The user-driven booking Web site Airbnb has been working to recover from customers’ horror stories that their homes had been trashed by guests using the service.
Airbnb’s public relations nightmare started when Airbnb customer EJ blogged about her experience, saying that the customer who stayed in her apartment while she was away had severely damaged her property and stolen her belongings. The blog post was widely circulated, sending Airbnb, which was recently valued at a billion dollars, into PR triage.
TechCrunch reported Sunday that another Airbnb customer, Troy Dayton, had a similar experience a month ago. Dayton told TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington that the customers who rented his house — and whom he believed to be meth addicts — stole his birth certificate and left his home in such disarray that he was afraid to return.
In response, Airbnb CEO and co-founder Brian Chesky posted a statement on Monday in which he wrote that Airbnb “felt paralyzed” when it learned of EJ’s situation and that over the past four weeks the company had “really screwed things up.” Chesky wrote:
In the last few days we have had a crash course in crisis management. I hope this can be a valuable lesson to other businesses about what not to do in a time of crisis, and why you should always uphold your values and trust your instincts.
Chesky’s statement also outlined new safety features that Airbnb plans to institute to protect and compensate customers. The company promoted the statement via a tweet that read: “We screwed up and we’re sorry. Here’s how we’re making it right.”
We screwed up and we're sorry. Here's how we're making it right: http://t.co/X6WWntj
“Making it right” includes the creation of a $50,000 “Airbnb guarantee” that will be instituted Aug. 15. The guarantee would cover loss due to theft or damage of a host’s belongings up to $50,000 and would apply retroactively to hosts who reported damage before Aug. 1, 2011. The $50,000 limit, however, may vary based on the host’s home country.
Airbnb will also beef up its customer support infrastructure, with a 24-hour hotline that will start next week along with an expanded customer support team. Chesky writes that the company will also create “an in-house task force devoted to the manual review of suspicious activity,” which would “build new security features based on community feedback.” And, if you can’t reach any of those response teams, Chesky offered an e-mail account where he says he can be reached.
The company also cited safety features it has already instituted, including “customized trust settings,” which would allow users to create an information threshold that, if a prospective guest or host fails to reach it, would prevent the transaction from being completed. Airbnb will also offer a user verification system, telling other users how much information a host or guest has verified with the company.
In the statement, Chesky struck an apologetic tone:
With regards to EJ, we let her down, and for that we are very sorry. We should have responded faster, communicated more sensitively, and taken more decisive action to make sure she felt safe and secure. But we weren’t prepared for the crisis and we dropped the ball. Now we’re dealing with the consequences. In working with the San Francisco Police Department, we are happy to say a suspect is now in custody. Even so, we realize that we have disappointed the community. To EJ, and all the other hosts who have had bad experiences, we know you deserve better from us.
But he continued to strike a positive tone about the Airbnb customer community, writing:
What’s made us proud during this trying time is the response of our community. Emails of support to EJ poured in; many hosts offered her a place to stay in their homes. It’s been inspiring to see that Airbnb can really bring out the best in people. Like Airbnb, the world works on the idea that people are good, and we’re in this together.
It remains to be seen whether these new features will allow Airbnb to reclaim the customer confidence — and high valuation — it once enjoyed.