Last week, my partner, Jason, and I celebrated our third year of owning a vacation rental, Sonoma Creek Getaway. Little did we know the experience would be a lesson in customer experience, remodeling, city bureaucracy, and surviving fires, both the 2019 Sonoma fires and the most frightening one for me, the 2017’s Tubb’s fire that we managed to escape, barely. I will write about the escape after we get through the 2020 fire season…don’t want to jinx anything after COVID!
Every founder of a company can probably admit they never imagined they would encounter so many roadblocks, no’s, moments of wanting to quit and just pure exhaustion…but through perseverance, there is hope.
After 8 months of red tape, gutting, and fire repair, we were finally able to obtain our license and open our doors on Airbnb and VRBO. This is where Customer Experience (CS) comes into play. Putting yourself in your customer’s shoes shouldn’t be an afterthought when you are building any kind of business.
Just like tech, vacation rentals, and any other industry, you will always have a competitor – it can be a home-grown application, product, or stay-cation that you compete against. Regardless of your passion or profession, how do you stand out from the rest and ensure customers will select your services and keep coming back?
Start with the Customer Experience.
What is the customer experience (CX) anyway?
I define CX as the whole customer journey, from the moment a prospect identifies they have a problem to solve or a vacation they want to take in my business example through to becoming a customer and then a raving fan or the opposite – an unhappy, ranting social media customer.
In the vacation rental example, when the customer googles “vacation rental Sonoma 3 bedroom” how does your business land on top of the search engine results page when you are competing with 1899 other vacation homes (yes this is the exact number of permitted rentals in Sonoma today!) and countless hotels in the area?
Here are 3 key takeaways you can apply to your own business as you think about building a customer-centric, 5-star business.
1. Start with Your Vision and Values
You can’t be everything to everyone and neither can your business. Write a vision for your business and 2-5 values that are core to you and your customers. For us, our vision is creating a serene getaway for people seeking refuge from the chaos of life.
Our values are simple:
Obsess Over Details: Think through every detail about the customer experience. While books have been written about not sweating the small stuff, in a competitive industry, that advice rings false. Little things matter to people who are seeking a 5-star vacation.
This means replying to an inquiry within hour(s), having a digital guide ready to send before the engagement, and a human touch during the experience. In my example, that means a property manager to greet the guests, chilled wine in the summer, a rich red in the winter, and sparkling water in the fridge…along with good coffee and tea available for the next morning.
Create Maximum Impact: We make sure our guests have the best experience possible by again, putting ourselves in their shoes.
Mountain bikes available, the swim spa warm, music playing, floors heated, winery, chef and restaurant recommendations in-hand, and top of the line everything for the best sleep and fun possible. Several of our guests emailed us after their stay and asked where we bought the beds and linens because they had never slept so well. This is what you want to create!
“Experiences they cannot stop thinking about recreating.”
Define your target market and stick to it. You cannot be everything to everyone. So stop trying. We don’t have auto-booking available. We request people apply to stay at the getaway home and for good reasons:
We have toured the party homes in Sonoma and we don’t want to be ‘that house’ – run down and sloppy. We also don’t want to risk losing our license or our reputation. Nor do we want to risk having our life savings trashed. Most importantly, we want to preserve the experience for people who are seeking serenity in the mountains while enjoying the close proximity to nearby wineries and restaurants.
At first, I feared losing maximum potential earnings by not allowing auto booking for our rental. I even felt great pressure from both VRBO and Airbnb to allow it by claiming I could make so much more…they also send messages telling us we should lower our prices to be more competitive. Have they ever experienced our home? How would they know?
What I have learned by sticking to our core vision and values is that we have the right clientele who are not only achieving their end goals, rest, and relaxation, but they are also acting as our marketing machines. Many have even become repeat customers, have sent their friends to our home and we have maintained a 5-star rating across over 100+ parties for over 2 ½ years now by staying true to our values and vision.
2. Know your competitors
We know all the vacation rentals on our street, we know the average prices and amenities offered in our vicinity of Kenwood, CA and we regularly adapt to local events, demand, seasonality, and other conditions. By keeping a constant pulse on the economic factors, we are able to attract our target market while maintaining the customer experience.
The most pompous business leaders will say they do not have competitors. I have worked for them. The most successful on the other hand will name them in their quarterly reports. A good example is Salesforce – they opening name their competitors. If you live in San Francisco, or anywhere near the city, you will know they are doing quite well. Stay humble and know your competitors. It keeps you hungry.
3. Customer Marketing is key for your growth
How can you depend on viral customer marketing (that is your customers doing the marketing for you) if you aren’t focused on your customer experience? This brings me back to my thesis:
I repeat, start with the customer experience.
Go through your ‘customer’s day in the life’ – that means acting on feedback and constantly seeking to improve. Your customers may rant publicly, privately, or by not commenting at all. Be worried about all of them. Ask them for feedback. If you are a founder of a company or a leader of any organization, you should be reaching out to your customers for feedback.
Either Jason or I (or our sit-in if we are away) meet our guests at the house and if they arrive late at night, we meet the next day or facetime them through the house (hey not everyone knows how to use a Sonos, keyless entry or swim spa and that is OKAY). In software-as-a-service (SaaS), customer engagement within the first few hours after signing the agreement is KEY. The immediate AHA moment is also important in any customer engagement. Think of Wal-Mart, Tiffany’s, and other places- they pay people to have an instant exchange with their clients the moment they walk into the store.
Hopefully, companies are realizing just how much their customer voice matters, and are stepping back from their business to act on their customer needs and feedback before making a decision. If you create a meaningful exchange with your customers from the beginning of their search to fulfill their need through to them achieving their end goal and needs, you are creating a win-win situation where they will always recommend you.
Final thoughts: CX isn’t a one-time ‘thing.’ It includes CONSTANT interaction with your customers. Too many companies collect feedback maybe once a year and don’t do anything about it from a product or CX experience and then wonder why renewals are down.
What are you doing to ensure your customers are getting the best customer experience and in return, building your company or perhaps ‘side’ business into a growth engine?