Rainy day in March

One Tuesday in March I was finishing up a meeting with a client just outside of Adelaide. It was pouring and what would usually be a 20 minute walk back to my office in the city turned into 30 minutes in the rain with a promise broken. I had booked a ride with a local taxi company using their own iOS App, something I have done a couple of times previously. Their app isn't the best to look at, heavily draped in iOS 6 gradients and with a 3.5" fixed screen size but it worked so it didn't bother me too much.

I booked ahead and I told the app where I was on the map - the exact address - and created the booking knowing it would take a few minutes for a taxi to be assigned. About 10 minutes later a driver was assigned and was on their way. I could see they were not far away and what their taxi number was. Once they were down the street I left the premises and stood out in the rain. Here's where it all goes wrong. The assigned taxi went past with a fare onboard, not even a glance from the driver. "Thats ok, probably dropping them off around the corner" I said to myself thinking the driver was just being efficient and knowing they could pick me up after their current fare.

10 or so minutes went by with the map showing the driver getting further and further away. At this point I was suspecting that something was a miss. I called the company but predictably because of the weather the line was busy, on hold for what felt like an eternity with the predictable hold music and reassuring messages before I gave up. I check the app to see what is up with the booking and where the driver was. "No Pickup". My taxi had ditched me.

One of my clients noticed I was still outside and offered to drive me back into the city. 

During the ride I call the company with the determination to find out what went wrong — not out of anger but rather curiosity. The operator was apologetic but really couldn't tell me anything more than what I could see. Just that my driver had indicated "No Pickup" and that was it. Would I like another reservation?

A complete failure of customer service and experience. A failure by the driver cancelling my reservation and a failure to provide a service in need.

This was not indicative of the incumbent taxi industry as a whole but it is not a unique tale. With new competition in town its can be seen as a canary in the coal mine that is just about to fall off its perch.

Whats interesting is that instead of understanding the shift in fares from traditional taxi's to services like Uber the industry is crying foul trying to put the new kids in the regulation penalty box. They don't understand that most of the reason customers are switching to Uber et al. isn't because of price or if the driver has been labeled 'not a serial killer' by some bureaucracy. It's because taxis suck.

Customers don't want to put up with beat up Commodores and Falcons with broken suspension, soiled seats and off putting odours whilst sitting in an advertisers billboard. For the longest time its been what we have had with nothing else out there to challenge its status quo.

Today we have Uber, Sidecar, Lyft and others radiating from the US, reaching our shores, and starting to challenge the local guys. With over a years worth of warning the local industry has done little to posture themselves as a proper competitor to these new businesses. Nothing more than puffing up their chests with references to regulations and rules.

They have missed a big opportunity to stay in the game and have a chance at competing with the new services directly. Here's some of the simple concepts that they have missed from whats happened in the US:

  • Customers are choosing quality over cost
  • Customers want to be in control at all stages
  • Customers demand better experiences from the services they use
  • Customers don't care about 'regulations' over getting better options of the above

This has little to do with the drivers. Most people have a story about a chatty 'cabbie' making a mundane trip interesting, entertaining. Cabbies should be outraged that they are being let down by their companies and their upper echelons failing to innovate with new competitors.

The opportunity has been lost on the industry and businesses that are most capable of adapting. Heres a quick overview of what it could look like to keep some skin in the game:

  1. Splinter off some drivers into a new "premium" group (similar to existing "Silver Service" cars). No jalopy cars.
  2. Set them up with a new brand, arms length from the existing.
  3. Build a great customer interface and experience team. Innovative apps, no legacy bullshit.
  4. No car advertising (third-party or own).
  5. Fulfil earlier points: Allow customers control, access to quality and better experiences.
  6. Stop bitching about Uber and actually compete, fight fire with fire.

Wishful thinking.

It will take more than just a pretty app to want to prefer a taxi over an Uber. Its deep down changes that will most likely never happen. However, thats an unsubstantiated view from the outside. I don't know the people running these companies to know if there is determination to start building a better experience. But it's been almost 2 years since Uber hit Australia and there is little to nothing to show by these companies to indicate anything different.