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Compose yourself: here's what Uber says to an irate customer

SHRIYA MOHAN | Updated on: 17 July 2015, 11:25 IST

On paper, it's the answer to India's urban transport dreams. Uber launched in the country in September 2013 - and is now present in 18 cities, making it the largest geographical market for the company outside the US.

In under two years it's become the default choice for the urban commuter thanks to its reasonably priced, at-your-fingertips cab service.

Also read - First person account: a nightmare ride Uber can't fix with puppies

The numbers reflect this incredible local success: gross revenue in India is expected to hit Rs 1,000 crore by the end of this year.

But the figures tell the commercial story, not the human one. When it comes to tackling the gritty reality of untrained drivers, illegal paperwork, safety concerns or distraught customers, a faceless app is an entirely unsatisfactory answer - as this journalist found out when she had a distressing ride to work in an Uber cab last week.

There was no number at which she could reach the company - and it took four emails and 15 hours to get a completely standard-issue response to the issue.

It took more calls to the Uber communications team in Bangalore before they finally agreed to set up a phone interview with Karun Arya, Uber's Communications Lead and spokesperson for South Asia and India, based in Singapore.

Excerpts from the interview:

What's Uber's standard procedure to deal with a passenger complaint?

Our primary mode of communication for people to send in complaints is email. We also get realtime feedback through Twitter and Facebook.

When we receive an email, our local team pulls up the trip in question and we source all details such as the driver, the route taken, the driver's history and passenger details.

When we get feedback or emails with critical words/phrases, those get flagged to our incident response team

Depending on the severity of the reported incident our incident response team will respond within 30 minutes, either on email or the phone, to get more details. We also get in touch with the driver to get both sides of the story.

If the complaint is remotely to do with harassment or if the driver is being abusive, he would be suspended and not be able to do any more trips on Uber.

Sounds good on paper. I'm not sure it works that way, because I filed a complaint on Friday morning. It took four emails and 15 hours to get what seemed like an automated response.

In your last email there might have been a couple of keywords that got automatically flagged - and that email was responded to within 45 minutes.

Regardless of how soon or how late we responded, there was definitely a lapse there. Whatever incident you flagged should have been responded to within the hour and then followed up with a more detailed response after somebody spoke to you on the phone.

So you're saying a machine flags keywords and tells you when it's a crisis?

No, not exactly. We have a person going through every piece of feedback.

We use keywords to filter critical incidents from other complaints. So, for example when somebody's like, 'I'm in an accident' or 'I'm going to die', something of that nature, those need to be responded more immediately.

When we get feedback or emails, with critical words or phrases in them, those get automatically flagged to our incident response team. The priority of those is higher.

Yes, some of the responses may look templated, but I can guarantee there's no computer responding to your email; a person is.

Once we've been able to investigate exactly what happened, somebody from the Uber team drops you a follow-up email informing you of the action we've taken.

I didn't receive any follow-up.

I can tell you that this particular driver you've complained about has been sent for re-training. He has actually been spoken to in person by our team today itself.

What does a driver go through in your training process?

We have a pretty stringent training process. It includes a module on safety, on passenger-driver etiquette and a bit on gender sensitisation.

How long is this training?

It lasts for half a day.

My driver Lokendra raised his hand to hit me on Friday. How is three hours of telling him to be nice going to change anything?

We've taken your specific feedback into account. We also know of his previous ratings, which were very positive.

The re-training is a one-on-one training with him to make sure these specific feedback issues are addressed. Essentially it is drilled into him that this is a final warning and that if we get more negative feedback, there's a high risk of it leading to a mid-term suspension wherein he would not be able to drive for a few weeks, or a permanent deactivation where he would never be able to drive on the Uber platform again.

Could you talk us through your driver selection process? What sort of background checks do you do?

Drivers come to us mainly through word of mouth.

We check for a valid police clearance certificate. We also check the validity of their driver's license.

To issue a commercial license permit, the state's transport authority requires police verification - so there's one check that happens at their end as well. Each of these drivers need to have a bank account, so going through the bank's KYC process and address verification is one more background check.

We also do a third-party background check through a global company called First Advantage. They do address verification, a local criminal court search and a national criminal database search.

In India it's not the hardest thing to get a police verification, driver's license or bank account. For example a local criminal search for Shiv Kumar Yadav, who was involved in the December Uber rape, wouldn't have shown up the sexual crimes he had committed elsewhere.

About the December rape incident, we had police verification and a character certificate neither of which threw up the driver's criminal history.

You're right about it being easy to bypass given that there is so much corruption in India. It's not easy to ensure everything is legitimate. Since December we have ensured every driver on our platform gets fresh police verification done.

In other metro cities we've taken things into our hands more actively by giving the police all the database details we've collected of our drivers, asking for their verification.

There was a report that said the Mumbai police were trying to do verification for all 40,000 taxi drivers. But with their capability or resources they could do actual verification of only 8,000 drivers.

So yes, there are certain core infrastructural challenges India suffers from. These are not in our control.

What does Uber do if a driver repeatedly gets low ratings - say he gets one-star ratings?

He would automatically get deactivated from the system. If you have between three to four one-star ratings in a row our system automatically suspends that person and flags it so that somebody on our team would look into the matter.

So for my driver to get suspended he would need to act this violently with three more passengers?

That's a hypothetical situation. But there's also a very hypothetical situation that this might never happen again.

Why does Uber not recognise the need for a more immediate manner of addressing a passenger in distress? Why can't we ever call you?

If you are a rider and you are in an emergency situation where you need an emergency response, the first person you will need to call is the police. They are best equipped to handle an emergency. Through the app you can call the nearest police station while simultaneously sending us an alert.

It's easy to bypass verifications given that there is so much corruption in India

There are pros and cons to making a phone complaint. If you are the affected party, then you want that emotion to come across to the person you are speaking to. A lot of times, if you have had even five minutes to take a breath or time to compose yourself, sometimes there is more clarity of thought because emotions can take precedence otherwise.

We do email for now because the objective of redressal is served through email.

Let's just go back 20-30 years. If you were in a taxi and went through a bad situation, would you talk to someone? Probably not.

What do you mean?

I mean if you were in a kaali peeli (black-and-yellow cab), who would you call?

That's no argument. You're a cutting-edge company using the latest technology. Why would you compare yourself to a kaali peeli?

I'm aksing whether the rider in a kaali peeli previously going through a rough situation have phone recourse? My answer would be no. With Uber, we bring accountability to the fore. You actually have a lot of recourse. You can email, post on Facebook or Tweet and you have a guarantee that action will be taken either in the form of retraining, suspension or permanent expelling.

Compare yourself to any other cab service in this country. If Ola or Meru or other cab services can have a phone that gives the customer some assurance of being heard, why can't Uber?

It goes back to what we feel works best. Sometimes it's just an assurance of speaking to someone that makes a person feel that the situation is taken care of. But how often does that happen? If you call the Meru helpline or any other I doubt they would really give you an answer, do something about your complaint or even pick up the phone if you called them right now.

Not true. I can say from experience that any other cab service records your complaint, asks you questions to get more details before finally assuring you that action will be taken. What more does a distressed customer need?

No response.

Your recent marketing campaigns like Uber puppies or Uber daddies or the free rides you give away - they seem like an extravagant way to cover up the absence of a safe service.

We've always done these marketing initiatives. There's no reason for us to stop. These have been part of the Uber brand before Uber even came to India. Part of it is trying to give customers an amazing experience they wouldn't be able to have on demand anywhere else.

Uber is investing $50 million to set up a support centre in Telangana. Is any of this going allow for better complaint redressal?

Our new support centre in Hyderabad will benefit both riders and drivers. We already have an incident response team in Hyderabad that handles all critical incidents for India on a real-time basis. This is managed 24x7. This setup in Telangana is a help-desk to resolve thickets. If we get a complaint at 2 am, we'd be calling back within minutes to find out more.

Passengers such as me will get a faster response?


Finally, is it even on Uber's radar to set up a phone-based helpline that customers can reach you on?

As far as I know, no.

First published: 17 July 2015, 2:22 IST