What’s an Airbnb Host’s Worst Nightmare?

A bad review.
Here is a story that outlines some common mishaps that can occur when communication breaks down between a host and a guest, and a simple solution that can change the outcome for the better.

A Common Scenario

Gary, a recently retired professor, is excited about his upcoming travel and his first Airbnb! After booking his reservation, Gary isn’t sure the reservation is confirmed since Huey, the Host, never sent him a confirmation email or thanked him for the booking. Nonetheless, Gary isn’t too bothered and looks forward to his travels.

The Arrival
Travel day is here and Gary finally arrives to his Airbnb destination. He seems a bit confused seeing many parking spaces and tries to remember if Huey ever provided parking details. Gary sees a few empty spots in the parking lot and decides to park in one of them. As Gary begins to remove the luggage from his car, a neighbor approaches him. The neighbor explains that Gary has parked in his parking space. Slightly irritated, but trying not to let it spoil his trip, Gary puts the luggage back in his car and drives to a different parking spot.

The Keys
Standing in front of the home, Gary rings the doorbell. After waiting a few minutes, he looks around to see if Huey may have left the keys in a lockbox or maybe inside the planter. No lockbox, no keys. Gary decides to call Huey, but there is no answer. Gary is now beginning to get anxious and kicks the front doormat in frustration, when he happens upon the door key which had been hidden beneath it. Gary uses the key to enter the home.

The Internet

Gary is a tired from his travel thus far and hopes the remainder of his stay goes more smoothly. The home looks nice and Gary is excited to email his friends back home to tell them about his Airbnb adventure thus far. Gary turns on his computer but can’t seem to connect to the internet. There are multiple Wifi signals available, but all require a password to gain access. He looks around the room for instructions but can’t find anything. It occurs to him that maybe the passcode is on the bottom side of the internet router. No such luck! Gary gives up and goes to the kitchen for a glass of water. There on the refrigerator door, on a small sticky, he sees the words “Wifi Passcode”.

The Departure

During the morning of Gary’s departure, he sips his coffee while reading the newspaper, when the front door opens. A group of people enter with a mop, a broom, and a vacuum cleaner in hand. The cleaning crew has arrived and wants to clean the home and prepare it for the next guest. Annoyed and embarrassed, Gary makes his way to the bedroom to change out of his pajamas.

You can’t help but feel bad for Gary and can only imagine the type of review he will be leaving for Huey.

A Better Way
Now, let’s rewind and imagine an entirely different scenario. One where Gary receives a Confirmation message from Huey minutes after booking his reservation. Then, 24 hours before his scheduled arrival, Gary receives a Check-In message with very specific instructions about parking, where to find the house keys, the Wifi passcode and other pertinent details he will need to make his stay a more enjoyable one.

In this scenario, things go so well for Gary and he truly enjoys the start to his retirement, that he actually wishes he could stay longer. Coincidentally, Gary hears the Airbnb app chime from his phone. Gary pulls out his phone to see a message waiting for him from Huey. The message informs Gary of a vacancy after his scheduled departure, and Huey provided an offer should Gary choose to extend his stay. Gary is pleasantly surprised and decides to extend his trip for two additional days.

The day before his updated departure date, Gary receives a very nice email from Huey reminding him of the Check-Out time and informing him of the Check-Out instructions. Gary has truly enjoyed his first Airbnb experience and looks forward to writing an excellent 5-star review for Huey.

Automate and Simplify
In the latter scenario, Huey has added message automation software to his arsenal of tools. Message automation software allows Huey to create personalized messages that include all of the important details that his guests may need. The messages are delivered into the Airbnb message thread on a pre-set schedule for Gary and all of Huey’s future guests so he will never have guest communication issues again. Riding this wave of the short-term rental market, the host who is most prepared will be the one who delivers the happiest guests. And a happy guest translates into a 5-star review, which means a higher listing ranking and more bookings.

I was inspired to write this story after recently renting an Airbnb from a super host that used a new piece of software to communicate with me. That software was Aviva IQ, a Silicon Valley startup. Necessity remains the mother of invention, the founders developed the SaaS based application out of their frustration in delivering a streamlined communication process that didn’t require immense levels of manual work. Aviva IQ allows Hosts to automate their Airbnb messages so important details about the reservation can trickle out over time, at the optimal time. For the guest, it means having a consistent and enjoyable experience. Their focus is on their trip and less on the details and concerns about rental logistics.

Everyone gets a good night sleep.

First published in HuffingtonPost

Chatbots Will Be Your New Best Friend

Chatbots came on the scene in 2011 as business intelligence, artificial intelligence and messaging platforms combined into new forms of responsive technology.  New ways were needed to support companies interacting with buyers and provide customer support that aligned and could evolve with changing communication habits. What is a chatbot?  A messaging application, sometimes referred to as a conversational interface, designed to simplify complex predefined task(s). The ‘chatbot’ label covers a number of categories including stand-alone applications, AI tools, bot developer frameworks and messaging, bot discovery, connectors/shared services, and analytics.  VentureBeat recently released a bot landscape which undoubtedly will rapidly expand in the near future. Today, chatbots are seen as easy and fun ways to help customers achieve an outcome. You’ll encounter them on web sites, social media and even on your smartphone. Say hello to Siri, Allo and Alexa, to name a few. To further adoption developers are making chatbots more human-like with personalities, capable of recognizing speech patterns and interpreting non-verbal cues to make interactions even smoother. The excitement is not in what they are capable of doing today but in their future trajectory.  As cited in The Chatbot Magazine, “Messaging apps are the platforms of the future and bots will be how their users access all sorts of services” shares Peter Rojas, Entrepreneur in Residence at Betaworks.  Verizon Ventures is an active investor in the chatbot market.  According to Christie Pitts, Manager – Ventures Development, Verizon Ventures, “Chatbots represent a new trend in how people access information, make decisions, and communicate. We think that chatbots are the beginning of a new form of digital access, which centers on messaging. Messaging has become a huge component of how we interact with our devices, and how we stay connected with the people, businesses and the day-to-day activities of life. Chatbots bring commerce into this part of our lives, and will open up new opportunities.” When asked why chatbots are strategic to Verizon, Pitts replied, “At heart, Verizon is a technology company and as such is constantly at the forefront of understanding and delivering on new market opportunities, and one of our top priorities is simplifying communication with our customers.” They have invested in companies like Spark Cognition, Adtheorent, Q Sensei, and MapD. Verizon sees AI as an enabling technology layer that can lead to huge gains. Companies working with AI technologies will create valuable solutions that augment the way people communicate, with each other and machines. Chatbot technology is part of Relay Network’s customer experience communication solution. Their approach is to first determine the specific use cases that could benefit from this technology.  Matt Gillin, CEO of Relay Network, believes “that a customer relationship and communication pattern needs to exist first before you can employ technologies, like bots, to facilitate the relationship further.” When asked about guidelines when employing chatbots, Gillin’s recommendation is bots are best “for scripted transactions or tasks that don’t require a lot back and forth.” Chatbots are most effective in situations where a customer is trying to resolve routine issues, complete specific tasks like placing an order, or guiding a user through a multi-step process. The benefit is the ability to “close the loop with the customer along a process, efficiently and in a delightful way,” shares Gillin. The ROI is in cost reduction, efficiency and improved customer satisfaction. Chatbots also play a role in marketing. By tagging specific content to certain chatbot words or phrases, content could be delivered in any number of pre-defined conversations. With deep understanding of the customer journey and emotions, through the eyes of the buyer, content and bot conversations can be successfully mapped and programmed. Verizon is excited about chatbots and the advances that are happening in the field of artificial intelligence. Over time, great leaps in technology have provided huge benefits to our lives. It’s easy, however, to get carried away with the allure of artificial intelligence and human-machine relationships. “Sometimes advancement comes with trepidation,” says Pitts. “Outcomes can be predictable and beneficial, or at times unpredictable and present new challenges. In the long view it is clear that technology improvements are a net benefit to society.” Yet, lurking in the background is the concern about unintended consequences. We become enamored with technology and its potential to do good.  We don’t think about the possibility of a dark side; how the technology’s original intent can be perverted to do harm.  A few examples are social media cyberbullying and sexting.  It’s a lesson we seem unable to learn. Dr. Liraz Margalit, Director of Behavioral Analytics for Clicktale, an enterprise-class experience management platform, blames our tendency to see the world through rose-colored glasses as a “lack of psychology research in the early stages of technology development. As a result we don’t plan for all the issues that will arise.” For some the unintended consequences are already here. Our willful blindness about the dark side of technology has some expressing concern.  Futurists like James Canton to technology giants Alphabet, Amazon, IBM, Facebook and Microsoft are calling for an AI framework that takes into account social and economic policies. Dr. Margalit states that “interacting with chatbots creates in our brains a new model which results in a new state of mind.”  We may intellectually know we’re interacting with a computer but our brain perceives it as companionship. The more human-like chatbots become, the more our brains gravitate to a companionship model.  And that is where the slippery slope begins.  As users increasingly interact with chatbots, they subconsciously perceive that bot as a friend – one that makes them feel good because the user unconsciously has control over the relationship.  No need for you to be nice and pleasant, the chatbot is selfless, always ready and available to serve you and in a good mood.  Dr. Margalit calls it “designing technology for companionship without demand for friendship.”  She believes incorporating humanoid social robots into our lives “invariably alters the dynamics of human relationships and gives rise to a society that isn’t completely real.” So what’s the wrong with that? Unfortunately, some users cannot tell the difference between a chatbot and human chat. Take a look at what happening in China with Tay and Xiaolce. This is known as the ‘Eliza Effect’ where people think they are communicating with a real person when in actuality it is a piece of software. When these same users then interact with fellow human-beings, things go awry.  They bring into the real-world human-to-human interaction a mental model partially based on how they felt and behaved while interacting with a bot. Dr. Margalit cites several studies done with children that are heavy smartphone users. These studies found a correlation to rudeness, impatience, imitation of video hero behavior, and disconnected attitude toward the real world.  Asymmetrical digital interactions are easier and don’t require effort on our part to really understand the perspective of other people, especially if their views are different. Gillin isn’t too worried about the slippery slope, “the focus of an organization on improving a brand’s business will keep it from running into the AI moral dilemma”.  Pitts and her Verizon team believe that “elements of AI like machine learning, natural language processing, and neural networks are poised to power the next wave of a digital revolution. Smartphones and ubiquitous access to high quality wireless networks have improved our lives in countless ways. AI-powered solutions will very likely further this transformation.” Interestingly, both Gillin and Margalit believe that chatbots should be visually tagged with a universally accepted icon so the unaware among us are always reminded we’re interacting with software, not our best friend. “Bots are changing rapidly as technology improves,” shares Pitts. “A bot that provides information today could provide contextual recommendations tomorrow. We are looking forward to watching these new technologies and integrating them when it will benefit our customers.” Chatbots are not likely to take over and drive all forms of customer communication. The technology isn’t that advanced and remains dependent on human design and oversight. The importance of this technology is its role as a stepping stone to the new world of IoT (Internet of Things) wherein traditional roles of sales, marketing and customer service will be completed transformed. We can either focus on redefining, in advance, what tomorrow’s organization, culture, and customer relationships should look like and guide technology development to further that transformation. Or we can be smitten with creating humanoid social bots that mimic us because in today’s increasingly isolating society we all need a new best friend. Originally posted in Forbes

How IoT Redefines What Sales Success Looks Like

Back in the 1960s the successful salesperson was typically seen as a confident and trusted ally that helped you solve a variety of business issues.  It’s a given that the product or service had to work; the core of the relationship, however, was personal.  It was between two people who trusted each other and were committed to each other’s success. Without the benefit of smartphones, cloud applications, big data or analytics, salespeople possessed deep understanding of their industry, market trends, products and usage best practices, and customers’ preferences as well current and anticipated needs. It’s arguable that sales people back in those days knew their customers better than we do today. The measure of a successful sales person was consistently exceeding quota, respected by their peers and high customer loyalty. Those same measures are just as valid today. Technology advances redefined how we think of the salesperson.  We began to believe that successful sales people could be made.  In the 1980s a movement began to standardize sales processes, how they thought and the activities that filled up their days.  From SPIN selling, Miller Heiman Blue Sheets and “Dress for Success” to today’s predictive analytics and Account Based Selling, a tremendous amount of effort is spent on teaching sales people to  replicate specific actions, steps, processes and communication styles.  Technology is available to helping them know which leads to pursue, provide real-time coaching, recommend what up-sell product to offer, and real-time forecasting all in the unwritten belief that successful sales people can be built. “Today it’s about copying the practices and methodologies of ‘A’ players to help ‘B’ players become more than just gifted amateurs,” shared Leslie Stretch, CEO of Callidus Cloud, a cloud-based sales, marketing, learning, and customer experience solutions vendor. Today what stands between the customer and the purchase order is the sales person. That is about to change rapidly and dramatically by the Internet of Things or “IoT” for short. With IoT, devices and machines are starting to automatically send purchase orders for inventory, replacement parts and repair services directly to vendor computers.  The sales person is out of the picture.  IoT disintermediates B2B account management.  No one needs the sales person because there is no one for the sales person to talk to – or is there? Stretch sums up the question that is on everyone’s mind as “What is sales’ role when machines take care of themselves and order for themselves?” Counter to obsoleting sales, IoT shifts the definition of the sales person back sixty years to a time when relationships matter.  Success will be once again defined by the long term value generated by the sales person, as defined by the buyer. Value that is often beyond the product or service he or she is selling.  Relationship trumps everything. What IoT triggers is the reversion of the definition of a successful sales person back to the consummate professional relationship builder, behaviorist and strategic advisor that takes their business personally. There is evidence that the shift is already underway – not from how CEOs think of their sales stars but in the actual characteristics of sales “A” players. “The Persona of Top Sales Professionals”, is a recent study of over 1,000 sales professionals by Steve W. Martin that was sponsored by Velocify, a sales acceleration platform. The study defines the personal attributes, attitudes and actions of successful sales people who achieved more than 125 percent of their quota last year. The study focused on six areas: Focus and motivation, career orientation, personal attributes, customer interaction strategy, attitude, and self-perception. We all know that highly successful sales people are driven by much more than money or greed as Martin calls it.  What may be surprising is the study’s finding that being recognized by their peers and held in high esteem “based upon their knowledge and the recognition that comes along with being thought of as an expert” is as important as money.  Quota-busters “believe that their knowledge is their most powerful attribute” and “are masters of language…[and] accomplished communicators who know what to say and, equally important, how to say it.” The study found that sales super stars rely on their intuition a bit more than pure rational logic when making critical decisions.  Their understanding of human nature, and of themselves, and drawing on those insights at key times is a hallmark of consistently over-quota achievers defined as people who exceed quota over 90 percent of their careers.   While pure-logic decision makers also exceed quota, they just don’t do it as often as the sales person that listens to their intuition a bit more closely. When it comes to how the most successful sales people approach customer relationships, the overachievers focus on “getting customers to emotionally connect with them” followed by customizing their sales approach and asking the tough questions in ways that showcase their knowledge and expertise. Sounds a lot like some of the best sales people from the last century – David Ogilvy, Mary Kay Ash, Joe Girard, and Zig Ziglar, to name a few. The bottom-line is that successful salespeople in the era of IoT are focused, as they were in the 1960s, on the emotional, political and personal drivers of the buyer.  The study found that successful sales people are able to “build a trusted relationship and personal friendship in a short period of time.”  To the sales person it’s about more than just the sale, it’s about owning a personal responsibility for and a dedication to their client’s success. What does that mean for sales organizations going forward?  Stretch believes the focus should not be on a salesperson but on the entire team involved in the account. He adds a “key is to compensate everyone supporting the customer because that directly impacts renewal and account expansion.” Based on my client work, I’m a strong proponent of ending the practice of hosting annual sales training to drill standard processes, systems and procedures in a one-size-fits-all approach into the heads of inside sales and account managers. Instead use these events to deepen industry expertise, understand emerging trends, and teach people how to apply this knowledge to customer situations and drive value-add beyond the boundaries of the product. I also recommend these four new best practices:

  • Test sales candidates based on their behaviors and motivations using new tools such as GRI
  • Individualize sales coaching to build self-confidence, personal certainty, and self-pride
  • Hire behaviorists to sharpen communication, sales intuition and human behavior skills
  • Teach sales how to use data to alter their behaviors to align with customer characteristics
You might say all of this has always been the hallmark of sales superstars. That’s true.  However, in the era of IoT, it means that all of sales need to have these characteristics not just the “A” players.

Want to Improve Customer Experience? Ask Your Customers for Help

Customer co-creation is a powerful technique through which customers and vendors can jointly work together to create value. I define this as “the purposeful action of partnering with strategic customers and employees to ideate, problem solve, improve performance and/or create a new product, service or business.” Today, almost two decades after customer co-creation was introduced as an academic concept by Venkatram Ramaswamy and the late C.K. Prahalad of the University of Michigan Business School, this promising process is finally finding its way into the mainstream.

Co-Creation Creates Value

Companies as diverse as Zappos, DHL, The LEGO Group and Starbucks are now working with customers to engage them in everything from product creation to corporate strategy. Yet the prospect of sharing the kind of detailed strategic and financial information necessary to interact openly and transparently with your top customers can be daunting. Breathe easy. Your company can start harnessing the power of customer co-creation in a way that’s a lot less intimidating — by better understanding the customer experiences your company provides. That’s because consistently delivering the kinds of customer experiences that create value are key to building trust and credibility. And creating those high-value customer experiences in turn creates a virtuous cycle: When you invite customers to help your company in more strategic areas, your trust deepens those customer relationships by expanding engagement, encouraging accurate and truthful interactions and improving product performance.

Start with Qualitative Journey Maps

You can begin a customer co-creation initiative by taking three steps that invite your customers to work with you to create better, more valuable customer experiences:
  1. Use qualitative interviews to develop detailed “outside-in” journey maps — both pre- and post-purchase — for each key customer segment.
  2. Use that interview data to identify key interactions and gaps where the current experience your company is delivering deviates from those journey maps. Often the best way to do this is by putting together a cross-functional team in an internal workshop setting.
  3. Follow up your internal effort by inviting 6-10 strategic customers to a co-creation workshop aimed at helping your internal team to prioritize and improve the experience gaps. Enlist your strategic customers to help you set new success metrics and targets.

Create Listening Opportunities

Inviting your strategic customers makes a great starting point because they have a vested interest in making the time to participate. What’s more, implementing what comes out of the workshops demonstrates your commitment to keeping the communication lines wide open and minimizes your risk exposure as a company. But don’t get carried away and invite every customer to your co-creation workshops. Reserve participation for customers who represent your most strategic future growth market segments. That keeps the number of workshops manageable and your team focused on the right actions needed to move the needle.

Conduct a Co-Creation Workshop

Customer co-creation workshops will be most successful when you:
  • Host your customers — all expenses paid — at a nice but not elaborate location. Make sure that you include quality time for customers to network with each other in the agenda.
  • Company attendees should be the same people who participated in the internal gap analysis. Make sure that the customer representatives you invite are all peers in terms of responsibility and authority. Ideally, you want to invite two individuals from each company who represent different departments or functions.
  • Facilitate your workshop using an expert with deep knowledge and experience in journey mapping, co-creation and customer experience. Remember, your objective is to redefine in detail the highest-value journey.
  • Create a learning opportunity for your sales, marketing and engineering departments by inviting them as silent observers.
  • After each workshop, have the facilitator share and validate the outcomes with each customer including sharing an implementation plan with milestones, periodic report-outs of progress and questions from customers who participated in the workshop(s).

Keep Communicating

Customer co-creation is neither a one-time project nor a race to some finish line, but rather a new mindset and company philosophy. Every company’s co-creation strategy will be different based on its unique market dynamics, organizational culture, competencies and customer segment characteristics. As you implement the process, feel free to keep what works for you and your customers and discard the rest. And above all, think of best practices as learning opportunities, not a definitive recipe for success.