How to avoid the dreaded 4-star review: A guide for AirBnB hosts

Gabriel Campbell
Jul 16, 2018 · 10 min read

My wife and I have been hosting an entire home on our property for over eight months, and have achieved Superhost twice since then. But it didn’t come easy. In my opinion, the hardest part of the qualification process is hitting that 4.8 average star rating. Here’s why.

Anyone who’s gunned for that elusive Superhost badge has faced the agony of a positive, glowing, wonderfully-phrased 4-star review. And the pain is justified: the ratio is pretty steep. To maintain or achieve Superhost you have to get four 5-star reviews for every 4-star review you get. It’s quite depressing how quickly a 4-star review can chip away at all your progress. Especially if there’s no negative elements to the guest’s feedback.

The problem stems from the fundamental difference in what most people think a 5-star rating system is, and what AirBnB’s system actually is. The vast majority of people think that a 4-star review is perfectly appropriate; Their stay was good, they enjoyed themselves, but your place wasn’t the Vanderbilt Suite at the Plaza. What they don’t understand is that if a listing gets too many 4-star reviews the AirBnB platform begins to send warnings to hosts that their listing will be removed.

But 5-star ratings are consistently achievable. What follows are some hard-earned learnings, that I hope will help keep those 5-star reviews rolling in and that Superhost badge forever attached to your profile pic.

A reliable stream of 5-star reviews starts with two main objectives: Correctly setting (and resetting) your guest’s expectations regarding their stay with you, and helping them understand AirBnB’s fundamentally different rating system. Both require incredible amounts of honesty coupled with a tactful delivery and brevity.

Setting your guest’s expectations about their stay starts long before they book. It starts with an accurate and honest description of your listing. Many listings focus too much on selling themselves and sounding enticing, relaxing, family friendly, etc. instead of telling the guest what they can really expect.

Accuracy in a listing goes beyond just talking about the number and size of the beds. When the guests reads your description they are imagining themselves in the world you’ve created. You, of course, want that world to be exciting and desirable, but your words need to set them up for an attainable reality.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s the host’s duty to communicate things that could be a potential issue or a turn-off. The good news is, you can do so in a way that uses flowery language or humor to turn a would-be negative into a positive.

Some examples:

Is your listing old? Try saying something like “Our home is over 80 years old and, though greatly cared for, shows its age in some places. Expect to find some loving wear, quaint aging and charming patina both inside and outside.”

Above a loud bar? “A stay in our room gives you a direct tap into the pulsing heart of the city.”

Miles from anywhere? “You’ll feel like a pioneer in our remote cabin, hearing only the chirping of birds and the occasional plane airdropping supplies.”

Not sure what you might need to include in your listing to set correct expectations early on? That’s ok — your guests will tell you. Read your reviews carefully. Cool off and read them again with as much objectivity as possible. Behind all the things you want to refute are some nuggets of truth about where the guest struggled to fully enjoy your offering. If you get two or three people saying the same general thing, you know where to focus your efforts. Fix the things you can fix. (Get a new housekeeper, Replace curtains with blackout fabric, buy a toaster oven, etc.) For things you can’t fix physically, you can fix them with words. Your listing’s description can be updated at any time!

The other place where setting expectations is huge is when unexpected things come up related to a guest’s stay. Did the dishwasher break a day ago? Is there a toilet not working all of a sudden? If there is any amenity that you promised that wont be available to the guest, it’s your duty to reach out as soon as possible and communicate them in a timely manner. We learned this the hard way.

Very early on in our hosting journey, we had a great family stay with us. Unfortunately they cooked several pungent meals and there was an unmistakable odor that lingered long after they left. We had yet to discover the indispensable help of an air purifier, so we made the best of it by opening windows, cleaning deeply, and trying to mask the smell. Well, our next guests had no trouble detecting the acrid odors and were not pleased. They called and complained to AirBnB, cancelled their week-long stay, and since they did arrive and enter our home could have left a scathing review (but thankfully did not).

Things happen, for sure, but a successful host knows that the only surprises a guest should have are positive ones. Our policy now is to reach out and explain any issues and offer the guest the opportunity to cancel their stay with no penalties from us.

You can also set your guest’s expectations of what you expect from them. This can start with your house rules, but shouldn’t end there. We come right out and state that we strive for 5-star service. After a string of perfectly glowing 4-star reviews, I decided that I was done playing coy and trying to surreptitiously implant my desire for 5-stars into the guest’s head by piling on the amenities and being on-call 24/7. Why not come right out and say it?

Now, on the second day of each guest’s stay, I message them this:

“Good morning! Just a quick note to let you know that we strive for 5-star service. If there is anything that is not up to your standards in terms of cleanliness, amenities, or anything else, please reach out and give us a chance to make things right. We want to make your stay with us an enjoyable one. Thanks!”

Short and sweet. Not desperate or begging for stars. It’s simply stating our expectation that we want our guests to tell us (during their stay!) if anything is lacking, reassuring them we’re here to help, and that we want them to have a 5-star experience.

After I started this practice, two things happened. First, we saw an uptick in the amount of 5-star reviews we were getting. Second, our guests actually responded and told us things that would make their stay better. People requested additional shampoos, a toaster oven, and one guest even requested access to our laundry area. You won’t be able to honor every request, but isn’t it better to have a conversation about it rather than find out later in their review that their stay wasn’t as great as it could have been because of a small, fixable issue? I’m happy to walk our toaster oven up the hill for an extra star.

This approach won’t work for every guest. There are some people who just enjoy being Anton Ego. They like the power it gives them, I suppose. Whatever their reasons, they come with a high bar set and it’s very difficult to meet it — especially since they are usually the non-communicative type. These are the guests who, when reviewed by hosts, would be “better suited to a hotel environment.”

With this guest, the best approach I’ve found is to try to shift their pre-conceived notions of what a ratings system is, and educate them on how AirBnB’s is different.

Now, you can’t make the guest attend a seminar before they book your place, but there are a few opportunities for you to communicate with them. One is the house rules section. It’s a place where you can put additional information and the guest must acknowledge it during the booking process. I wouldn’t write a treatise, but you could start to plant some seeds.

Some hosts prefer to have a quick conversation with their guests in person, while others will leave a ratings card or include a ‘guide to AirBnB ratings’ in the house manual.

Some successful communications I’ve seen:

“How hosts are ranked in the search engines on Airbnb.com can come down to the difference between a 4-star and 5-star rating. Since Airbnb uses a 5-star system (instead of the typical 10) each star is worth a rather significant 20% and can make a huge difference to us as hosts.”

“Would you stay with us again? Then that’s a 5-star review!”

“Did you know that AirBnB begins to penalize hosts who fall below a 4.7 star rating? We have many positive 4 star reviews — because many people believe that AirBnB’s stars are like a hotel’s rating system. Unfortunately, the AirBnB rating system is not built that way! A four star review significantly and negatively impacts our overall rating, making it a challenge for hosts like us to maintain our listing and earn a living.”

You can tell your guests what each star rating actually means

Many guests are surprised to discover the issue with ratings. After all, through AirBnB’s own system, they are told to give 4 stars for a good experience, and 5 stars for a great one. They have no idea that too many 4 star reviews and their favorite summer getaway will no longer be available due to suspension.

Some hosts do not want to get into the business of trying to educate their guests, or feel that discussing ratings or AirBnB’s shortcomings is tacky. I understand that, and it’s up to each host to figure out their own comfort level and approach. We simply leave a one-page rating explanation in our home manual. We figure newbies and blue hairs are the ones reading it anyway, and they’re most likely the ones that need the information the most.

Finally, the last approach to ensure you get reviewed positively is to leave positive reviews. AirBnB has a ‘blind’ review system, where both guest and host can’t see what one has written about them until they write their own review. So, it’s not like leaving a 5-star review for a guest will automatically lead to a 5-star review back. But, it does put out good review karma, and it shows any guest who is researching you that you’re the kind of host that gives out positive reviews.

(Some hosts will review their guests first, and then share the review with them privately. The hope here being that they, after seeing your positive, 5-star review for them, will reciprocate with the same for you. I personally don’t do this, as I feel that with all the other info and communication we provide adding this last plea pushes us over the edge in terms of driving the point home. But it does work for many other hosts.)

Being positive also comes into play when leaving public responses to feedback you’ve received. There will be reviews that are inaccurate, unfair, and the like. You can’t have them removed, but you can respond publicly. It’s best to respond in a calm, non-confrontational way.

Some people are drawn to confrontation and actively seek it out. If they see you being ornery and combative in response to someone else’s bad review, it could be a subconscious invitation for them to review you negatively after they stay with you. Negativity begets negativity and plus it’s just plain tacky to fight and quibble with guests publicly.

Some measured, appropriate responses I’ve seen and used are:

“Marcy reached out privately with some feedback. Although I don’t agree with a 4-star review for such small issues, I do appreciate her time and willingness to suggest improvements.”

“Thanks for your review! I’m sorry you didn’t have a 5-star experience. Next time, reach out to us during your stay so we can ensure you have the best stay possible.”

“Thank you for your review. In regards to your concerns mentioned in this review, I am honestly surprised as I had not realized that these situations occurred even when I had messaged you shortly after check in to see how you were settling in, and a day before check out to see if your stay was as best as it can be. As you did not reflect that to me, I had not been given the opportunity to remedy the situation and better your stay. And for that, I apologize as my goal as a host is to be attentive and responsive to my guests’ needs. This shows through my multiple 5-star reviews and 100% response rate. However, going forward, I would definitely recommend that you reach out to your AirBnB host DURING your stay if you have any concerns that would affect it, as this will not only give you the chance to get your money’s worth, but it will also give your host a chance to improve it.”

Guests do read up on hosts, and if you present yourself as a kind, positive, unflappable host, then hopefully you attract the same quality of person in a guest.

The AirBnB community is growing at an exponential rate, which means that there are increasingly more and more people who’ve never participated in the sharing economy and have no frame of reference beyond staying in a hotel. It’s imperative to our success as hosts that we clearly set our guest’s expectation regarding their stay, and clearly communicate our desire to provide nothing short of 5-star service.

If we can do that, then we’re all superhosts.

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