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How Airbnb Fosters Empathy for its Customers


Customer empathy is a valuable quality for any customer-centric company. At the level of individual interactions, it helps you understand the keys to better service — treating customers how they’d like to be treated in addition to just meeting their needs. At the enterprise level, it drives smarter problem-solving, allowing teams to notice challenges and create solutions that might not otherwise have been apparent.

But customer empathy isn’t as easy to foster as we would like.

Empathy isn’t something that develops on its own; it requires cultivation. It can start with sympathizing with a customer, by reading their feedback and trying to help when something goes wrong. But truly understanding the excitement, apprehension, elation, or frustration that they feel? That takes work. You need to transport yourself into their shoes, and sometimes even go through the same experiences they’re having.

Airbnb, the noted home-sharing company, clearly understands the importance of empathy, given the audacious goal that it has set for itself: to create a world where anyone can ‘Belong Anywhere.’ ‘Belonging’ is deeply emotional state that depends on far more than just renting a great place to stay. So how does Airbnb ensure its people — all the way up to the company’s founders — have the empathy required to ensure its customers can Belong Anywhere?

At Experience 2016, Medallia’s customer experience conference, Desirree Madison-Biggs, the Program Lead of Airbnb’s CX team, shared some of her company’s strategies:

Encourage and enable every employee to serve as a guest and a host on the platform

Airbnb employees certainly stay in Airbnb properties when traveling for work, but they’re encouraged to do so for their leisure travel as well. This might not seem like a big ask, but Airbnb still ensures its employees have the means and opportunity to do so by giving each one credits to help cover the costs.

Being an Airbnb host requires more effort, but hosts are vitally important members of the Airbnb community, and their satisfaction is critical to Airbnb’s ability to grow. So Airbnb strongly encourages employees to serve as hosts as well — even if it’s co-hosting alongside another employee. This way, they can understand on a first-hand basis what experiences this critical customer segment is having, and how those experiences can be improved.

Systematically evaluate the capacity for customer empathy during hiring decisions

Airbnb has six core values. The first is “champion the mission” (of belonging), and the second is to “be a host” — that is, to live a life of hospitality. In essence, the values demand that a certain level of empathy is ingrained in the culture.
Accompanying Airbnb’s recruiting team is a carefully selected and trained set of employees that checks for alignment with this culture and has the power to reject for it. Each interviewee goes through two rounds of cultural interviews, which test for the six values. If the requisite qualities aren’t present, that fact is enough to override the applicant’s functional strengths. If the applicant does pass, though, as a new employee they receive an elaborate welcome package with a card that reads, “you belong here.” And they do belong – they’ve passed the cultural interview to prove it.

Enable every new employee to shadow a support specialist

As a part of a week-long onboarding process, each Airbnb employee gets the opportunity to shadow a support specialist for part of a day. They are exposed to the challenges guests and hosts face and how Airbnb supports them from the get-go, so at any future point — for any decision they’re contemplating or idea they have — they can remember and listen to the customer’s voice for reference. Additionally, this practice enhances the empathy that employees feel toward their support center colleagues. Any changes in customer policies and processes, for example, would also affect customer support, and shadowing gives employees a chance to envision and preempt how a change will also affect those individuals.

Invite customers into internal decision-making

Each year, hundreds of Airbnb’s employees join hosts at a 3-day event to discuss the successes and challenges of the past year, to learn from one another, and to unveil what’s to come in the future.

Firstly, there’s value not only in encouraging employees to see and feel how their company policies are received by their customers, but also in enabling the leadership to hear the reaction and feedback of both groups concurrently. It also allows for the hosts to build empathy for Airbnb – the more they understand where the company is coming from, the more they can stand behind and support it.

As Madison-Biggs explained, the experiences of employees and customers at Airbnb parallel and reinforce one another, rather than stand apart. “We are the customers, the customers are us,” she said. This customer-focused strategy is also clearly working well for employees, 92 percent of whom would recommend Airbnb as a place to work.

With such clear alignment and purpose, it’s easy to see why.