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Rental tragedies repeating – the psychology of feedback

Sometimes as Vacation Rental owners, we blindly repeat the same little tragedy without realising it.

This is vividly illustrated by real experiences, as I found recently – three times – on a short holiday away.  I use them to explain the psychology underlying our behaviour around feedback.

Three – failed – feedback stories

In October we took 10 days off visiting a favourite place – Robe in South Australia, just half a day away. This time we stayed in Holiday/ Vacation Rentals, as we do whenever we can, this time two different houses and a motel on different hops along the way.

At each place we stumbled on an irritating problem, each different, each destined to be repeated for future guests over and over, due to the psychology of strangers.

The first rental was a charming old house, T Cottage on a big lot, plenty of grass for our little dog to explore, well fenced and a beautiful bed of welcoming flowers. Inside was spotlessly clean, freshly painted and with a welcoming packet of sweet biscuits. But something was wrong and very wrong!

There was a strong perfumed odour in the bedroom. Too strong. It was a vanilla coconut smell, the same as we use – sparingly – at our Sea Zen rental. In this case the owner had really overdone it. The house reeked of it. We opened the windows and doors, but the smell persisted. What? It looked like a very short stay. We would move within the hour, anything to escape this cloying reek. There had to be an explanation.

The culprit

On looking in corners, we found a bottle of scented oil, with little sticks that soaked up the oil and dispersed it into the air. With this taken outside we waited for the smell to disperse, but no change. What??
Further searches found another offending bottle hidden in another room, and another, and another! Finally with all four reeking bottles banished outside, the house became liveable again and we could stay the two nights we booked.

The owner was simply trying too hard to help and clearly had no idea that she was grossly overdoing a good thing. How many people had stayed and suffered and vowed never to return?

Next day – showdown.

We had breakfast at a local café run by the owner of our rental house. The host dashed out from the kitchen to greet us. She was charming and bright. “How did we find the house? Was the dog OK?” And then something happened, the way things usually go between people. We were polite.

We spoke about the welcoming flowers, the newly repainted interior, and …. “lovely, Oh, must dash” the owner disappeared back into the kitchen. The subject of the dreaded smelly bottles was never mentioned, not really the time or the place.

We did like the house and I wanted to thank the owner by letting her know she had some opportunities to improve the guest experience. A few things, like the smell, and a problem with the keys, problems operating the DVD.

6 ways we DID NOT give feedback

Back at the house, I wondered how best to politely let the owner know about these opportunities . I stumbled through 6 options and rejected them all:

1 Perhaps there was a feedback sheet? No, no feedback sheet.
2 The guest book? No, clearly it was just a place to say a polite thank you.
3 Perhaps another personal visit to the café? No, we were on holiday.
4 In a formal review on the Stayz booking site? No, over the top and damaging.
5 On a sheet of paper left behind in the kitchen? Would take a while to get the tone friendly and offering the advice positively, and didn’t have paper, so no.
6 An email? Perhaps, but maybe later, same effort to get the tone right ….no.

In the end, we said nothing, and like clockwork the whole cycle will be repeated. The house will be cleaned, the evil smelly bottles refilled, the next guests repulsed, no feedback mechanism and the owner still none the wiser. Repeat guest opportunities will be lost.

Different places, same core problem

The next place we stayed was a motel in the famous Coonawarra wine growing region, the home of some of our favourite red wines. The motel was struggling. Again a pleasant stay, very friendly staff, several opportunities to make our stay and the stay of other guests better, and no feedback system.

Our final stay was at C Lodge, a beautifully restored 1860’s house at the town of Port Fairy. No expense had been spared in the restoration, a tasteful blend of modern appliances, new kitchen and bathroom, and original floors, period furniture and beautiful stonework.

Again some rather irritating problems. In this case, bedside lights that didn’t work that led to some cussing from my wife, who stomped out after 5 minutes of frustration. It turns out they were inexpensive but complicated lights and poorly connected, so no way of reading in bed unless you spent 15 minutes crawling on the floor and experimenting. (O yes dear reader, I did crawl around and did get them going). The lights were one of four little problems, all simple, all that could have been easily fixed.

Again, a wonderful holiday rental, and no feedback system. Future sets of guests will repeat the same fight with the bedside lights, the same unnecessary frustration, the same lack of feedback system, the same lack of owner awareness.

The psychology of feedback – why the little tragedies repeat.

Feedback is a two edged sword. It can be seen be seen as confrontational criticism, but it is also a wonderful opportunity and all of this is overlaid by sensitive cultural differences.

Let’s be frank, no one likes open conflict. The adrenaline kicks in, the blood pressure rises, one thing can lead to another and whoosh, it’s on! Not the way to spend a holiday. It is far easier to walk away.

The harshest feedback is when the experience is truly appalling and others should be warned. These days, most booking providers like Homeaway have a review system, and sometimes a subtle or sharp criticism after leaving can be appropriate and perhaps satisfying.

But it is emotionally harder when the guest knows the owner is trying really hard to give a great experience and is just unaware of something that is very irritating.

A skilled guest can be diplomatic and helpful, but most of us find it difficult to be diplomatic and helpful. Diplomacy takes hard work, like the kiss, kick, kiss method. Do guests really want to spend their holiday agonising over ways to be diplomatic and helpful? No. They are on holiday. It is far easier to walk away and enjoy the next part of the holiday. THAT is why guests don’t bother to give feedback.

A smart owner knows that feedback is a priceless opportunity to improve the experience so guests will want to return.

A smart owner also knows how difficult it is psychologically for guests to offer feedback. So a smart owner will make it easy.

She will invite the guest to tell her about any problems. It may be on a form left behind. It may be face to face, a telephone call or an email. The guest knows there won’t be any conflict because the rules of the games are set – feedback is welcome.

Two ways we get guests to tell about their problems.

In our rentals we have two practical ways to make it easy for guests to give us feedback.

The first way is the personal approach. At our Sea Zen property, it is easy because we live on the same site. Although we don’t intrude, I can and do welcome the guests. Often I can also see them when they leave. In the early months after starting Sea Zen I made a point of talking with every guest as they left. I diplomatically invited feedback. ‘How were things? We were just wondering if there is there anything we might improve for other folks?’

And we got feedback, quite a lot. Polite, happy feedback. Useful feedback. I sometimes call guests after their stay too.

The second way we ask is through our very simple questionnaire. A few simple rating questions, and a few lines for problems. We have a questionnaire at all three of our properties, and it is particularly helpful for the two where we are not on site.

Our questionnaire

You can download the questionnaire here.

How feedback has changed our business

Do we get anything useful from guest feedback? Oh yes. Our guests have helped us fine tune each property. Here some examples of guest suggestions at Sea Zen:

Somewhere to store more food for longer stays. (yes staying longer is good, we installed a nice big pantry)
An extra fridge. (yes also helps stay longer, done).
A hook for robes in the bathroom. (done)
Fluffy towels. (done)
A spare towel. (done)
A safety light at the step at night. (done, and very important for safety)
Some fake grass for the dog on the veranda. (done)
A loose tap. (fixed)
Their rave about a good local food experience. (We made a Foodies Guide and included it there)
A few ants about. (fixed)
….. and another dozen things, all small, all of which we would never have known about.

Should you do everything your guests suggest? No. Each must be a business decision, a hardnosed trade-off between cost and whether you think it will help bring your guests back.

I still sometimes ask guests personally if there was anything they have missed. These days, they usually just say – ‘No you seem to have thought of everything. You have amazing attention to detail.’

Did WE really think up all this detail? No. Our guests told us.

Feedback as a screen for reviews

There is a another and most important role for feedback – a screen for Reviews.  Practically speaking, we owners we want as many reviews from happy guests as possible.

If you are actively inviting feedback, you will get a sense of whether your guests enjoyed their experience. Paradoxically, the ones who appreciate the holiday the most, will most want to help you. They will give you small suggestions and feedback. They will write in the guest book.

They will also be most receptive to giving you a good (and honest) review. Smart owners seek feedback and quickly capitalise on happy guests by requesting a review. Good marketing, good business.

If you are working towards Holiday Rental Mastery, a good feedback system is essential.

Please tell me about your experience!

Have you ever stayed in another Vacation Rental/ Holiday Rental and had an experience that drove you crazy that could have been easily fixed? Did you tell the owner? What is your own way of getting feedback?

Did you find this article useful?
If so, please share it with your friends in the rental industry. It also helps me grow my list.
Here is the link:  http://holidayrentalmastery.com/rental-tragedies-repeating-the-psychology-of-feedback/




9 Responses

  1. Great article Rex. I agree that utilising feedback from guests is a priceless opportunity.
    It has been a key part of our business, and been instrumental in helping us prioritise improvements.

  2. always useful. one thing you didn’t mention. after ‘done’.i always thank the clients and advise their suggestion has been implemented. kind regards. jan

  3. Thanks Fleur.
    From what I’ve heard of Liptrap Loft, I’m not surprised you are on top of the feedback stuff.

  4. Yes you are right about that, nothing worse than giving a suggestion that goes into a black hole.
    I’m certainly guilty of not getting back to guests on their suggestions 100% of the time, probably 70%. It’s hard when it may take weeks to decide to finally make a change, but you are right, it is no excuse. Something for me to improve on!

  5. Rex: Good article. I always ask for feedback after guests leave. Sometimes get lots but usually just a few lines. Mostly glowing and useful info about the area or things they have done. Sometimes things that need fixing, which we generally do. Biggest problem is getting on line reviews at HomeAway for FlipKey.
    Your comments about places you have stayed at reminded me of a recent stay in Amsterdam. Wonderful owner, great location and potentially an awesome 2 bed apartment apartment BUT… Only 1 partial roll of TP [ she did bring over some more], no Kleenex, no kitchen rolls, no shampoo/soap in one bathroom, only 5 nespresso capsules for 6 days and for 2 coffee drinkers, no other means of making fresh coffee [no close-by coffee house for early morning], dirty sofa AND terrible lighting in bathrooms [bad for wife doing make-up]. I contacted the owner afterwards with this list given constructively from an fellow owners point of view – she seemed to take it well, blamed cleaner. Such a shame but maybe Europeans have lower expectation than N. Americans [us].

  6. Thanks Ralph, you clearly get this, and ask for feedback ie set the rules – that feedback is welcome.

    You are also generous with your time as your story of feedback to the owner in Amsterdam shows.
    We need to sometimes be self aware that having high standards for ourselves, and being improvement orientated, it is hard to resist offering too much advice to the uncaring.
    Twenty years ago and before 9/11, the term ‘service terrorist’ was coined to describe a person with such high standards that they insisted on helping others improve. My wife sometimes warns me to let go of someone else’s improvement opportunity before I too become an ‘ST’….

  7. Good one Rex. I think I will but “ST” after my signature in addition to various academic things ;-). Funny thing, my wife is even more ST oriented and I have to reign her in when we go visit our apartments to check condition/cleaning state to preempt hostilities!! It is a challenge when you are 5000+ miles away & don’t get over ever month and you are dealing with people in 2 different cities. We have tried being constructive with advice/expectations and it seems to be working. Just been re-watching your segment on Antonio’s VRWS-2014 – good stuff. Thanks

Comments are closed.

My name is Rex Brown. I live in Australia, on the Great Ocean Road in Victoria. I run two of my holiday rentals here on the coast, and another in inner Melbourne . They are all quite different, but they all run at high occupancy. They are the sandpit that I play in, running constant experiments about what works and what doesn’t.


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