Nearly two years ago, Wouter Geerts, published in Skift, flagged the growing prominence of the short-term rental industry in relation to one of its key players: ‘Often labeled as one of the biggest disruptors in the travel industry, Airbnb has moved into the mainstream’. The sharing economy platform is the prime example of a disruptor. A mover and a shaker coming into an ecosystem, offering a completely new product/solution/experience and changing the way the industry operates in the long-term. Except it was more than that as Airbnb spawned a whole new industry, fuelling the exponential growth that we are now seeing in the short-term rental space today. 

Going full circle, the Skift Short-Term rental summit in New York in December 2019 was all the proof we needed that this industry is significant, evolving and enticing investors from other sectors. But it’s still in its infancy in terms of growth and the landscape is still ripe for disruption. That is why PillowTalk Media wants to interview those companies which we feel are not only the new/newish kids on the block but also those which have the potential to change the geography of our landscape in the near future.

In this interview with Jacob Wedderburn-Day, we ask him about Stasher and the issue of trust in relation to our industry and specifically to companies looking to expand in this space. Trust has long been a buzzword in travel but how exactly is it won and lost in practical business terms? As with many of the issues facing our industry, it often comes down to guest/customer experience and how a company performs in positive and negative situations – Jacob explains how he’s trying to get it right, from the very start.

PTMIn your experience, how have the changes in the way we travel impacted on the issue of trust in our industry?

J. W-D – The issue of trust in the travel industry has never been more important than now. Thanks to new technologies and the sharing economy, we now trust total strangers to drive us across cities, host us in their homes and (in the case of my company, Stasher) safeguard our belongings. Trust is what makes services like this possible, but it is also one of the biggest concerns new customers have about using them. 

When we founded Stasher back in 2015, a platform where people can store their luggage in shops and hotels worldwide, we prioritised building a service that generates trust. People are anxious enough entrusting companies with personal data, let alone with their personal property. 

As Stasher has evolved, trust has always been the brand value we have cared about the most. Travelling can be a stressful and unpredictable experience, which is why it is so essential for travel businesses to win customer trust early and reassure customers that they are in safe hands. In travel, we are generally selling services and experiences, so it is also important to maintain that trust throughout the experience and beyond.

As businesses in travel, particularly new businesses, our key question should always be how do we gain customer trust and more importantly, how do we keep it?

PTM – What is the best indicator of customer trust in the industry?

J.W-D- Reviews are one way of measuring trust in a travel brand. In a global advertising study by Nielsen, online reviews came third as the form of media most trusted by consumers (with recommendations from ‘people I know’ and branded websites as first and second).

Trust in reviews has seen a minor decline in recent years. I believe this is due to the prevalence of fake reviews. Which? recently ran a high-profile campaign about fake reviews. They found that 97% of UK adults use online customer reviews when researching a purchase, but they also flagged a number of ways that online sellers were tricking Amazon and Facebook’s system and artificially inflating their review scores. Tripadvisor is the holy grail of reviews to many travel businesses, yet the travel association ABTA cited that trust in its unverified review system had fallen by as much as 25% in 2018.

I’m a big believer in verified reviews. Almost all businesses publish reviews, but verified review systems e.g. Trustpilot, Which? and Feefo (which we use) add the dimension that reviews are made by genuine customers.

Bad reviews shouldn’t be something you want to hide. Firstly, they are an opportunity to learn from customer criticism and secondly they demonstrate publicly your commitment to customer service. On a number of occasions at Stasher, initially disappointed customers have become ambassadors due to the level of the customer support they received during or after their experience.

PTM – How can new businesses – disruptors – build up trust in their brand?

Firstly, as a new brand, one of the best things you can do to improve your trust profile is to partner with bigger brands. In part, this is because they improve your visibility — big distributors like Airbnb and Booking.com can help you reach massive audiences. But I see the real value of co-branding being the implied trust in your own brand. For Stasher, a major milestone was our partnership with Premier Inn. The UK’s largest hotel brand is a well-respected name in travel. It should be of no surprise that conversion rates across Premier Inns on Stasher.com are among the highest on our platform.

In the Nielsen study I mentioned above, branded websites came second, scoring higher than online reviews as a trust factor. This is a strong testament to the value of co-branding.

This is why I love working in the travel industry because businesses in our industry are always so willing to make referral partnerships. We understand the time-sensitive nature of customer intent and we refer customers to each other at their time of need. Referrals from a trusted brand can be the equivalent of a referral from friends and family if they have already won their customers’ trust.

Secondly, having appropriate security procedures in place was essential for Stasher (we model our security protocol on a hotel check-in, use Stripe’s radar software to fraud-check payments and we have insurance powered by the excellent Guardhog), but the point can be generalised across all travel businesses. Beyond the word of other customers and the implied support of bigger brands, customers like to have detailed information about your service. Providing these specs in a clear, factual and reassuring manner is fundamental. For accommodation providers, this means going into detail about the layout, amenities and environment of the property. You can’t provide too much detail. If customers see it and don’t read it, that is a far better outcome than if they look for it, can’t find it, and mentally note their disappointment.

Thirdly, if your business relies (at least in part) on customers making direct bookings, then the importance of designing your technology cannot be understated. I’m talking less about its aesthetic graphic appeal, and more about the user experience flow. Can customers navigate from landing page to checkout easily? Can they find all the information they need, without getting lost?

Joe Gebbia, Airbnb’s cofounder and CPO, gave a great TED Talk on this topic. He describes how a well-designed reputation system is important for building trust. Joe also cites the importance of reviews (10 reviews, apparently, is the tipping point).

As the old adage goes, it is far easier to break trust than build it. Confusing flows, bugs and errors, even just slow load speed (the majority of customers will be using mobile) can be all it takes to lose a customer and all their future referrals.

PTMOnce customer trust has been invested in a start-up business what standards should you set to keep that trust?

J.W-D – Once the customer has made their purchase, you have gained their trust. Now you must fulfil it. This is the simplest point of all, but there are two things to keep in mind.

A lot has been written over the years on customer delight. Branson sums it up nicely when he says ‘The key is to set realistic customer expectations, and then not to just meet them, but to exceed them — preferably in unexpected and helpful ways’. I have written before about the virtues of going the extra mile for customers. Quality of service is everything.

Despite your best efforts, things sometimes go wrong. If your quality of service is not up to standard, the important thing is to deliver proper aftercare. You need to ‘honour customers’ perceived contract, not the company’s legal contract’ — Leonard Berry. Generosity builds trust, but stinginess destroys it.

The second standard to set in order to maintain trust, is speed of support. It isn’t just the quality of customer support, it’s the speed. Chatbots can seem like a saving grace in terms of providing instant responses to queries, but to customers experiencing a problem they are the antithesis of personal, caring service. Prioritise having a responsive support set-up (ideally 24/7). I know from experience of the times we have and haven’t delivered rapid support how critical this is to keeping trust. 

The final word…

Implementing these practices may have been strenuous at first, but as a result, Stasher has grown to become the most trusted sharing economy network for luggage storage globally. It has earned us the 2018 and 2019 Gold Trusted Service award from Feefo, along with an average 4.7/5 customer experience rating from 17000 plus reviews. Trust made this possible.