Uber is reeling from a series of PR nightmares to do with the sexually unwelcome behaviour of a few of its drivers. We told you today that a tone-deaf customer service staffer at Uber gave a woman £20 (about $US30) in compensation after she complained that an Uber driver had offered oral sex to her during a ride.
Before that, Uber got itself banned in a bunch of Indian cities after a female passenger was allegedly raped by an Uber driver.
Those scandals follow some bruising headlines over whether Uber execs abuse their power to look up individual customer records using a scary-sounding “God View” tool that shows where you’ve been via Uber.
The overall impression of Uber right now is that it is a company that is fighting fires. It is reacting to events rather than driving them.
So CEO Travis Kalanick needs to put the whole company on “hold” for a while. I know he needs to do this because back in 2013 he wrote this thoughtful Facebook post about Uber’s expansion, which all but recommends the same strategy:
“We have to continue to get massive amounts of drivers on board as quickly as possible. Supply for experienced drivers in the city is dwindling, and that means introducing tens of thousands of new people into the commercial driving industry. This is contributing to the variance. We quickly weed out poor transportation providers, but poor service from new guys is definitely ‘a thing.'”
Kalanick came to this conclusion after Noah Lichtenstein, a San Francisco venture capitalist, complained that Uber’s expansion was bringing in a large number of low quality drivers who didn’t really know what they were doing.
So putting the company on hold would be right out of Kalanick’s own playbook: By that I mean he should stop its insanely fast expansion and let his existing employees — thousands of whom are brand new to the company — learn their jobs properly.
One of Uber’s key problems here — affecting its new drivers, new customer service staff and new PR people — is that the company is moving so quickly they don’t have time to adjust to the learning curve. Sure, refunding that woman’s money after she was sexually harassed must have seemed like a reasonable thing to do at the time. And calling it an “un-Uber experience” is probably a stock corporate phrase. But put it all together and it looks like the entire company has gone tone deaf because no one is taking the time to think about how things might look on the outside.
Uber has launched in 30 cities in the last 30 days, globally, according to Forbes (which has an amazing gif showing what that expansion looks like).
One new city per day! That is ridiculous!
Now think about the logistics: Kalanick says Uber will create 1 million new jobs next year. One MILLION. There will be bad apples in that barrel, for sure. Every company has them. They’re not Uber’s fault, truthfully.
Many of those jobs are in customer service. One unique thing about Uber is that if you give a driver a bad rating and send a message to Uber explaining why, you get a quick, human response. It’s one of the things that makes Uber great, and it’s one of the things that will eventually help Uber replace the awful taxi cartels that currently run most cities.
But replying to those messages is labour intensive, and it requires a LOT of staff. Some of them aren’t going to get the best training. And they’re going to send thoughtless messages to women who have encountered jerks at the wheel.
The new staff need time to settle in. Management needs to take the time to educate them properly.
So please, Travis: Your company may have just taken $US2.7 billion in funding, with the most recent round of $US1.2 billion coming just this month. The temptation will be to step harder on the accelerator (before Lyft catches up). But you risk trashing your brand along the way.
Using Uber is probably safer than getting a regular taxi. But Uber is on-boarding so many new drivers that it’s bound to get in a few psychos along the way. That $US2.7 billion warchest isn’t going to be helpful if the main thing that new customers know about Uber is that it’s that rape taxi company that women don’t want to use.
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