Contracts And Chaos: Inside Uber’s Customer Service Struggles

By March 12, 2016February 11th, 20207 Comments


    Harry here.  Last weekend, some big news broke about Uber’s customer service department.  For drivers, this probably didn’t come as much of a surprise, but it’s definitely interesting to get a look under the hood.

    Today, RSG contributor John Ince takes a look at those CSR struggles, reports of assault, and more.


    Contracts And Chaos: Inside Uber’s Customer Service Struggles

    Contracts And Chaos: Inside Uber’s Customer Service Struggles

    Sum and Substance: Until April 2014, Uber’s customer support operation was composed of local employees who pitched in, replying to inbound emails from riders and drivers on an unofficial, ad-hoc basis. But the company was growing too quickly for that system to remain viable, so Uber established an experimental remote team of fewer than 10 CSRs to manage what had become a deluge of customer support queries. The people on this team worked from home and were employed by Uber. They were all given renewable, six-month contracts and considered “normal, full-time employees,” according to former Uber CSRs who asked not to be named.

    But when the first contract period ended, Uber did not renew. Instead, it asked its first CSR team to sign contracts with ZeroChaos, a workforce management company. “It was sold to us as a technical change in our employment,” one former CSR told BuzzFeed News. According to this person, CSRs were under the impression that “yes, we would still be Uber employees.” But the CSRs BuzzFeed News spoke to said that after the company made the ZeroChaos transition, they lost many of their benefits — including employer-sponsored health insurance, ride credits, and paid vacation days — as well as their job security.

    My Take: For all the drivers who have found themselves frustrated by opaque responses from Uber’s customer service reps, it’s all explained here.  It’s not a pretty picture, and chaos is a more apt description of what was actually happening behind the curtain.

    Ever since I gave an ex-Uber CSR a ride a few months back, and she unloaded to me for 20 minutes about how Uber had screwed her and her entire “class” with false promises and then fired them en masse, I’ve been curious about how much of what she said was true.  My instinct was to assume innocence until proven guilty.

    This article makes a strong case against Uber, though, and pretty much confirms my passenger’s allegations.  This is a thoroughly researched, and very long article that includes interviews with dozens of ex-CSRs who basically concluded they were all Uber’s guinea pigs. What’s particularly disturbing is that these are the people who essentially are drivers’ primary conduit to the company.  If these people, essentially our supervisors, are getting jerked around like this, what does it say about Uber’s approach to management?

    What’s emerging from this and other stories like it is a picture of Uber that casts serious doubt about the moral fiber of their executive team, but this is what we’ve been hearing for a long time.  The good news for Uber is that none of this is likely to have any material effect on their business. Passengers, by and large, remain blissfully unaware that anything is amiss. They still see Uber as a vast improvement over taxis or any of the other urban transit alternatives. With so many new drivers continually coming into the pipeline, most have no idea what’s going on behind the scenes.  That’s the way Uber wants it.

    Uber Admits ‘Don Draper’ Is Not A Good Way To Explain ‘Rape’ Reports

    Sum and Substance: On Tuesday, the ride-sharing service retracted part of its rebuttal to a BuzzFeed News story on the volume of customer support tickets returned by sexual-assault related search queries. The since-discounted explanation of rape reports —which included an odd reference to Mad Men’s Don Draper and the signatures by three Uber executives and — stated that BuzzFeed’s data was skewed due to nuances in the Zendesk system’s search functionality. Zendesk begged to differ, and Uber confessed to getting it wrong. 

    The public relations nightmare began Sunday, when BuzzFeed News published a report based on Zendesk screenshots provided by a former Uber employee that showed a high volume of customer support tickets returned by search terms associated with rape and sexual assault. The search query “sexual assault” returned 6,160 complaint tickets filed through Zendesk, “rape” returned 5,827 tickets, a search for “assaulted” surfaced 3,524 tickets and another 382 tickets were returned for a search of “sexually assaulted.”

    According to Uber, BuzzFeed’s data was skewed due to nuances in the Zendesk system’s search functionality, providing the following explanation (among others) as one of the reasons for the high ticket volume: any email address or rider/driver last name that contains the letters R, A, P, E consecutively (for example, Don Draper) are included.

    Now Uber says it was wrong. Zendesk reportedly contacted the ride-hailing company about its misinterpretation of Zendesk’s search functionality. This does not impact our analysis of the overall numbers, which was based on a manual review of these tickets rather than a simple keyword search. Basically, Uber provided a potential explanation for the high volume of customer support tickets associated with sexual assault-related search terms that proved to be faulty.

    My Take: Uber has attempted to blunt the PR fallout from articles like this with a series of posts on Medium attempting to rebut some of the main points, but even Uber’s rebuttals have been rebutted. Some of these allegations could potentially be unfounded. Also, these accusations can (and are) made on all forms of transit, including train, plane, taxis, buses, metro, and subway.

    But in a situation where complete strangers are hooked up inside the intimacy of a driver’s car, it’s natural to wonder just how safe is this? Just what are the statistics here? Until Buzzfeed broke this story, these stats were among Uber’s most closely guarded secrets, and I’m still not sure we have any reliable information.  That’s the issue that’s being batted back and forth in these articles by Buzzfeed, and others who have picked up on this story.

    After a certain number of mea culpas like this, you may just have to discount anything that comes from Uber’s PR team. Add this one to the growing list of stories that cast doubt on their veracity. What is particularly alarming here is that Uber remains the sole proprietor of all the data that they collect about everybody and everything Uber.  Thus, whatever they say can never be independently verified.

    Essentially they’re saying to the world, “trust us.” Okay? And why exactly are we supposed to trust you now?  That being said, I also tend to discount the numbers Buzzfeed is putting forth too. After all, they’re not an objective party either. They’re looking to create awareness and gain an audience, and that they have done.

    YourMechanic Raises $24M To Expand in North America, Adds New Board Members

    Sum and Substance: YourMechanic, an on-demand auto-repair startup, raised $24 million in funding on Tuesday to expand in the U.S. and Canada. Investors in the round included SoftBank Capital, Lerer Hippeau Ventures, Data Point Capital, Andreessen Horowitz, SAIC, Verizon Ventures, American Family Insurance, PG Ventures, Promus Ventures and Silicon Valley Bank.

    Joe Medved from Lerer Hippeau Ventures, and Scott Savitz from Data Point Capital, will join the YourMechanic board as part of the investment. The company has raised $32 million to date. CEO Art Agrawal co-founded the Mountain View-based company to connect car owners with certified mechanics who make house calls.

    The company, which was part of Y Combinator’s Winter Class 2012 and won the TechCrunch Disrupt Cup that year, says that its transparent pricing is, on average, 30 percent less expensive than traditional shops and dealerships. 

    “I founded YourMechanic in 2012 to bring transparency and convenience to car owners at a fair price. Since then we have serviced tens of thousands of happy customers and equally happy cars, resulting in triple‐digit annual growth,” Agrawal said in a press release. “This commitment from leading investors is a reflection of our tremendous success to date and validation of our unique on‐demand auto services brand that is redefining the way in which maintenance and repair services are delivered, discovered and booked.” 

    Many of the mechanics who work for the service do so on a part-time basis, according to Fortune. YourMechanic manages the booking and ordering parts, and allows the mechanics to keep the money they make ($40 to $50 per hour). YourMechanic monetizes by providing the parts for repairs and taking a cut from those sales. YourMechanic currently operates more than 700 cities and will be expanding operations across the country and into Canada.

    My Take:  YourMechanic is yet another success story out of aggregator Y Combinator.  They’ve now got a very impressive list of investors, the kind of savvy folks who don’t throw their money around unless there’s some serious market potential and a very solid team.   They have quickly expanded to 700 cities, which is pretty amazing considering that just four years ago their founders were sitting in a classroom trying to come up with an idea for a business.

    YourMechanic is also one of our affiliate partners so if you haven’t tried them out, make sure you use the code ‘RSG15when you sign up!

    Nearly 1 in 3 New Uber Drivers in the U.S. are Female (As Reported By TIME)

    Sum and Substance: It’s Women’s History Month and Uber is using this opportunity to push out statistics about how many of their drivers in the U.S. are female, though a TIME poll shows that men are still much more likely players across the on-demand economy. 

    The $62.5 billion startup made a pledge last year to have one million women providing rides through their platform by 2020, and on Monday evening the company emphasized that the percentage of new signups who are women is on the rise in the U.S. By the end of 2015, 19% of drivers using the app were women, up from 14% the year before.

    By February, the percentage of active UberX drivers who were female had climbed to more than one in every five (21%). And the company said that women account for nearly one third (29%) of new-driver signups, with roughly 230,000 women driving their first Uber fare in 2015. By comparison, the latest report on New York City yellow cab drivers said that while women have been driving cabs since the 1940s, that industry remains male-dominated. As of 2014, about 99% of yellow cab drivers in the Big Apple were men. Late last year, the Independent dug into this ongoing disparity — which also applies to U.K. cabbies — and pointed to safety concerns, the kind that led cab companies to erect those partitions between driver and passenger back when all the transactions were cash.

    My Take:  This release really caught me off guard.  I just assumed the vast majority of drivers were male. How many of you are surprised by this?

    Drivers, what do you think about the chaos behind the scenes in Uber’s customer service department?

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    John Ince

    John Ince

    John Ince is a former Fortune reporter and Wall Street banker. He has about 1,000 rides under his belt driving part time for Uber and Lyft.  He’s writing a book about his experiences entitled:  Travels With Vanessa:  A Rideshare Driver Tries To Make Sense of It all - For a sneak peak visit the link above.