Uber is recommitting itself to putting drivers first
The ride-hailing company has faced widely-publicized driver protests over fair-pay and treatment, and its recent efforts building self-driving car technology has created more distrust.
But Uber, which is valued at $68 billion in private markets and which is a closely-watched IPO candidate, says that forging stronger ties with drivers is now a top priority.
Jeff Jones, the company's new ridesharing president, posted a lengthy missive on LinkedIn promising to do a better job with drivers, and the company says it's pouring more resources into its driver experience team, which focuses solely on understanding the needs of drivers and building technology for the people behind the wheel. A new set of tools released by the team before Thanksgiving is designed to address some of drivers' biggest gripes, executives at the company say.
"Perception is hard to change, but I think it's changing," Ryan Fujiu, a senior product manager at Uber, told Business Insider. "If you go out and talk to drivers and you actually get a sense of 'Hey, these things are improving'."
Still, with arch-rival Lyft perceived as the more driver-friendly ride-hailing service, and with Uber refusing to provide a mechanism for drivers to collect tips within the app, the company still has a lot of work to do.
Fearing the ratings
Step one is eliminating the fear factor.
"When we talked to drivers, for the longest time, they'd say 'Well I'm just afraid about being deactivated or I'm afraid my ratings will hurt my ability to make money,'" says Nundu Janakiram, a group product manager at Uber.
Uber isn't eliminating the five-star rating that passengers give drivers (low ratings mean drivers can be "deactivated" from Uber's service).
The idea is to pivot ratings away from the negative aspect that instilled fear in drivers and turn it into a positive experience. Only a "vanishingly small" number of people are deactivated for having low ratings, Janakiram said, and the company wanted to move to reinforcing with drivers who are doing their jobs well that they are excelling - not just getting in touch when an issue comes up.
Ditching servant status
Experimenting with the rating system is just one thing Uber is trying to do to balance the relationship between drivers and riders. The five-star system is a two-way feedback system where drivers also rate riders, and Uber has already taken small steps measures, like charging riders if drivers wait outside for more than two minutes, to help riders understand how valuable a driver's time is.
Still, feedback from Uber drivers shows it's important to them that riders look at them as another human being and just a servant, said Evelyn Kim, a senior design manager at the company.
"That's kind of the relationship that we're trying to equalize that a little more," Kim said.
Many members of the driver experience team have become Uber drivers themselves to understand what it means to be in the driver's seat. There's even a mock seat set-up in the driver experience team's part of Uber headquarters so employees can feel it first hand.
"In other places I've worked, if an app crashed all of a sudden, it wasn't good, but it didn't mean that it wasn't making money today and it didn't mean that a person wasn't able to make rent that week," Janakiram said. "That's reflected even in the size of the team. The driver team is one of the largest product and engineering tech teams in the company, just in numbers, because the company puts a lot of emphasis in it as well."
In Uber's early days, the driver experience team did a lot of first-hand research, with members testing new navigation apps in their cars, and hailing rides with Uber drivers to ask them questions.
As Uber has expanded across the world, the company is developing new, more efficient feedback systems.
The company is building out greenlight centers, a one-stop shop for Uber onboarding, vehicle checks, and support in cities, throughout the US. And Uber is bringing in more drivers to sit alongside designers and engineers during research sessions, and the groups try to come up with solutions to their problems. Things like compliments are just one example of a feature developed out of those conversations. Another one, a "Pause" button, that allows drivers to pause accepting requests if they need to take a break also came from feedback from drivers who ended up in back-to-back-to-back Uber trips.
Uber's rider base is becoming increasingly suburban, where people already likely to own cars, Fujui said. In the last six months, the biggest source globally of new driver sign-ups has been from the rider base - a stark contrast to the early days of the company when it was largely made up of professional drivers.
Drivers may be more wary to voice complaints or challenges with their livelihood at stake (a problem not unique to Uber). But unlocking the ideas and solving the problems of Uber's drivers has moved to the forefront of Uber's priorities.
The last hold out
Uber's driver experience team is working through a punch-list of drivers' needs.
But that raises an important question: Why doesn't Uber allow tips, especially when drivers clearly want the option?
Compared to Lyft, which allows riders to tip their drivers at the end of the ride from within the app, Uber has been reluctant to allow the same. Only as part of a proposed settlement did Uber clarify its stance on tips, which is that drivers are allowed to accept them and can have signs in their car saying such, but it's not required for riders to do so.
"Drivers do ask about tips, and it's something that they definitely compare us, but it's an opportunity for us to look at a variety of ways to address competition," said Molly Stevens, a senior design research manager. "It's definitely a factor that comes up, and we're not ignoring it, but we're trying to address it in other ways."
Kim, the senior design manager, compared it to when Henry Ford was dreaming up the automobile and drivers were saying they needed faster horses. People wanted something faster, but thought faster horses were the solution before the car came along. The same goes for tips, she argues - people want more money, but tipping doesn't have to be the answer.
"Tips is one way to solve that, but we're trying to solve it in a more impactful way," Kim said. "For us, it's giving them a better bottom line, and that's a much harder problem to solve for but we want to get better at the earnings aspect of it first."
Uber wants to build stronger ties with drivers. For now though, those ties only go so far.
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