In 2008 Emmanuel Marill and his wife were planning a trip to New York and decided to book accommodation through a peer-to-peer platform that was popular at the time. When they arrived in NY and got a cab to the address, they couldn’t locate the apartment anywhere. Enquiring further at the local pizzeria, Emmanuel got some bad news: he was the twentieth person to ask about the apartment that day. It turned out that he and his wife had been swindled to the tune of five hundred dollars. They swore never to use a platform like that again.
Fast forward nine years and Emmanuel is speaking to a packed house in Paris about the implicit trust he has in a platform very much like the one that had burned him in New York. The crowd has come for Voxpro’s latest audience event, ‘Trust in the Digital Age’, and Emmanuel is now the CEO of Airbnb France. Online trust and safety has come a long way since 2008, and Emmanuel is here to talk about how Airbnb has played a pivotal role in that progress.
Emmanuel knows what he is talking about: France is the second largest market globally for Airbnb (500,000 listings on the French platform and 10m French users), far ahead of the third and fourth countries on the list. Every night in Paris, approximately 35,000 people sleep in Airbnb-listed accommodation. That’s 35,000 opportunities for trust issues and for disputes between host and traveller. Yet how many of these breaches occur? 0.009 percent.
So what has Airbnb done to make its platform and system so safe and secure, thereby winning the trust of tens of millions of travellers worldwide? What follows are key excerpts from Emmanuel’s presentation to the Voxpro audience. His insights are highly valuable to any businesses, operating not just in the Sharing Economy, but in any sector.
How Airbnb rebuilt my trust in online platforms – a presentation by Emmanuel Marrill, CEO of Airbnb France
In 2016 one of Airbnb’s founders, Joe Gebbia, gave an iconic Ted Talk. During the presentation, he asked people to take their phones out, unlock them, and hand them to the person sitting to their left. People ended up holding one of the other person’s most precious material possessions, creating a very uncomfortable situation for both. The phone-owners were worried about what the other person might do with their phone, and the phone-holders barely dared touch the phones in case something were to happen to it.
What I’ve just described here is exactly the challenge that Airbnb was facing eight years ago— except people don’t just see your messages, they see your bedroom, your kitchen, and your toilet. The founders were thinking “how will we manage to get people to be ok with giving something as precious as the keys of their house to a complete stranger?” In other words, how can we succeed in creating trust between people who have never met before? This was THE challenge! Trust does not impose itself – you need to gain it. It is very difficult to build this trust and very easy to break it –all it takes is one very bad experience.
Trust for us at Airbnb is built as a hierarchy of needs, a pyramid divided into three blocks:
1. Safety of the platform
This is all about the technology and machine learning that ensure all interactions and reservation requests are screened, reviewed, and free of fraudulent activity. Our machine learning system ensures, through algorithms, that everything is genuine. If the system picks up on the slightest sign that there is unusual activity on the account, we have a number of systems that activate.
Airlock is one of them. First, the interaction is blocked, sparking off our multi-factor authentication security system. Here, you are asked for your phone number, and a password will be sent to your phone, similar to what you may experience with a bank transaction. All these systems are being carefully looked after and worked on by a number of cybersecurity engineers.
The Home Safety Workshops on smoke and carbon monoxide detectors were an initiative to make sure our community of hosts is well equipped. We launched a campaign where we sent smoke detectors to our hosts – in France, this was a legal requirement, but in a lot of other countries it wasn’t, but we sent them anyway to ensure the safety of our customers. A similar initiative was launched in other countries on fire extinguishers. This is the safety we want to enforce: a pragmatic and tangible safety.
This is where we ensure that the connection between host and a guest – two strangers – is as good as it can possibly be. As a host with an apartment in Paris’s 17th district, how do I ensure that the Korean person who just submitted a reservation request is a person that I can trust, simply through their profile description and the interaction that I will have with them, “Hi my name is… I do this… I have two children etc”. Here’s how:
- The Identification Process. A host can ask a guest to verify their profile before they can request to book, which the host, in turn, must do as well. This involves having to upload a profile picture and an ID card, then our machine learning system will identify if both documents are the same person. This is something hosts can add as a requirement for a guest to book their place.
- Secure Messaging Tool. When we interact with our host or guest, we are trying to reassure them – but it must be the right amount and the right type of interaction. For example if you say “Hola” or “Salut”, it’s not enough. However if you say: “Hello I am coming with my wife and my two kids to discover Seville, we are looking forward to meeting you”, it’s perfect. But if you say: “Hi, I am coming without my wife because we had an argument, so I will come with my grandma but she is not in great shape etc”, then the host acceptance rate drops drastically. So in order to encourage the perfect message length, we have designed the messaging box to very specific dimensions.
- Public Reviews: This is the core of Airbnb: the guests rate and comment on the hosts, the hosts rate and comment on the guests. This double review brings a very strong balance. This is what brings trust from the very start in fact. You can only rate a host if you have been using their accommodation; you have 14 days to do so, which prevents people from writing a review three months after their stay when they don’t even remember the listing. You can only see the guest’s review if you write a review back about them. Everything was carefully designed to create transparency. All of these tools are what makes Airbnb stronger, and why serious issues arise only 0.009 percent of the time. When you look at someone’s reviews and there are less than ten reviews, the effect is not necessarily persuasive; over ten reviews, people are completely reassured; 254 reviews, Superhost, 5 stars, the trust is instant!
3. Support & Customer Service
In the event that something happens, our customer service and Trust and Safety (TnS) teams are on call 24/7 and in 11 different languages. Customer service excellence is crucial. This is something I look at every day: accessibility, response rates and levels of customer satisfaction.
If you buy a washing machine and experience issues, it’s irritating but not serious. However, if you have planned a two week holiday with your family and you arrive to your accommodation and there is no hot water or the place does not look as advertised, this is serious. It’s an emotional situation and requires rapid reactions, intelligence, empathy and creativity.
Our agents are on the front line with our hosts and our guests. In most instances, our agents end up in the middle trying to mediate between the two. They are our mediators, our referees; they have the responsibility of building the “double trust”.
– Host Guarantee. Though property damage is very rare, we understand how important it is that hosts feel protected. Our ‘Million Dollar Host Guarantee’ reimburses eligible hosts for damages up to that amount. The introduction of this guarantee in 2011 was a central part of the huge growth Airbnb experienced around that time.
– Rebooking Assistance. If you arrive somewhere and it doesn’t go as planned, you have a big issue. We will try to find you another listing and we will accompany you throughout the process.
DESIGN IS CENTRAL
These three blocks of our pyramid are essential; with them, we get 90 percent of the job done. The remaining ten percent comes from the design. Design is not only an ornament, it is central to building the trust that we and the sharing economy as a whole rely on. The designers at Airbnb are among the leadership team, at the same level of seniority as the business, marketing or legal departments.
The platform’s design can reassure users through the use of certain colours, drawings, photos, dimensions and so on. Take wish-lists for example. This is the small heart on the platform that allows you select a listing that you find interesting, and if you happen to travel to that location at a later stage you have that accommodation already saved and can find it easily. The wish-list is shaped like a small heart, it used to be a star but it wasn’t effective. As soon as we moved away from the star to the small heart, we witnessed a very significant boom in the use of wish-lists – it’s as simple as that!
Design is at the service of the three-block pyramid that we saw earlier. A strong platform, not infallible but very strong, a simple and authentic connection, and a bulletproof support system, all of which is incorporated into a very effective design: this is what creates trust.
If you asked me what are the three main challenges facing Airbnb, I would tell you that there is only one: the loss of trust. Trust is crucial, and we need to continue to improve and evolve the tools we use to try and maintain it.
- Click right here for more insights on from Voxpro’s ‘Trust in the Digital Age’ event in Paris. Standford’s Professor Jeff Hancock (also a Ted Talker) was one of the keynotes.