A few days ago, when feeling under the weather, I decided to do what I do when my nose and head are stuffed — order a very spicy curry and some rice. Normally, I use either Caviar or DoorDash (which will soon be the same), but this time, I decided to go with Grubhub. I use the granddaddy of on-demand food delivery services for a few specific restaurants. Unfortunately, this time, the food that was supposed to show up at 7 pm was not delivered until 10 pm — and not for lack of calling and checking up on my part. The food was eventually delivered, but I did not receive it very happily. By that time, I was too tired to eat. I ended up having some bone broth and falling asleep.
I was still pretty pissed off about the whole thing when I woke up the next morning, but I realized my frustration wasn’t — and shouldn’t be — directed at the delivery person. They were probably also working for every other delivery service and undoubtedly had their own difficult night of playing catch up. Instead, all of my anger was appropriately aimed at the company itself. Though they gamely tried to give me 20 percent off my next order, as I see it, the villain was Grubhub.
As I sat there debating whether or not to delete my Grubhub app, it struck me that, in the end, no matter what their ads say or how hard they try to be as cool as their upstart competitors, the company is defined by the last mile experience — that interaction between the delivery person and me. Indeed, this is the most crucial part of the service provided by any company that interfaces with consumers. And the more I think about it, the more confounded I am that these on-demand companies don’t take more care in building a better end experience.
I know a thing or two about freelancing, which is essentially what most of these people are doing — working multiple jobs to try and make ends meet. (Silicon Valley is good at coming up with bullshit marketing phrases like “gig economy” that try to attach a tech premium to some pretty basic common sense stuff.) When I was new to this country, I did a whole lot of crappy jobs. I was a freelancer for hire, helping people move their stuff from apartment to apartment. Or helping hang paintings at an art opening. And eventually, when I got to writing, I was covering everything from spelling bees to temple openings in bumfuck New Jersey. But to the people I spoke to at those events, I wasn’t just a freelancer. I was the representative of whichever outlet I happened to be reporting for that day.
Many of us instinctively understand this dynamic. We rarely blame the driver when we have a bad ride with Uber. Even if we think they are a shit driver, we give them a 4-star rating and walk away with the feeling that Uber is going to the dogs. We blame Lyft for delayed rides. We curse DoorDash for botched orders. We complain about Amazon Prime Now when we don’t get what we want immediately.
Honestly, this is a good thing. The actual humans who do the work that feeds our collective laziness should be abstracted, especially considering that they don’t really make that much money. It is unfair to blame them. And yet, they are the crucial interface for the brand experience. So, you would think the companies would be invested in them. In order to improve the last mile experience, companies should be hiring better, paying more, and creating incentives for excellence.
Instead, you have companies like DoorDash and Instacart stiffing their workforce. DoorDash was skimming the tips from its delivery people and got caught. The founders promised to rectify the problem, and it took another set of headlines to put even more pressure on the company to act.
Just yesterday, I was reading the open letter from delivery people at Instacart asking for a fair shake from the company. It is brutal reading. “You launched 20 failed start-ups before Instacart. Whether this will be your first success or your 21st failure will in no small part hinge upon repairing your decayed relationship with Shoppers,” they write in a letter to Apoorva Mehta, the CEO of Instacart. (By the way, I would totally fact check the “20 failed startups before Instacart” origin story.)
The employees outline how, for years, they have consistently been given the short end of the stick. In 2016, the company redesigned its app to essentially funnel the tips away from its delivery team. “Our 10% default tip was replaced with a sneaky and identical-looking 10% service fee, which Instacart implied went directly to us workers — but of course, that was a lie and it didn’t,” they write. In 2017, the algorithms were tweaked and the pay model changed such that some delivery people were getting about a buck an hour. A year later, as the open letter notes, “We caught you withholding Shoppers tips and over-charging customers via the service fee in February of 2018.” And on and on it goes.
Reading this account from the workers, you can’t shake off the feeling that Instacart is a company with (at best) morally ambiguous corporate values, and thus, as far as I’m concerned, is unworthy of my dollars. If I was an active reporter today, I would be burning the phones and start digging into Instacart — this consistent revenue goosing behavior is hiding some bigger challenges.
I find it is very sad that most of the gig-economy companies that work with freelancers have not learned the lessons from the past. In 2013, I wrote about experience design, pointing out, “These days, when there is the talk of design, most people focus on what they can see: the pretty websites, well-designed gadgets, and brilliantly colored packaging. And while those are important, what matters most to the customers is the whole experience. That experience is essentially a story, a narrative that ultimately enjoins us to a brand. Designing this experience is what makes one company different from another.”
It is pretty clear that all these big unicorns chasing growth and high valuations, touting banal phrases about empathy and emotional design, don’t know diddly-squat about the idea of experience. The last mile experience is defined by the last mile representatives of the team, even if they are freelancers. The companies still have not learned that the software, algorithms, and the entire logistics infrastructure are pieces of a giant puzzle with just one answer: timely delivery, which leads to happy customers. You can’t get there without taking care of the delivery people.
As for Grubhub, like Instacart, the app no longer has a place on my phone.
November 2, 2019, San Francisco
Photo courtesy of ClayBanks via Unsplash