airbnbAirbnb has had massive success by being extremely customer-focused. Despite naysayers, they’ve successfully built a huge business around a community marketplace for people to rent out their homes. People love it, and the company is always trying to figure out how to better help these customers. Last July, Airbnb made a huge decision: to start providing 24/7 support on both email and phone. As soon as possible.

“It was an exciting, global challenge,” says Jessica Semaan, Customer Service Strategy & Planning at Airbnb. “There were a lot of very long nights until we got things organized.”

The first step was looking at how much they’d have to increase their staff. Airbnb dug into their data to figure out when the customer service rushes were, and why. They planned staffing around those rushes and – when possible – adjusted their own system to avoid generating customer service situations in huge batches.

The next challenge was hiring. Jessica says that they hired around 31 people in a one month time period. “Luckily, we have a strong culture and we managed to quickly suss out who was going to be a fit.” They flew all the new hires to Airbnb HQ and trained 20 people at once. Thankfully, they had pre-developed training materials that covered everything except their new phone support system and processes, and an experienced training manager, Jessi Whitby.

airbnb & smiley face on a sticky note on a door

International locales have been both a challenge and an opportunity, as much of Airbnb’s activity happens abroad. Helping distant customer service agents feel part of the team was a challenge that was addressed with the creation of international offices. And having local agents provided the opportunity for these natives to relate to their cultural brethren and pass tips on to tourists who needed advice along with their lodging (something that can only happen with empowered customer service representatives).

Scheduling was, in many ways, the hardest part. While international employees could cover some off-hours, they wanted to ensure that someone was always in the main office. Why? “If our fancy phone system went down, we wanted someone to be available to pick up the old-school landline to provide support.” It was understandably hard to get people excited about late shifts, so Airbnb implemented a sophisticated shift-planning tool that allowed people to view their schedule and request PTO. Higher pay was given for off-hours to incentivize people to take those shifts. And points (called Airkarma) given by peers and managers allowed top-performing employees to have more control over their schedule. (We’re big fans of customer service gamification too.)

Should you do 24/7 support? Jessica says that it’s not for everyone, but you might need it if:

  1. Your product deals with anything extremely time-sensitive. Finding your Airbnb location or getting inside is very time-sensitive. Posting a photo to a social networking site? Less so.
  2. You have many customers who aren’t in your time zone(s).
  3. There are real-life risks involved.
  4. You have customers using your product heavily 24/7. If not, consider providing an urgent line. It’ll result in more 2am wake-ups, but it means you don’t have to staff a full 24/7.
  5. Service a core competency for you. For a big oil company, it’s probably not…they’re a supply/demand business. For Airbnb, service is key or people will go back to the familiarity of dealing with hotels.

Within one month, Airbnb had 24/7 support up and running. 8 months later, the system is running smoothly, Airbnb has agents in 40 countries, and their customers are ecstatic. Jessica is happy with the results, but ever-vigilant. “We worked hard and smart, and our customers now get 24/7 support. We’re going keep working relentlessly on going above and beyond to show love to our customers in every interaction, and ensure coverage internationally.”

Found this interesting? Hear more from Airbnb at UserConf – the only conference about keeping your customers happy

Airbnb photo courtesy of davidrdesign.
Sticky note photo courtesy of Roger Penguino.