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StrategyOct 06, 2017

How Two Missing Words Resulted in Unmet Expectations

Chris Zayas

Earlier this year, Airbnb gave me a lesson in expectation management and humility. It caused me to reevaluate my approach to communication in all aspects of my life, including how I work with clients.

Airbnb Expectations

About a year ago, we bought our first house. Instead of renting out our garage apartment, we decided to become Airbnb hosts. We thought it was straightforward and took a Field of Dreams approach to Airbnb: Advertise the space at a price that is cheaper than hotels and the renters will come. It’s a win-win, right? Possibly, but our expectations didn’t quite match reality.

It starts with the basic details. You can invest a lot of time providing information about the Airbnb space, neighborhood, and city. But you’ll still be peppered with the same questions you’ve already answered.

Communicating with the guests is part of my responsibility. I like to check in from time to time and see how guests are doing. It’s part of the white-glove customer service we like to provide. If I’m able to meet with guests in person (which I love to do), I give a brief tour of the space, talk about expectations for the space, mention multiple times that there are various communication lines open and available, and ask if there are any questions. Sounds straight forward, right? It never is.

From my experience, no matter how much communication takes place or information provided, expectations are a two-way street. Sometimes, the expectations are shared, but unspoken expectations still exist.

I expected certain things from my guests, and they expected things from me. Falling short on either side can be trouble.

When Unmet Expectations Become an Issue

There’s a recent stay that comes to mind where unspoken expectations defined the experience. Communication wasn’t lacking—both parties communicated quite clearly and frequently. The goodwill from both parties wasn’t transactional, it was genuine and appreciated. The ongoing feedback and positive communication continued until checkout. The guests mentioned in passing that there was something they noticed during their stay. This was out of my control and I thanked them for sharing the feedback. I figured if it was important or altered their experience, it would’ve been communicated during our frequent conversations.

With the ongoing, informal feedback complete, the formal feedback process through Airbnb began. Feedback here is qualitative and quantitative. Guests can leave public feedback for other guests interested in the apartment, so they can get a better understanding of their experience and thoughts. Hosts leave similar feedback.

For this stay, we felt our guests took great care of the apartment and met all our expectations. We couldn’t have asked for better guests! But as I read their formal feedback, I was stunned. There had to be a mistake. The formal feedback from our guests didn’t match the informal communication we had during their stay.

There was one item specifically called out that reduced their experience: The issue the guests mentioned in passing during checkout. The problem was the one thing I didn’t communicate that the guests were expecting… the words “I’m sorry.”

Responding to Unmet Expectations

Two words. Two words can make or break an experience for someone.

Their public feedback mentioned a lot of positive things, but it was the lack of an apology that reduced their experience to “average” (our lowest rating to date). Of all the problems we helped solve or offered support for, this one simple thing ruined their experience.

As I began to write our public response to our guests’ feedback, I realized I needed to think carefully about my expected response and how to handle the remaining expectations, both shared and unspoken.

In the consulting world, you’ve probably encountered this scenario. You’re engaged with a client, helped them solve their problems, and hit some homeruns. The project ends and the feedback period begins. To your surprise, the formal feedback doesn’t match the ongoing feedback. The client’s perception and experience wasn’t as great as you thought it was, even though you solved their problem and they provided every indication that they were satisfied along the way.

Tips for Enhancing Experience and Expectations

Here are some tips to help you navigate the road to effective and constructive communication to enhance your client’s experience and expectations:

  1. Timing Is Everything

Do not immediately respond to disputable feedback. If your immediate reaction is unfavorable, chances are your reply will be too. Take some time to process the feedback, discuss it with team members, or “sleep on it” and come back to it tomorrow or the next day.

  1. Empathy, Not Sympathy

Responding with a statement like “At least…” minimizes the client’s feelings toward their experience. Empathy researcher Brené Brown said, “Empathy drives connection; sympathy fuels disconnection.” Clients want you to understand their experience. If a client is unhappy, they want to know you care, too.

  1. Actions Speak Louder Than Words

When responding to feedback, own the situation. The best way to show you care is to show up. Take responsibility for the client’s unhappiness, even if it’s not your fault or you perceive that it’s not your fault.

  1. Perception Is Reality

How you respond with actions and words will cement the client’s perception. Never mind that you solved their problems on time, under budget, and ahead of schedule. It’s harder to upgrade the client’s perception of you than it is to upgrade the solution you just delivered.

  1. Rebuild Trust

Apologizing and taking responsibility is only half of the equation. Ask for forgiveness and communicate a plan to the client demonstrating your commitment to them. Rebuilding trust will help enhance your future experiences together.

I compared my first, hastily written and defensive draft of my review response to my final draft where I owned the problem. The message changed from sympathetic to empathetic and delivered a message of care, concern, and desire to improve. I apologized and owned the lacking experience, pledged to learn from it, and set forth a plan to ensure their next Airbnb experience with us, or others, would hopefully meet their expectations. The most surprising thing? An even more recent guest cited my feedback response as the reason why they chose to stay with us. When I heard that, I thought to myself, I’m sorry, but, thank you…

Expectations and feedback come in all different shapes and sizes. How you manage and respond to expectations is what identifies you as a caring and trusted person or organization. Communication is key to making this happen. Without open and clear communication, expectations are sure to be missed or only partially fulfilled. Use your words—it’s the key ingredient to making sure expectations are met from the beginning to the end.

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