The secret behind Uber's success is surprisingly simple

Photo: Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images.

Look past the Uber hype and what you discover is a fascinating story about what happens when a business puts people first.

Uber is a San Francisco startup that’s busy disrupting the global taxi industry. It’s a poster child for the so-called sharing economy, and the primary narrative we’re fed talks about how these independent companies are upsetting monopolies.

That’s fine, but I think something profound is happening on an entirely different level. Uber isn’t an economic story, but a social one.

I’ve been using Uber for months now, and more frequently in recent weeks. It struck me there’s a secret to Uber’s success that’s hidden in plain sight. The secret is one that taxi bosses need to discover and surgically implant into their brains, metaphorically of course. Equally, it’s a lesson that applies to anyone in business.

For the geeks out there, there is a tech angle. Uber’s app is easy to use, and promotes transparency, safety and accountability between customer and driver. But it’s only part of the story. And no, I’m not just talking about getting a cheaper ride.

The curious, perhaps unintended consequence of this transport platform is the type of person attracted to drive for Uber. Have you stopped to notice, or ask about his or her story? I challenge you to find someone boring.

Here’s a snapshot of an Uber ride I enjoyed the other day.

I met a kind, content older man who, it turns out, had a rough life. At first glance you’d never know. I asked why he drove for Uber, what it was like, and whether this was a full-time gig. As we wound our way through the inner-city streets of Brisbane on our way to the airport, my driver began to reveal a slice of his life’s journey.

What followed was almost a confessional. Turns out there was a low point some years ago when he’d actively considered taking his life. Life wasn’t turning out how he’d expected, but the steady, guiding hand of a new doctor turned the situation around. He got help, and started building a new life.

Driving for Uber had accidentally become part of that transformation. He wakes up every day anticipating the conversations he’ll have with random strangers. People whom he’ll likely never meet again, but will bring about a life-giving sense of joy and connectedness with the world.

Uber, for him, isn’t about the money. It’s about a string of life moments, lived in the present, that create a sense of meaning.

But the show-stopper for me was that until now, he’d never told anyone about his suicide considerations – apart from his doctor. Now there’s a humbling moment. Surprising candour given we only just met.

Yet my Brisbane driver isn’t the only person I’ve met who’s ready to tell me their real story.

In Sydney I sat next to a Persian Iranian man who brought his wife and children to Australia to escape religious persecution – exploring Christianity in Iran is a no-no, let alone converting.

My driver confessed he’s actually not happy driving a car because he’s a trained engineer. He can’t get a job in Australia due to qualification and study-related issues. But his kids and wife are happy because they have a new future. Being able to start and stop work whenever he likes is a big plus for the family.

It was raw, unvarnished honesty to hear a man refocused on investing in the next generation. He was living only for them.

And this was my ah-ha moment.

Theoretically anyone can have a deep and meaningful conversation with a taxi driver. But how often does that happen any more? Rarely in my experience. The systems and structures wrapped around taxi drivers do very little to encourage intimate conversations between driver and passenger.

In fact, they actively discourage it – hello “you are being filmed” sticker. And don’t get me started on tired, old, smelly cabs piloted by rampant lane changers. The only thing you’re thinking about is how quickly you can get out of there – preferably in one piece.

In contrast, part of Uber’s social impact is the structural transparency and safety constructed through the app. Both driver and passenger rate each other, creating a lasting record that could influence your ability to use the service in the future.

Yet to my mind, the risk/reward aspect of an experience ratings system is underpinned by the real social adhesive – names and faces. Humanity.

I jump into a car, am greeted by name and greet my driver by name. We’ve never met, but there’s already a connection through the app. The conversation has a kickstart, if you want to seize the day. It’s a rare and wonderful thing in a world that’s always in a hurry and slow to listen.

So what’s the business angle to all this? We’re living in the age of customer experience, yet few truly get its significance.

Companies yearn for greater engagement between their brands and customers. In digital marketing, we speak of promoting “conversations” yet few truly transcend the banal and shouty melee of social media. Even fewer find ways of scaling those conversations globally.

Yet here’s a company that’s accidentally outsourced conversations to drivers on a casual payroll, connecting with customers who are paying for the experience. Nary a customer service agent in sight.

Of course, not everyone can – or wants – to be an Uber-style company. But there are a few lessons you can borrow.

Here’s my take on Uber’s top 3 customer experience principles that make the customer conversation dream a reality:

1. Remove friction – make your value proposition and transactions simple
2. Be transparent – eliminate surprises and show me real people
3. Prove you’re trustworthy – build a self-governing system that works in the real world

Mark Jones is the chief storyteller and CEO at Filtered Media, one of Australia’s most respected brand storytelling agencies. He also co-hosts The CMO Show, a podcast about brand storytelling and the future of marketing.

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