Airbnb: A Case Study in Broken Customer Trust

This might come across as a small annoyance in a sea of real problems in the world, and I’m cognizant of the fact that I’m complaining about a detail of a vacation — for the most part, I’m just excited about booking a vacation! However, I have to say, I’m really disappointed in a recent interaction I had with Airbnb and their customer service department.

Here’s what happened: I booked an “Instant Book” vacation rental with my family for next Christmas. The rental had a 6 night minimum stay, while our rental period was 8 nights. The booking was successfully processed, and my credit card was charged. A few hours after the booking, the host cancelled our reservation and updated his minimum stay policy for the month of December to 14 nights. That sucked, but ultimately we have lots of time to find other accommodation, and I totally understand wanting to maximize your vacation rental value over Christmas. About 10 minutes later, I received a phone call from “BJ” at Airbnb, who helpfully explained that the host had cancelled, and that I would be receiving a 10% credit for use on the next rental, following which, I received an email from BJ that confirmed the conversation we just had, in writing. This was really great customer service! I was not looking for a discount, I just assumed that flakey hosts were part of the experience when booking vacation rentals. Airbnb proactively reaching out to me to offer a credit meant that I was definitely going to stick with their platform when I booked the next rental for this trip.


Little did I know, my Kafkaesque interaction with Airbnb customer service had only just begun. Shortly thereafter, I was sent a second email with a link to rebook:

Weirdly, the credit amount was for only $200 and I didn’t understand why there was a difference. I thought that maybe this email was the default email whenever anyone cancels, and there might have been some mistake made by the case manager where he did not send out a new email rebooking link with the correct 10% amount. I figured since I had the support interaction in writing, I would worry about sorting out the difference between the two amounts when I actually chose to rebook, since it was not yet clear that I would end up finding a rental to book on Airbnb rather than booking privately or with some other rental service.

As it turned out, I did end up finding another rental on Airbnb (which also happened to be available through other booking engines). I wanted to use the credit, but I did not see a line item for the credit amount when I tried to make the booking, so I emailed the case manager.

Frustrating. Since I didn’t really know who to contact, and I did not want to lose the booking, I rebooked using the link in the default cancellation email. Following, I checked my booking receipt and noticed that I still wasn’t issued a credit.

The booking was originally listed at $3403 (hence the $1157 refund), however, the listed price on the rental was incorrect, and the price was adjusted by the renter such that the total price was $4877. No where did I see a credit line item. $3403 + $1474 = $4877, which was the total cost, $4560 + $1474 — $1157 = $4877 was the amount charged to my credit card.

I sent a question to Airbnb customer service asking them to investigate, receiving the following response:

After 8 days, I finally received a response from someone:

So, now I understood why there was a difference between the promised credit and the rebooking email, but frustratingly, Hillary claimed I had received the maximum credit, when I had not, in fact, received any credit at all (not to mention that Airbnb was retroactively communicating a policy that should have been clearly outlined at the time the 10% credit promise was made).

I wrote back a note, and patiently waited:

7 days later, I heard back from a case manager:

Note the line: “in cases where the next reservation is cheaper than the first one the credit of $200 is voided”

So, as it turns out, not only was the credit not 10%, it’s not even a credit unless you book a more expensive rental!

Furthermore, Airbnb is playing fast and loose with the facts because the new rental was actually more expensive than the original one since the price was adjusted to $4877. Unsatisfied with this answer, I wrote back.

Worse, any subsequent emails were bounced back by Airbnb’s customer service system.

This is how you lose the trust of your customers. Airbnb promised a 10% rebooking credit, and ultimately delivered no credit whatsoever. At best, their customer service agents were incompetent, at worst intentionally misleading, obfuscating the resolution of the issue by falsely claiming that the problem had been resolved, and not actually taking the time to investigate the case thoroughly. When someone finally managed to investigate the case seriously, they chose not to honor the customer promise, retroactively modified the nature of the promise by adding additional conditions that were not explicitly stated up front, and then rudely disengaged from the discussion. This is not how an honest or customer-focused business treats their customers.

Customer trust is the most important asset that any company has — this is especially true for a web-based commodity intermediary like Airbnb or Uber. Explicitly making a promise to the customer and then breaking it is much worse than having never offered the discount in the first place. Airbnb’s customer service agents turned a strongly positive experience into profoundly negative one over a trivial amount of money, through dishonestly, slow service, and an opaque customer support system. As customers, we should demand better.