Why we (the riders) are not Uber’s customers

I have been using Uber since the day it went into service. It has been a godsend for me — I don’t drive and almost always have to go to the far corners of the city to see the medical practitioners who have to keep me ticking over past ten years. I would be remiss in saying that Uber is not a net addition to my creature comforts. And that is saying a lot because I have twisted and turned over its ethics, corporate ethos and constant crossing the line.

But lately, I have been thinking — if I (like other riders) am really the customer for the company? Its actions display a certain level of “taking riders for granted” attitude, that reminds me of cable companies, phone companies, and certain web giants. Uber is yet another example of a company, where we are merely the product.  

Uber has sucked in personal information; tracked its riders; it has been hacked and lost rider data and didn’t disclose that, and has knowingly or unknowingly misled riders on the timing of car arrivals. The cars say arriving in a minute and don’t for ten. It is a common problem in two major cities I frequent – San Francisco and New York.

The estimated time of arrival is a crucial and single most important metric for the company, and yet it seems to be quite underdeveloped as it lacks the real-time information around traffic conditions, road conditions, and weather conditions. It is such an important issue because it defines what is crucial – rider trust. Imagine if Google results took an extra few seconds to deliver or Facebook’s feed still behaved as it did back in 2007.

Even the Uber app is starting to stutter – slower opening times, the app is often stuck in old locations, even though you are about a mile away. It’s much-ballyhooed attempts to build its own mapping infrastructure has resulted in routes that are inefficient, made more inefficient with every single ride that follows the same convoluted paths. A growing number of vehicles on the roads resemble much like the cans of the yore – unclean and driven as a way to flout the rules. Want to feel safe? Get a black car, but there is fewer of those as Uber Classic drivers are busy finding work elsewhere.

Maybe I am reading too much into it — but there seems to be a degree apathy towards the riders. Uber, it seems to be spending all its energy and resources on finding and nurturing its drivers — who seem to be the real customers. The money the company is raising from SoftBank is essential to spend big dollars in acquiring more drivers on the road – more drivers means more cars on the road which means faster availability of the cars for rides.

No this isn’t figment of my imagination — if you read company’s mountainous legal and regulatory filings, you across many references to drivers as its customers. Uber, honestly needs the narrative of “its drivers being its customers largely” as it helps give it a legal framework to classify its drivers as independent contractors and not as an employee. In other words, if they are not customers, then they are employees.

The whole equation assumes that riders have nowhere to go and are merely a resource to be mined. As transportation infrastructure across the world becomes beholden to Uber and its ilk — aka demand generators — they have no real interest in taking care of the end demand.

The situation is not very different than Facebook or Google-like Uber they started out pretending that the end customers aka folks like you and I are their customers. Not true — Ad agencies and brands who spend money on the platform are their customers. They have customer success people — who are there to make brands and agencies spend their money more efficiently and get the biggest bang for the buck. Facebook will sell you the political opinion of an entire country for a $150,000!

Okay, maybe I was a wee bit flippant there — but in end consumers — riders, social networkers, and web searchers — aren’t really important to these companies. Uber is just following a well-worn path.

November 28, 2017, San Francisco

Feature photo courtesy of Dan Gold via UnSplash.

A letter from Om

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