Uber has an outstanding business model, and it’s been the leader in successfully disrupting the declining taxicab industry—but all of that will mean nothing if the company continues to stumble into one controversy after another.
The name Uber is synonymous with bad PR, and for good reason. Multiple drivers in the U.S. have been accused of sexual assault, and in India, a female passenger accused a driver of rape, setting off calls for Uber to institute background checks and boost its safety measures.
Add to that a high-profile blunder by an Uber executive and concerns about how the company recruits drivers and treats customer data, and the ride-share startup faces a precarious situation.
Despite its problems, Uber is still considered safer than most taxi services, and it has created an efficient system for ride sharing that seems to be here to stay. The problem is that Uber is terrible at communicating these things, and it needs to do a better job of responding to issues as they arise.
Being the leader in a fledgling industry means Uber is a natural target for detractors, but the company needs to avoid giving its critics fuel to add to the fire. If Uber wants to restore its public image, it will need to make a concerted effort. Here are three steps to get started:
Uber has shown that it’s capable of reacting well in tricky situations. When its automated "surge pricing" kicked in during the Sydney hostage crisis and rates skyrocketed for rides out of the area, Uber responded quickly.
The company offered free rides to people trying to leave Sydney’s central business district, and it reimbursed people affected by the surge pricing. Uber’s actions were spot-on, and it needs to follow this script in the future.
Better yet, the next step is to make it a matter of policy that drivers will offer free rides during crisis situations to help get people out of harm’s way. A small gesture such as this could go a long way toward rehabilitating Uber’s image.
Uber has spent a lot of time—and used a lot of shady tactics—trying to undermine Lyft, its chief competitor, and poach Lyft drivers, but the company needs to realize that the best way to attract drivers and beat its competitors is to treat its drivers better. Specifically, Uber should focus on two areas:
Uber came under fire last year after it was revealed that company executives could use an internal tool called "God View" to track customers and view their ride history.
Uber needs to make it clear that users have complete control over their own data and guarantee a certain level of privacy. The service needs to give users better visibility into what pieces of data the company retains and give them the ability to delete or withhold certain data in some cases.
Uber could expand on this privacy mantra by offering "private rides" in which information isn’t shared with Uber unless there’s an emergency.
Uber isn’t the only company that will suffer from a public image crisis. For business leaders, there are several things to take away from Uber’s experience.
First of all, it’s critical that business leaders monitor customer sentiment scores—whether that’s through public polls or Net Promoter Scores—and provide easy feedback channels. If those scores start to drop, they need to determine why and fix the problems. Offer customers incentives to return, and explain how the issues have been resolved.
Secondly, business leaders should understand the importance of safeguarding customer information. Businesses should set strict limits on what customer data is available to employees and ensure it’s the minimum necessary to deliver a product or service. Customers appreciate and expect transparency, and they’ll reward you with loyalty if you respect their privacy and let them know how you treat their data.
Above all else, don’t be afraid to apologize. Consumers want companies to accept some form of responsibility when bad things happen—whether the company was directly involved or not. Consumers have a certain level of tolerance for mistakes, and if you’re willing to apologize, they’re usually willing to forgive.
Ultimately, it comes down to whether a company can exhibit humility and a willingness to change. This is a very simple idea, but it’s hard to execute. Although Uber isn’t in danger of losing its foothold in the ride-sharing industry quite yet, if it fails to show a willingness to fix what’s wrong, it could easily lose its place in the market.
—TX Zhuo is a managing partner of Karlin Ventures, an L.A.-based venture capital firm that focuses on early-stage enterprise software, e-commerce, and marketplaces. Follow the company on Twitter.