If you are in India, and are reading this, probably you didn't notice that the taxi hailing app Uber changed its logo overnight with a new splash screen.
To top it up, it also added a new splash screen, which to me, seemed partially inspired by the Star Trek: TNG first episode "Encounter at Farpoint" (or "The Tholian Web", for TOS fans). The enterprise is stuck in a similar forcefield grid by 'Q', and to jog your memory here it is.
So "Live long and prosper", you trekkies at Uber.
New logo for Uber turnaround?
Uber has gone from strength to strength in India as far as customer service is concerned after:
1. Delhi Rape case: It gained so much notoriety that The Indian Express has a complete section on it. This led to the Uber ban.
But, all of that is now water under the bridge, thanks to short public memory, and extremely good quality of consistent service.
A tough training schedule for good customer service
I am a frequent Uber user, and the rides are full of tales from drivers about how Uber takes out time and sends new drivers on training. Each driver is:
1. Taught how to use the Uber app (given that smartphones are still arriving in India).
2. How to treat the customer with standard greetings, topics on small talk, things to avoid talking about, etc.
3. How to keep the vehicle clean, its maintenance, and servicing.
4. Focus on small things like water, newspaper, etc. I have even found drivers offering me two-way audio jack connected to some really good speakers in case I want to play MY play list on the car's audio!!
5. Contingency measures for emergency situations, etc.
No Uber customer call centres in India (Irony?)
What is remarkable about all this is that Uber is in the select group of Indian companies which has not given in to the urge of opening up a customer-facing call centre in India. The drivers, however, have access to a toll free number.
But again, Uber is definitely call-averse, as a driver is charged if he/she calls the call centre more than three times a week.
Strong Uber policies (that which survives)
Uber also follows a strong set of policies, which are a little tougher than Ola or other Indian taxi hailing apps, but are still popular:
1. Cancellation charges: Charges on cancellation after five minutes of booking. Makes sure that people calling Uber don't cancel on a whim, which is a big challenge for Ola.
2. Driver penalty: The driver is penalised for customer complaints (upon investigation). This penalty can be in the form of incentive loss or even ride loss in extreme cases. The driver will simply not get rides on priority. Given that most of the Ubers in India are driven by salaried drivers, this is something that makes sure that owners don't get penalised for the mistakes of drivers.
3. Fare correction: While most of Uber's competitors will simply give you a Rs 50 standard cash back on driver error or faulty route calculation, Uber actually does an entire route calculation and refunds you money based on that. So, next time you feel that you were charged extra, write to email@example.com and check the response.
4. Lowest fare: Uber beats its nearest rival Ola by over 20 per cent on the fare difference for the starting segment rides.
Challenges ahead: No cabs (The trouble with tribbles)
Even though Uber is doing a lot of things right, it still struggles to provide cabs in all the areas that it is in. Getting an Uber cab in the outskirts of Mumbai can be impossible at times. This is not without reason.
1. Low fare gets customers, but loses drivers: Since the money that a driver earns is directly related to the fare, a lower fare is keeping a lot of drivers away. I have seen close to 30 per cent Uber drivers work on both Ola and Uber apps at the same time, with a fastest finger first.
2. Local political situation: Apps like Uber and Ola have disrupted the market and made a lot of organised taxi unions unhappy. The scale is such that there were 15 day protests in Mumbai over issuing new licences to cab hailing app companies.
3. Safety issues: There are a lot of safety issues for drivers for these cab companies (yes, I said the drivers). There have been various incidents where cabs with Ola logo had their windshields broken to keep them off the street. The Ola offices were vandalised to scare them off the roads and Ubers were also affected in a similar way. To counter that, for some time, Ola was actually paying drivers 5,000 INR (70 USD) to put its logo on cab doors. This step backfired, with a lot of damaged cars and people paying 15 USD to remove the logo from the doors. You can easily see this from the fact that few Uber drivers in Mumbai will NOT put up the smartphone on the windshield stand and prefer to keep it on the shotgun seat, to prevent being identified as Uber drivers.
4. Entrenched players coming back: Players like Meru, Tab Cab, Cool Cab and others, have responded with apps of their own. These cab companies charge the standard fare (1.5 times, for same car size) and work on a far more profitable model than Uber. This simply means that they can remain in the fight with roughly half the number of rides than an average Uber.
5. Innovative product features from competition: Meru started a pink cab button which provides women-driven cabs to women passengers. I am not sure that it took off, but still, it was worth noting. Ola has started ride-sharing in other cities, brought local taxis under its belt, and is also meddling with bus-sharing services in some cities. All these might not be successful, but a singular success is good enough to compete long-term.
6. Payment woes still exist: Uber still doesn't have its own payment solution like its rival Ola, and depends on the Paytm wallet. It recently tied up with one of the smaller Indian players in the payments space zaakpay (why?), to provide debit and credit card service. It has also started accepting cash, which shows how much friction can be caused by lack of popular payment methods.
Conclusion: Eye on the ball
There are tonnes of other things happening as well, in this space. Didi Kuaidi in China claims to have done a billion rides in a year, whereas Uber took five years. Again Ola, Lyft and others have also formed a loose coalition to honour passengers across countries. GM investing in Lyft and rise of bus-sharing services in India like Zipgo can prove to be a credible threat in the longer run.
The only way out is for Uber to keep an eye on the ball and:
Go deep inside India to cover more ground;
Recruit more cars, which potentially means raise ride charges, OR
Finance drivers to become car owners, OR
(The author is assistant vice-president, e-commerce, Reliance Jio. The views expressed in the article are solely his.)