When Following The Numbers Goes Horribly Wrong
Booking.com’s practices and user experience is a great example of what not to follow as a start up.
Last week I tried booking.com’s apartment booking for the first time.
What happened next lead me to writing this piece that was first titled “How Booking.com’s Horrible UI Tricked Me Out Of $70”.
Needless to say I wasn’t thrilled with the results.
I have used booking.com for hotels/guest houses and share houses multiple times and never had a complaint.
I am even a member of their genius program.
So I am very used to the way their website works for booking hotels.
What you see is what you get.
No hidden fees, no mumbo jumbo.
At least that’s what I thought.
I assumed Apartments were the same deal, but that’s where I was wrong(and not just me, apparently).
Search Page: Seemingly Nothing Wrong
You search apartments, and you can arrange them in whichever way you like. (I prefer score and price, or even lowest price first, as I’m broke, but that’s just me).
Nothing wrong here, you think.
Then click through on the result that you like, and it shows up like a hotel room, again, there seems to be nothing wrong here.
Except, there is something wrong here.
Something fundamentally wrong with the price plastered all over it, in 4 different places, and even shown in the search.
None of them are the actual price.
Booking.com considers the cleaning fee apartment owners have for their listings on booking.com an “excluded fee” (if only that meant that it was “excluded” from my credit card bill), but includes VAT and taxes in the prices listed.
But okay, at least when you click through to reserve, the real price of the property will be apparent, right?
Actually it gets worse.
This is what greeted me above the fold of the booking page:
Seems pretty straight forward, right?
My price summary, with a nice and big price that seems to summarize the total price I have to pay.
What I didn’t notice at the time, was the nasty “excluded charge” section that was hidden below the fold, with no attempt whatsoever to stand out or inform me that HEY, THERE’S ACTUALLY A SIZABLE EXTRA CHARGE HERE, which you might want to inform potential customers about, lest they get upset and write a complainy blog post like this.
Not to mention, “excluded charge” sounds more like booking.com is giving me a special deal on a price that normally includes this charge, than a nasty surprise you’re going to tag onto the total without having to mention it before checkout.
This is the LAST page where you actually book and commit to staying in a place, and they are still showing very unclear pricing, although finally the cleaning fee appears above the fold.
Still horrible user experience.
I found an apartment normally listed for ~$200 for about $60 and some change and wanted to treat myself before someone else caught the deal first.
(It was a same day booking.)
Even in my overview of bookings it shows up for the price I first thought that I got.
And this is from the email reminder of my booking:
The actual price was in fact not, 6,645 yen or anything even close. The cleaning fee of 8,000 yen pushed the price for the night to 14,645, the price of a night at a pretty good Tokyo hotel, with breakfast included.
“Nobody Scammed You, You Are Just An Idiot”
I sure felt like an idiot right after it happened.
And at first I thought I might be the only one to make this kind of mistake.
But then I saw this in the follow-up mail from the property.
This is the standard follow up email for this property, and they feel the need to include this to reduce their customer support workload.
I am guessing this is something they deal with fairly often.
Then I did some Googling, and I found articles like this one covering the exact same problem, but for multiple sites.
And honestly even if I was an idiot it’s Booking.com’s literal job to make sure things like this don’t happen often enough for a user of their service to employ a hacky fix like the one shown above, idiot end user or not.
Look, I am not trying to make a legal case here that they scammed me out of my hard earned money.
This is simply meant as a not-so-friendly (because you ran off with my hard-earned cash, go figure) reminder to fix your damn user experience.
Why? How Did Their UX Get Here?
So that leads us with the question, why on earth is their UX even like this in the first place?
The answer is fairly simple, following the numbers.
I am willing to bet my lunch that they simply tested different pricing models, and found that this interface “performed better”.
Sure, making it seem like an apartment is cheaper than it is might appear
That’s the problem with following the numbers.
Sometimes Numbers Don’t Show The Whole Picture
You made a change to X and your clickthroughs, conversions and sales are up this month?
That doesn’t always automatically mean that keeping that change is the right decision.
I might have ended up booking a more expensive place than usual through Booking, giving them a heftier commission, but that’s all peanuts compared to the value of me as a Booking.com user for life, (which is what they lost as a result of this whole interaction).
A Note On Customer Service
I was at work when I noticed my mistake, and didn’t have the opportunity to wait on the line to reach a customer service rep and then try to argue them into doing the right thing, so I sent a brief message about my problem and that I’d like to cancel if possible, and left it at that.
The next day, this is all I got:
They obviously didn’t even scan the contents to see what my complaint actually was about, this was just an automated reply informing me that I should have called.
I don’t like calling customer service (and I know I’m not the only one), and honestly I shouldn’t have to.
The whole process of having people answer phone calls seems a lot more complicated than having someone answer a short message from someone with a confirmed booking in less than 24 hours(not that hard to segment, honestly, it’s 2018).
Nobody actually has to be available at the actual time the message is sent in, and if one person doesn’t have the expertise to deal with it, the person that does have that expertise doesn’t have to be immediately available either.
The reason the emergency calling is in place, is probably because it deters a lot of emergency service requests, and lowers the overall work load (and cost of labor) because obviously, calling has a much higher barrier to entry than just sending a message.
Not only are they doing the pricing on their terms, following the numbers that “convert”, they are also doing their customer service on their terms as well, again, likely “following the numbers”.
This is what a “numbers centric” user experience feels like, I guess.
Every OTA Is The Same, Booking.Com Needs To Do It To Compete
This is just wrong.
In fact, one of the reasons I prefer to use Booking.com is because they include taxes and VAT in their prices during the search, unlike Agoda, Hostelbookers and other OTAs that I’ve tried in the past.
An OTA that does the same thing that Booking does, but actually includes cleaning fees in the price all the way from search, to property page, to check out, is AirBNB.
Sadly, AirBNB doesn’t include the service fee in search, but Airbnb users will be familiar with that, and unlike with Booking.com, everything is actually included in every total you ever see.
Every other OTA is following the numbers and bordering on fraud as long as it increases short term profits, is not an excuse to do the same.
It is the exact reason why Booking or any OTA that wants to win in the long term should be consumer focused, protect their reputation, and be 100% clear with pricing from search, all the way to booking and check out.
Be respectable and transparent and you will gain customer loyalty you can take to the bank.
(Or if none of the OTAs are willing to do that, this leaves a gap in the market waiting to filled by one of the very hackers reading this post right now.
For any startups out there that want my business, or any other “idiot” end user’s business, month after month, year after year, for life, there are a few lessons here.
Numbers =/= Truth
The numbers don’t always show the whole picture of what your customers are actually experiencing and thinking.
Exactly how they are interacting with your service.
Routinely go through your own sales journey and check that everything makes sense, that you are not cutting corners anywhere.
Actually communicate with your customers and listen to them in ways that are completely unscalable (don’t take my word for it, listen to the co-founder of Linkedin, talk with the co-founder of AirBNB about this exact thing over at masters of scale.)
Transparency Is Key For Healthy Customer Relationships
I am not the first customer that has been burned by this lack of transparency, and I not going to be the last. (Unless this post inspires some change, which I highly highly doubt.)
Needless to say I am not thrilled with Booking.com, and I have begun using alternatives, and fishing around for something better.
Actual Customers First
It seems to me like Booking.com is caught up in their growth, trying to sell as many Hotels, and now apartment/condo/rental owners on their service as possible.
To do that, obviously better numbers, more bookings through their service, the easier the sell.
But that shouldn’t distract them from the end user.
At the end of the day, since Booking.com is a commission based model, not a subscription based, they are not getting paid by the hotels, they are getting paid by people like me, (through taking a cut from the hotel I’m staying at).
Hotels and apartment owners are invaluable business partners that Booking.com can’t exist without, but no business survives for long after it loses sight of it’s customers.