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Case Study: Uber - a Customer-Led Conundrum
The one where I impress my friends but nearly die. Twice.
I remember the first time I used Uber. I was having dinner with a friend in London who was raving about this new service he’d been using.
‘It’s like having your own personal chauffeur! You just press a button, and the car appears!’.
We got one that evening, and it was as good as he said. I was impressed.
A few months later, it was my turn to impress others. Lost in Warsaw with friends, not knowing where we were but knowing where we wanted to go, I opened the app, pressed the button and – I swear this is true – five seconds later a car pulled up directly in front of us and invited us to jump in.
It was like stepping into the future. And possibly the greatest, hero-friend moment of my life.
And now, nearly a decade later, Uber has finally made a profit. A service that can genuinely claim to have disrupted an industry, to change the way we live and work. All that time later, I'm still fascinated by them. Are they good, or evil? Great for the world, or damaging to it? Customer-led, but at what expense?
Like CityMapper, Uber’s big strength is giving certainty, a reliable friend wherever you are in the world. As my globetrotting cousin said to me over a family buffet recently:
‘I find the seamless experience of using the same app in Hong Kong and Hawaii so good.’
We take it for granted now, but it is incredible to be able to land on the other side of the world, touch a couple of buttons, and have a car pick you up and drop you off without fear of being ripped off, carrying a load of cash, or taken for a ride, so to speak.
They’ve also added a whole host of customer-led features in the past couple of years to increase this certainly wherever they can:
The ‘Route to pick-up point’ instructions, far more helpful when navigating new, busy airports than trying to find ‘Pick Up Point A, Level 2, Car Park B’
The ‘Stationary Vehicle’ alert, sending you a notification on your phone if the car has been still for a while, with a one-touch ‘help’ button if you’re not ok. (Great if you’re in an argument with the driver, less so if you’re stuck on the M25)
The super-fast support, such as when I got double-charged for a car park payment recently, and they refunded the full amount within five minutes (total ownership, no arguments)
They’ve even started adding accessibility notes about their drivers, such as this example showing the driver is hard of hearing. Good for the customer, good for the driver, too.
So, a superb, customer-led service deserving of praise, right? Not quite. Because with Uber, there’s always a but, isn’t there?
I also remember the first time I nearly died in an Uber (and yes, that does suggest there’s been a second time). Late at night, a driver unfamiliar with the roads, driving straight through a STOP sign and into the path of another car, only saved because he was speeding and so went over it so quickly the other car could swerve around the back.
He was distraught, shaken up, so apologetic. We’d spent the whole journey chatting about his family, his four children, the reason he worked Uber as a second job to make money. And what happens as soon as I get out of the car? I get asked to rate him. And now I know that if I give him a zero – the only score acceptable if you’d nearly died – he’ll probably lose his chance to drive for them, or it will be harder for him to get new jobs.
What would you do?
To rate or not to rate is the question that’s dogged Uber since its inception. I feel myself visibly relax when I’m in a ‘normal’ taxi now, knowing I’m free from the pressure of being judged, knowing I can scroll my phone or stare out of the window if I’m not in the mood to chat. I’ve even created my own Uber peak-end-rule rating trick, always offering for them to drop me off slightly earlier than my house, where it’s easier for them to turn around, to show what a considerate passenger I am.
But this rating dichotomy is not the only issue with the Uber customer experience.
The app. Oh god, the app. Once so simple and clean, now full of adverts and offers. UberX, or Exec? Comfort, Luxury, or Pet? How about Green, Priority, or Assist? Fuck it, stay home, just get a Big Mac and Fries instead.
And that certainty? It’s starting to wane. You need a car? We can get you a car in one minute! Sound good? Don’t go getting a normal taxi now, hit the button instead! Ok, good choice. Now, about that one minute. Might be 3. Make that 5. Ok, ten, definitely with you in ten. But do not cancel, you can’t cancel on us now, you’re committed. Stop casting envious eyes at those Black Cabs going past. Stop it now. And don’t be late.
The bigger question I can never quite answer with Uber is… is it fair?
It’s changed an industry, made payment seamless when only cash used to do, shifted the power back towards the customer and forever banished the ‘it’s just around the corner’ late-car mantra.
But at what expense? The pitifully low ‘employee’ wages. The lack of driver benefits. The artificial suppression of the market with their initial, ultra-low prices. Is it right to have such a negative impact on so many people with – until now – an unsustainable business model? To create that customer experience at the expense of colleague working conditions? To put other companies out of business when you’re competing on an uneven playing field? Or is that sometimes necessary to bring about long-overdue change and truly make things better for customers?
I was impressed to see that their CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, taking the time to work as an Uber driver to understand the experience – but is a millionaire being behind the wheel for one day a month ever going to understand the driver with four kids whose income is about to be cut off because he missed a stop sign?
Or, in fact, is it an example of public outrage on behalf of people who are, actually, quite happy? I always make a point of chatting to my Uber drivers and asking them for their views, and on the whole, they seem content:
I had to give up my career in the city to look after my 90-year-old Mum. Uber’s been amazing. You can’t beat the flexibility it gives, the control over your time. I like being my own boss. And I like that, if I need to make £100 quickly, I can go out that evening, make the money, and have it in my bank account within minutes.
Or maybe they’re just saying that to get a good rating.
Ultimately, there are not many products that I remember exactly where I was the first time I used it. There are not many that have made me a better friend. And there are not many that have nearly killed me. Twice. So, if there’s one thing’s for sure with Uber, it’s that it’s made a dent in the universe.
It feels like it’s turned a corner from the early, frat-house days, that it really understands its customers, that it’s slowly shedding the move-fast-and-break-people reputation.
But the best businesses are the ones that are good for customers, good for colleagues, good for the planet, and I can’t help but shake this sense of unfairness, of elitism. This feeling that paying drivers the bare minimum, telling them that each passenger will rate them in real-time and that that will affect their future income, just doesn’t feel right.
The last conversation I had with an Uber driver made me think more than I expected it to:
‘Do you know how I add a second stop on the app, mate?’ I asked.
‘Sorry sir, absolutely no idea. I’ve never used an Uber in my life’.