Is the AirBnB situation a gift?

“Customer service here, we’ve decided to do whatever we can to put right this terrible thing that happened to you when you used AirBnB. For a start, can we have your bank details, so that we can immediately deposit a million dollars”

“We’ll pay all for all your repairs and replacements, we can even organise doing this for you. While you’re waiting for your place to be fixed, we’ll pay for you to stay wherever you like, all your accommodation, food and travel, for as long as it takes, just send us the details, we’ll pick up the tab.”

“We’d also like to invite you to sit on our consultative board to help us formulate a better policy for responding to situations like yours, and we’ll pay you the same hourly rate as our top executive.

Also, for the rest of your life, you and your friends and family can stay at whichever AirBnB location you like and we’ll pay. Oh, and that million dollars, don’t waste a penny of it on paying a super-high insurance premium for your refurbished property, we’ll pay for that. And when we IPO, we’ll give you another million dollars in shares of our business.”

Think this would be the most reckless thing AirBnB could do?

“If news got out that we did this, we would be seeing people staging ‘AirBnB place trashing parties’ all over the world, then it really would be the end for us”.

Really? Are you so sure that you have no knobs and dials on your operational dashboard that can enable you to discourage systematic ‘bad guest behaviour’ without seeming like every control freak that you’ve ever been scared by?

You don’t have to offer quite this much generosity to every customer who has this kind of experience, do you?

But somewhere in your model there is room for crowdsourcing enough serious creativity in devising ways to substantially remunerate the very best guest behaviour and to sustainably overcompensate hosts for bad experiences.

What you have to realise, is that this incident is a gift to AirBnB, who, as far as the public knows, have thrown the gift out of the window.

In most cases, this is the first time that the public has heard of AirBnB, and it’s not the customer nightmare that’s the point, it’s the fact that AirBnB, despite attempts at customer service ‘helpfulness,’ have failed to recognise the special opportunity to offer ‘insanely great’ compensation.

From now on, you want people to not only not worry about vandalism, but to see the possibility of it as ‘having an upside’ in terms of exploiting compensatory opportunities: sure, this opens up the possibility of occasional abuse, but only of AirBnB itself, and that will be more likely to be a publicity asset than a liability, as supportive devotees and beneficiaries of AirBnB (i.e., users) rush to testimonialise its virtues, turning every disaster into a reason to defend it in ways and with credibility that AirBnB themselves could not hope to match.

The tale is often told of major UK retailer Marks and Spencer who famously uniquely offer(ed?) instant no-quibble instant cash refunds on clothing purchases and were consequently ‘abused’ as a ‘stealth ATM‘ (people bought stuff they didn’t want, paying with cheques, then sought and got immediate refunds in cash) in the days before cash machines.

M&S lost enormous amounts of money on gazillions of these transactions, but gained enormous recognition, trust and support (and ultimately very sustainable business) from the public and so the practice continued for decades.

The financial returns derived from an investment in commercially unreasonable ‘generosity’ are especially suited to AirBnB’s ‘social’ business model.

AirBnB could still pivot enough to get a publicity dividend out of this which would make the ‘cost’ of this ‘disaster’ look like a drop in the ocean, ironically, by increasing the ‘cost’.

Instead, their response is currently looking more like that of a tired, unimaginative operation, suddenly stirred into a panic and repressive paranoia more reminiscent of the very culture that they hope to disrupt. ‘Keep a lid on it’ is the old way, yesterday’s ‘low-profile approach’ is today’s self-inflicted wound.

Be ‘irrationally generous’, penitent and vocally self-effacing now, offer to be generous and open in future, but use your imagination and creativity to turn your generosity into a sustainable game in which both sides can publicly agree the rules and the prizes, and both sides can win, so that even those with ‘bad experiences’ can still feel that they share a significant stake in your survival and prosperity.

This next video is from the guy sitting on AirBnB founder Brian Chesky‘s shoulder saying: ‘you’re right to panic!’

This next one is the one that I enjoy most, which says to me in the context of the current situation: ‘this is the best learning experience that has ever happened to AirBnB, look for new ways to share the dream!’.

Who wants to go back to having nowhere to stay?

All they have to do is make their ‘disaster recovery’ feel as breezily pleasant as their promotional video.