting to “underlying needs” such as laddering techniques and other project techniques. I think those can work, but have some pragmatic limitations. When we start laddering up to “self-actualization” or “connectedness” as the underlying need, you oftentimes see the look of sheer terror on the product planner and marketers’ face. How does one design to “connectedness”? No, we need something a bit more concrete.

I have found the best way to evoke what people want from their experience is looking at their customer journey today and contrasting that to what that might ideally look like in the future. We are not confining people to attributes, colors, and prices. This involves a mix of observing behaviors, looking at trends, and actually talking to people.

Take for example the founder story of Uber

“On a snowy Paris evening in 2008, Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp had trouble hailing a cab. So they came up with a simple idea—tap a button, get a ride.

What started as an app to request premium black cars in a few metropolitan areas is now changing the logistical fabric of cities around the world. Whether it’s a ride, a sandwich, or a package, we use technology to give people what they want, when they want it.”

What did Uber do? They took away all of the bad stuff and added in the only the stuff that improved the experience. They didn’t make a better taxi, they re-engineered the experience of getting from point A to point B better.

Experiential Design

So now we understand the journey and it’s time to get to work. Unfortunately, in this new world it is not just the product planning and brand managers at the helm of the Starship Experience, it takes the whole crew. We are creating experiences, and that involves many people including manufacturing, sales, human resources, operations, product planning, marketing, and many facets of the organizations. If you have retail partners, franchisee, or third party installers; this involves them too.

Oh yeah, those pesky “consumers”… we want to talk with them too. In fact, getting the folks together who are using your stuff with those building stuff is a really great way to supercharge the design process. This approached saved Lego’s bacon and others. We have to get everyone to the table with a common understanding of the customer, their journey today, a common vision for the future, and only then can we design.

Also, it’s important to keep it simple and iterative. The iPhone 6 wasn’t created over night; nor was that F-150 or that tasty can of Thai Chili Star-Kist Tuna. Everything thing on this planet evolved from previous iterations that morphed and changed to best survive and thrive in an ever-changing ecosystem. Those ecosystems change, so must the products and services within them. In fact, one tends to influence the other. Experiential design is no different. It is an iterative, learning, and building endeavor.

Less Ps more CX

So are the four Ps irrelevant? Of course not, they are just a subset of other characteristics we need to consider when designing experiences. Tweaks to existing product offerings are still appropriate, but tweaking at the expense of stepping back and looking at the bigger picture is where companies get caught on their heels.

True experiential design involves more than just product configuration and throwing blue crystals into laundry detergent. If you want to survive in this rapidly pulsating environment, long cycle gated product development approaches won’t do. Move quick and iteratively. Check you instruments but not at the expense of stopping the boat. We must be look at what customer really want and then deliver it to them, quickly, and holistically.