During these past two months, while we have been safe at home, we have also had a view into some of the greatest demonstration and impact of leadership. The type of leadership that defines a nation, a state, a community, a brand and even a person is in full view.
It is natural to imagine that this reference is to the political leadership that has been so front and center. To be expected, there are intense points of view about how our government leaders are performing. However, I am even more in tune with the ways that leaders are showing up in a very personal way.
When the stay at home order first started, panic and fear set in with palpable intensity. To the extent that any comfort could be found in information, leadership in those early days felt more like the emergency exit plan was activated and we were in the hands of those most qualified to lead us to safety.
As a new routine settled in, this sense of urgency also seemed to settle. The reality we confronted was everything from how to school our children to how to procure food that would allow for minimum grocery store visits. It was in these weeks that brand leadership became more apparent.
There are a few examples of a brand leadership that have influenced my view of companies that clearly embody the values they market rather than simply using marketing in an effort to sell their products.
Walking the walk
It happened that in the days the country was shutting down, my son and I were to leave for our annual ski trip to Colorado. It was confusing to know what to do and if we were overreacting by considering canceling in the days before mandates were in place prohibiting travel.
Without having to call or email or live chat, I received a series of updates from Delta Airlines that our flights would be changed and then, ultimately, canceled. The final email was a notice that a full refund had been issued and by the next day this credit showed on my American Express account. A great demonstration of actionable leadership.
In contrast, I decided to try a VRBO rental rather than a hotel this year. Despite all of the reasons that travelers were unable to keep their plans, it turns out that VRBO only verifies that rentals are legitimate and as advertised but leaves any specific policies, like cancellations and refunds, up to owners.
In taking this approach, VRBO left each traveler to negotiate with each individual property owner. Well, it’s not hard to guess how this has played out. Not only for me but, according to the thousands of complaints online, VRBO, a subsidiary of Expedia, a publicly traded company, left its brand in the hands of individuals who have no invested interest in what happens beyond their own pockets.
There was no real customer support for travelers, no reasonable policy other than encouraging their property owners to consider a future credit or a 50% refund.
The result has been full-on outrage and frustration. Beyond the time and energy invested in trying to convince the property owner of the unit that I reserved to grant a refund, I also purchased travel insurance. Of course, this claim has been denied and no refund will be granted. The final concession offered was Spring 2021 dates, which I have agreed to though that hasn’t overcome this negative experience. In addition, VRBO and CSA, the travel insurance company, refunded their service fees.
For me, this was too little too late. These refunds likely cost companies lots of money but offer no real value relative to their failure to support their customers.
In comparison, there are rave reviews of Airbnb, the top competitor of VRBO. A privately owned company, Airbnb immediately stepped in to make travelers whole. By March 11, its “Extenuating Circumstances Policy” was posted, which afforded their travelers immediate relief by issuing full refunds.
The company pledged monetary support for property owners with a $250 million relief fund to help offset revenue lost due to cancellations.
Rather than leave the reputation of their brand in the hands of the consumer experience, they stepped into leadership.
This matters beyond the customer experience. A 2012 Forbes article by Glenn Llopis points to a survey that revealed the degree to which employees want to be a part of a workplace culture that emphasizes a consistent demonstration of alignment with actions and values.
Truth delivery is demonstrated in targets, tasks, company status and direction, and character. When clear and genuinely transparent communication occurs in the workplace, trust is established, which causes employees to thrive and leads to unity in the organization.
The impact of leadership will matter in the recovery from COVID-19. The brands we stay with, those we leave, where employees choose to work and how the choices made during this time of crisis revealed true character – all of this will prevail.
Dorie Fain is the founder and CEO of &Wealth, a boutique financial advisory firm dedicated to helping women who are recreating their lives, with offices in New York City and Baltimore.