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Customer service in the sharing economy: a delicate balance

The sharing economy is a whole new beast. This is the economy by which people use their own cars to give rides or deliver food or packages, rent out extra bedrooms to travelers or for storage space, and sometimes sell meals to people who are looking for something home-cooked, among other things. Perhaps it’s better known as the platform economy, because pretty much all the workers have to do is sign up through various platforms to get paid employment walking strangers’ dogs, renting out their bikes, and more.

It’s cool that people can make money on their own schedule, using their own resources, doing stuff other people really need. But it also raises questions. Each service provider also represents the platform, and is responsible for face-to-face customer service. We’ve heard nightmare stories about some rideshare companies. But what about the driver who rains down political opinions throughout the drive? Or the crabby Airbnb host? Or the food delivery person who shows up, glassy-eyed, missing two of the items you ordered? Have they been trained? Or is it ‘survival of the fittest,’ with customer reviews deciding which platforms live or die by the quality of their service? How is customer service handled in this new economy?

Curious to find out, I contacted a number of companies—including some well-known platforms—and said, “Hey, how do you handle customer service at your sharing economy company?” Most of the companies I contacted ignored me, until I wrote a second or third time, at which point they said: “We decline to be involved in your story.”

I thought that was kind of weird. After all, when companies are doing something well, they usually jump at the chance to tell a journalist about it. It made me wonder if maybe the sharing economy hasn’t figured out the customer service part yet. Companies that make customer service central to the mission tend to want the whole world to know how rigorous they are about building a culture of service—one which includes training and holding service providers accountable.

Companies that make customer service central to the mission tend to want the whole world to know how rigorous they are about building a culture of service.

Walking a tightrope

Companies outside the sharing economy tend to have a very defined relationship with their employees and are looking for specific skills and qualities in a customer service team, whereas the bond between sharing platforms and service providers can be tenuous, and expected to be low-maintenance. Platform-employed service providers are attracted by the promise: “Sign up today, make money tomorrow”—you won’t see Ritz-Carlton using that approach or motto.

Moreover, sharing economy platforms can’t behave too much like a traditional employer without triggering all kinds of Equal Employment Opportunity rules and Department of Labor regulations. For example, companies can't require training without possibly being recategorized as employers. They can offer training—and some do—but many service providers may not want to spend their own time on training without an incentive to do so.

Finally, good customer service training and accountability can be expensive, and it’s a questionable investment for people who don’t have a real commitment to the organization. On the other hand, if those providing the service do a poor job, the chances of that platform succeeding are pretty slim. It’s a conundrum. Sharing economy companies walk a fine line in customer service.

Rules that are more like guidelines

Many platforms have created online communities for their service providers to share helpful suggestions about how to be good at the job, and thus maximize personal revenues. For example, HomeAway, a vacation rental company, provides guidelines and tips to help homeowners and property managers create listings that will attract more customers. And they have a team of Partner Success Managers who provide individualized help and training to owners on topics such as providing great experiences, earning reviews, and

Laura Howell, HomeAway’s senior director of partner success, said the company has a dashboard for each owner. It helps them manage bookings and communicate with travelers, but it also includes personalized recommendations on how hosts can generate more bookings and provide great experiences for their guests.

[Also read: How to earn your stars and be a good Airbnb customer]

HomeAway offers personalized recommendations for how hosts can generate bookings and provide great guest experiences.

Other platforms seem to mostly create a repository for customer service wisdom and hope that service providers will study it in order to make more money. Dutch ridesharing company Toogethr’s blog is direct with its advice: “Don’t be late, don’t talk on the phone while you’re sharing a ride, don’t eat smelly food in the car you’re sharing, and don’t be a back seat driver.”

Rover.com, a platform for dog sitters and walkers has a blog with more detailed information about how to treat customers—both human and canine—that includes tips like: “Share stories that show the dog’s personality, or make sure you fit in time for the dog’s favorite games or treats. This is especially important if you’re caring for multiple dogs.”

Also this advice: “Always leave a home in the same or better condition than you arrived in it. Little touches can really help earn that 5-star review: washing the dog’s bowls, taking the trash out on your way out, or leaving a thank-you note on the counter on the last day of the stay. Little gestures = big impact.”

Providing ongoing content at least offers an opportunity for people interested in being great at customer service to access useful tips and directions. Some people are naturally inclined to do an awesome job and maybe have been trained how to do so in other jobs. But what about those who aren’t doing so hot?

Guidelines are tough to enforce

Under the legal relationship between sharing economy platforms and their providers, quality control can get tricky. Customer service is difficult, as anyone who does it for a living can attest. And if no one is in charge besides the customer, that makes promising top quality a challenge.

Uber drivers, for example, do not have to take a training class. But the company has made customer service training courses available for a fee. While the company can’t require drivers to take the course as a matter of employment, it does have the power to deactivate drivers who are getting poor reviews. That driver may try to sign on and find that they can’t, their path to making money suddenly blocked. Then, to have driving privileges reactivated, Uber can require drivers to take customer service training.

While the company can't require drivers to take the course as a matter of employment, it does have the power to deactivate drivers who are getting poor reviews. That driver may try to sign on and find that they can't, their path to making money suddenly blocked.

Often, companies will offer a guarantee to customers and require service providers to agree to support that guarantee. “It’s not always easy to provide consistent customer care in sharing economy-style businesses where you have lots of different players on two sides of a marketplace,” said HomeAway’s Howell. “So having strong guarantees and 24/7 customer support is really important.”

[Also read: 5 questions to ask customers to improve your customer support]

Testing what works

Zaarly started as a company that was a cross between home services, Etsy, and Freshly. In other words, people on the platform might make customers a pie, or a jacket, or fix their leaking roof. Now, the company focuses on working with small businesses to provide home services, backed by sturdy guarantees. The company thoroughly vets providers, including meeting with them in person and talking to past customers. Zaarly’s whole proposition is laid out on their website with honest language around challenges the company has faced: “When we started this journey, we honestly thought it would be much easier than it has been. How hard is it to show up on time and do the job you said you would do?” Or this one: “Being honest doesn’t mean ‘not currently lying’.”

Founder and CEO Bo Fishback explained, “We're currently piloting a $100 no-show program where if a service provider misses an appointment they get fined $100 and we pass that directly onto the customer. But you can really only do that kind of thing if you have the pieces in place to drive accountability in your marketplace.”

Fishback said he was surprised how low expectations are for home service providers, though he suspects they get progressively lower

“The higher the cost and more real the risk is, the more customers hesitate before making a decision to hire someone or purchase something. You can handle a bad 10-minute ride in a Lyft or an Uber... it's annoying, but you'll be fine in all but the absolute worst situations. The bigger the cost gets, the more information you have to share with someone you don't know. And the bigger the cost of failure is, the more thought and consternation customers should (and do) apply.”

When a solvable problem arises—such as a small business doing a great job until they get to a certain threshold of customer demand—Zaarly will step in and help the provider sort out the problem.

“We have no problem pausing businesses on Zaarly, and digging in to their business with them, to give them time to catch up, invest in systems, hire new folks or whatever they need to do to grow without sacrificing service, which can look very different depending on the business we are working with,” Fishback said.

HomeAway, too, has a marketplace standards team tasked with making sure everyone on their sites (which also includes VRBO and Abritel in France) are providing a great experience to travelers, Howell said. “That means monitoring for complaints, providing opportunities for improvement and—in rare cases—removing listings that don’t meet our standards,” she explained. “But like lots of other services, reviews are the most accurate way of predicting the quality of your experience. We also encourage travelers to look for properties that have a ‘Premier Partner’ badge at the top of the listing—these are properties that have a proven history of providing exceptional experiences to guests.”

That seems to be a favorite strategy of sharing economy platforms: giving preferential treatment to exceptional service providers as a way of rewarding excellent customer service, and without breaching the legal arrangement between the parties. So a particularly great pet care person might be featured in a blog. Airbnb has “super hosts” and Lyft has a tiered system of perks for drivers.

In fact, the sharing economy is still being built, even as it grows and employs providers. It’s the classic case of building the aircraft in mid-air. As society continues to evolve, accountability and reward for great customer service changes too, even among more traditional companies. Sharing economy companies just have more to deal with, balancing a libertarian business model with the need to meet customer expectations that are often formed by more traditional models of business.

In other words, it’s still a grand experiment.