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Saturday, May 14, 2011

Homeaway.com (Pt II): Don't take a customer's need for assurance lightly.

After reviewing their Super Bowl advertising as part of this year’s #BZBowl, I was intrigued enough by the Homeaway.com service model to give them a try, using their marketplace for vacation rental properties to book a condo for a future family vacation in an area of the world I've never spent much time.

I was blown away by the front-end, but there were some execution inconsistencies and assurance misses that could be improved to make the booking experience as tight as the search & engagement process.

Once I had potential locations down to a short list, I contacted the property managers to check specific dates, availability and to inquire further about the properties themselves. Not all of them replied, and of those that did, I had response times from a few hours to almost a week. It's difficult to manage any network of intermediaries responsible for fulfilling your service experience. A network of small business owners / property managers that spans the globe has to be one of the most complex intermediary networks I’ve ever encountered. Still, the variance between responses was a bit extreme. While I was down on the hotel experience in part one, I’ve never had a hotel not respond to my inquiry as to room availability.

Once the short list was narrowed down, I began an engagement with the manager of the property I was most interested in. The manager seemed extremely nice, wrote back to me in my first language even though it wasn’t his, provided detailed information on the property and included references – all great stuff. But it was when he - a service intermediary that I’ve never met, whom I know isn’t employed by Homeaway and operates out of another country - asked for my credit card information that my service encounter needed some assurance that this was a normal part of the experience, and that I could trust in the intermediary network.

To get that assurance, I checked with Homeaway, asking if this was common practice or if I should look elsewhere. In this case, Homeaway didn’t respond for 3 days. That may be acceptable for routine questions (or not) but certainly not for what was to me an urgent inquiry about information security.

Marketplaces like Homeaway, where networks of service intermediaries gather to compete for the aggregated demand of a mass market, are growing in number and breadth of the markets they serve. But they are fundamentally difficult service models to manage with consistency. Service quality basics such as reliability, empathy and expecially assurance have to be considered at every step of not only the engagement experience, but the purchase, service experience and post-experience as well.

Homeaway had me with the engagement, but a small fail at a critical point just about lost me at the exact moment I was willing to put my money down.

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