Episode One Hundred and Thirty One: To Serve; Odds

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

Our car is being ScotchGuarded. I suppose it’s the equivalent of putting a nanofilm of carbon on top of every possible surface in the car so that when it inevitable gets baby vomit or poo on it, it’s easy to wipe off. Materials science!

I am sitting in the customer service area of the car dealership where we bought the New Car, sponging off the Complimentary Internet Hot Spot, which is nice because it means I won’t need to charge my phone halfway through the day because I’ve been tethering off it.

Listening to: Alan Silvestri’s original soundtrack to The Avengers

1.0 To Serve

I’m going to pull on the thread here a little bit more, based on some replies I’ve had from readers about what they think is interesting about what Uber does. I’ll leave aside again, for the sake of argument, all the stuff about Uber’s business practices and their ethics, and instead concentrate on the *what* that they’ve done, and the how that they’ve done it in terms of their product, and not in terms of how they approach a market and how Travis Kalanick characterises the industries he’s entering.

In other words, there may well have been certain elements about the way Uber approached running its business (not bothering with getting licenses, for example) that made it more feasible as a going concern, but I’m going to ignore those to see if or how incumbents could’ve done what Uber did in terms of providing a service to their customers. What that means is, we’re going to assume that existing taxi regulations in whatever city don’t actively prevent the top-level user experience of smartphone-based ordering and ride-matching between passengers and drivers.

All of this, of course, is with the benefit of excessively rose-tinted hindsight, but it’s all in attempt to identify what else can be done in the future. If we can learn from what Uber did that made them so successful, then we can look at what else can be done in other industries.

The job-to-be-done is getting from one place to another, and knowing that it’s going to happen. There’s something different in terms of the feeling of being in control that you can have when you book a car via the Uber app – you see where the car is, and you see that it’s coming toward you, as well as an estimated delivery time. In other words: there’s evidence that the promise made between you and the transportation service provider is being fulfilled – I’m asking for a car, and you’re sending it to me. There’s none of the ambiguity that exists in calling up a car service and being told that it’ll be there “within ten to fifteen minutes” and the interminable waiting that might occur between that call and the car arriving.

I don’t think it’s as simple as removing the human from the service equation, which is an abhorrent enough phrase as it is. You can order food from Grubhub, without having a human in the service equation, without having to pick up the phone and having to talk to someone, and *still get terrible service*. As much of this is, I think, in transparency as well:

– you’ve ordered a car
– the driver knows you’ve ordered a car
– you know where the driver is
– the driver knows where you are
– you’ve been told how long it will take the driver to get to you
– the driver knows you’ve been told how long it will take to get to you

and so on: there’s more of a symmetry and more of an equal contract – ish – between the two parties so you both know what’s going on. Also: as a passenger, you’re going to get a shitty rating if you just jump into another car, and another driver’s going to know not to accept a ride from you.

So it’s not that the service is good from just the passenger’s point of view, it’s that it’s also better from the driver’s point of view.

You don’t get this kind of neat symmetry when you’re talking about accepting orders at Starbucks “through an app”, because I’d argue that you don’t have the same alignment of interests. Baristas don’t necessarily rate their customers (right?) and they don’t get to decide whether or not they pick up your drink order. They just come in, first-in-first-out fashion. So I’m not persuaded that this Uberification of things is a reaction against just having to deal with humans in the first place (even though some of my best friends are the kind of people who really prefer not to have to talk to other humans on the phone).

But (and I digress here).

I don’t mind talking to a human when a human can actually help me. Which is where this comes back to doing the job that needs to be done: the point is service. I don’t mind calling up Delta’s booking line because the number they give me as a frequent flyer is answered quickly, and they *always* help me out on complicated stuff. And they do it quickly and courteously. The alternative to this is self-service, which if I’m being honest is something that takes up my time compared to someone who knows what they’re doing.

In other words, it’s the focus on the job-to-be-done. Only then, once the job’s done, can we talk about other things: I don’t get upsold an economy comfort seat if I’ve decided not to buy one, I don’t get upsold in-flight wifi and I don’t get upsold travel insurance. I get exactly what I want first, and then we can figure everything else out.

So in this way, I’m not persuaded by off-the-shelf software, unless it’s configurable and extensible in a pretty extensive manner. You can take examples like timesheet recording software and I’ve been in the stupendously lucky position of having worked at a big agency where there’s always been someone else to do all that tedious form-filling for me: which is all very well and good for me, but when you don’t have the luxury to sit down and figure out: what are we recording, and why are we recording it? What’s the best way for us to do that? What are the jobs to be done, and in a transactional process, what do all the parties need?

Part of what strikes me is transparency in lieu of a general lack of trust: when I don’t know if you’ve done the thing that you’ve said you’d do (ie: most interactions with customer service in large utilities) then I’m already predisposed to not want to listen to you, or to need documentation. In other words, I want transparency: I want proof that you’re doing the thing you said you’d do. Sometimes this is an accidental output of the system: frequently when I’m talking to someone on the Delta line, I’ll get the emailed itinerary confirmation a few tens of seconds *before* they even tell me they’ve finished booking. But this is why some people record their phonecalls with Comcast, and why the joke about recording calls training purposes is black humour: because we don’t know what customer service reps are being trained in.

2.0 Odds

Another PlayStation 4 software update that reminds me that I will need to quit “applications”, which word feels so horridly out-of-date now and less friendly than “apps”, which have entered everyday language as “a computer program that does a thing.”

An Apple TV software update that requires yet more Cable Company authentication, and no open standard to do it, and definitely not an authenticate-once system because hey, those legacy media platforms are desperately trying to hang on to every last scrap of revenue that they can get, but at least HBO looks like it’s moving toward un-trialling the Comcast Internet+HBO bundle and unbundling for everyone.

Already, talk of Uber and its ilk “winning”, states purchasing mass-transit services from private companies (so, like the UK, then, with Transport for London specifying services and those being bid for by private companies?), but of course, the question there being: what kind of subsidy provided to Uber and in exchange for what kind of service? Already we have companies like Strava providing cycling data to cities and governments because: who else has data like Strava? In some ways it’s a bit weird (well no, not really) that we can invoke a National Security reason to have data extracted under gag or cover of darkness from companies like Facebook or Google because something might blow up, but for longer-term infrastructural threats or weaknesses like planning economies or building resiliency.

This is at the same time that Airbnb has announced partnerships with the cities of San Francisco and Portland, OR to help provide disaster response. The company identified that there are members of their community – users or hosts – who want to help in the wake of something like Sandy or Katrina, and open their doors to those in need. Sure, this is another example of a public/private partnership and an example of infrastructure that’s enabled by private enterprise: but the network of obligations isn’t entirely clear. For example (not that this might matter, in the end), but what’s the chain of liability for a host in a disaster situation? What happens if you end up staying at a host’s Airbnb and your stuff gets stolen? Or what happens if you steal from a host?

Part of this reminds me of billeting and the ‘vacuees – imagine a do-over of World War 2, with children in cities evacuated to the countryside. How would the government of the day, or private enterprise go about that process?

OK, that’s Tuesday. My brain’s fried and I’m reeling a bit.