The Extra Mile: Customer Service and the Sharing Economy

The sharing economy has enabled millions of consumers to access tangible, real-world objects such as cars, tools, designer clothes, and vacation rentals. This phenomenon is often described in tech circles as “bits controlling atoms.” The proliferation of broadband wireless connectivity and mobile technology in recent years has reduced the constraints of time, space, and information that were barriers to access in the past. However, the boom in apps and services connecting peers to a sharing economy has larger implications than the technology itself. These platforms have forced brands to consider the larger ecosystem beyond their mobile app or Web interface that includes the actual service delivery experience. Sharing economy companies that are serious about protecting their brand in a market with zero switching cost must account for the customer journey and the customer service infrastructure that supports their offline “atomic” brand experience.

A breakdown in the customer experience is a pain point that every brand has to deal with. How a company responds to the breakdown has a major influence over customers’ perceptions. Sharing economy brands are faced with more crucial service delivery issues than server up-time or 404 errors. They rely on a network of third parties that can make or break impressions of their brand. Without adequate methods for addressing customer service issues, brands risk losing repeat business to competitors who invest in better systems for “error handling.”

On a recent trip to Puerto Rico, the need for a simple way to resolve issues through a peer-to-peer service became glaringly obvious when I ran into problems with a vacation rental booked through TripAdvisor. When I arrived, the apartment was visibly dirty and it was clear it hadn’t been cleaned, so I contacted the owner who advised me to file an official complaint with TripAdvisor. That’s when the trouble began.

After combing through the mobile site for several minutes trying to find a contact number, I learned that TripAdvisor has no easily accessible customer service line. Instead they direct people to the number of their corporate offices, which provided an after-hours message with instructions to call back during normal business hours. The next logical step for most customers is to visit the website’s help center. However, topics in the online help center are labeled and grouped in confusing ways. Burying instructions for how to resolve issues with a rental booking under “Site Features > Instant Booking” isn’t a user-friendly way of organizing key information. Even the search results for “customer service” and “contact phone number” in the site’s Help Center didn’t provide clear, simple information for how to get in touch with the company.

Furthermore, I’m not alone. There are entire websites dedicated to helping people navigate the gaps in TripAdvisor’s customer service and sharing reviews of the company’s customer service experience. A more clearly defined information architecture for the site’s support content based on common search queries would help facilitate easier access to helpful content for users. Even a simple, low-tech solution like a toll-free number for after-hours support would seem like a no-brainer for a company that operates in the 24-7 world of online peer commerce. But it was nowhere to be found on the website.

The point I want to illustrate by sharing my experience with TripAdvisor is the sharing economy isn’t just defined by online transactions. It’s also defined by the customer experience. E-tailers have worked for years to overcome the challenges of “the last mile,” a logistics term used to describe the effort required to overcome time and distance to get goods into the hands of consumers. But no one will think less of Amazon, eBay, or Alibaba if the products they deliver are a disappointment. They will, however, have a lesser opinion of any brand that doesn’t help them resolve their issues with easily accessible customer service contact info and simple ways to resolve issues.

Brands operating in the sharing economy must implement safeguards and affordances that support the entire customer experience. Directing customers to a phone line that only gives them an after-hours message is a dead-end within the customer journey that can only breed frustration. Content and features that support fast feedback based on customers’ experience are a crucial component to any brand that depends on third parties to deliver its services. Although platform providers like TripAdvisor can’t always be held responsible for the quality of the customer experience their network of service providers offer, they can implement policies and systems to ensure that experience doesn’t negatively impact customers’ perceptions of their brand.

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