What’s Behind the Problems with Uber’s Support Operation?

After hearing thousands of driver complaints about Uber’s support operation, Ridester decided to investigate and find out more about just what’s behind these problems.

When Uber launched its “180 Days of Change” one of the first things it promised to do was to improve driver support.  But, since then things seem to have only gotten worse.

If you ask a group of drivers where Uber’s support is handled, most of them will tell you the Philippines.  I don’t know how they know because I’ve never had a support representative tell me where they were located.  But somehow they usually get it right.

So, we thought we would take a closer look and let you in on who is responsible for Uber’s support and how they have structured it.

Rachel Holt is VP and Regional General Manager of US and Canadian operations at Uber.  On her LinkedIn page, she says she also works “with teams who oversee our global customer support and greenlight operations.”

She is generally credited in the media as the one who is responsible for running Uber’s North American support operations.  Holt has been with the company since 2011 when she started as a General Manager in Washington D.C.  recode reports that she has been “primarily focused on fixing the driver support issues and creating a better value proposition for drivers as a whole.”

According to recode, Uber has acknowledged that they feel the need to retain as many U.S. drivers as they possibly can.  As the company has grown so large it has become harder and harder to attract new drivers.  In some ways they have reached the limits of attracting drivers from the pool of people who would be likely interested in driving.  So, they have come to realize that retaining drivers must be a bigger priority.

But so far, improving driver support to the point of effectively responding to driver requests has eluded them.

In the early days of Uber up until about 2014, driver and rider support was handled primarily by city teams.  Teams were located around the country, usually working out of the largest city in a given region and handling support for their entire region.  Team members were very familiar with the areas they worked in (because they actually lived there) and they gave drivers pretty decent support back then.

I remember back in 2013-2014 whenever I contacted Uber for support I was always impressed with the fact the support people knew the area.  I could refer to different places and locations the way a local would talk to another local – and they always knew exactly what I was talking about.

I could write in and say I wasn’t paid for a toll at the Lincoln Tunnel crossing in New York City and I would get a response back from someone who actually knew what the Lincoln Tunnel was and they knew how much we were supposed to get paid for it.  Now, if I wrote in about that same issue, I’d get back a pre-written response from the Uber driver FAQ pages that explains how and when drivers get paid for tolls.  If I wrote back to say I know the general rules, but in this specific situation, I wasn’t paid.  I’d get the same message again in response.

Or even better, the local teams were great when it came to routing problems.  If a passenger complained that you took a bad route, you could let the local team know that the traffic was really bad at that time on the usual route – and they would know.  They knew most of the major routes and they knew where and when traffic was normally a problem – because they lived there.

But now, if you have a routing issue, all the support person in the Philippines can do is look at Google Maps and see lines drawn on the screen and assume the shortest line is the best route.  They have absolutely no idea about the regular traffic patterns in any of the cities they provide support for.

The best part back then was that there was only one way to contact Uber, but it worked.  It was by email.  No complicated menus of options to sort through trying to figure out which one will give you a way to contact them.  No phone call to make an hour of hold time.  And no having to speak to an offshore support agent who can barely understand you.  Just a simple, easy-to-remember email address.

In New York, the easy-to-remember email address was [email protected]  In New Jersey, it was [email protected]  And if you sent the email from the email address Uber had on file for you they would instantly know who you were and they could answer your questions.  You may not always like the answer, but at least it was coherent and related to your question.

Uber lost the local touch as it scaled up in size and had to find a way to handle an ever-increasing number of support requests not only from drivers but from riders as well.  So they began hiring remote contractors.  They also began outsourcing larger and larger portions of that work to places like the Philippines and India.

ZeroChaos and TaskUs

As Uber experienced explosive growth, the financial burden of continuing to handle support with local teams was becoming more and more of a problem.

Call center in the Philippines

As the volume of complaints increased Uber decided to hire full-time remote employees who would work from home.  All these employees were located in the US and trained directly by Uber.  The first groups of these employees were given full benefits, including “amazing insurance” according to Quartz, as well as perks like employee discounts.

The staff continued to expand and in late 2014 Uber turned over its support operation and team to a company called ZeroChaos.  ZeroChaos is a US company, based in Orlando.  Uber’s support staff was transferred to their control and given one-year contracts.  Around that time Uber began making moves to dump most of its US-based full-time support employees entirely.

Agents who had originally been hired by Uber and now transferred to ZeroChaos, began to notice support tickets trickling in from Manilla.

Uber was working to shift the bulk of its support work to cheap offshore labor while retaining a whittled down US staff to handle the more sensitive problems.  For instance, a rider might contact Uber to report she had left her purse in the car.  The support representative from the Philippines would write back and give her the driver’s phone number.  But if the rider had any problems at all contacting the driver, she would write back to let Uber know she couldn’t get in contact and the Filipino office would then pass the message to an American support rep to handle from there.

One full-time Uber customer service agent told Quarts that they, “started noticing that some of the agents listed in our ticket system were from Manila.  We also started working on tickets with them.  That was my first hint that Uber had begun outsourcing to workers overseas.”

The Heart of the Problem

Now, we come to the beginning of Uber’s current support operation problems.  When they began outsourcing to ZeroChaos, they lost their direct involvement in the training and supervision of its support staff.

At the same time Uber was gearing up a full-fledged Filipino staff through another company called TaskUs over which they would have even less supervision and control.  This is normal in when a company begins to outsource its support operations, but it’s also the crux of its problems.

TaskUs is another American company, which is headquartered in Santa Monica, and handles support operations for many of the largest and most well-known recent internet start-ups.  They handle support for online companies as diverse as Uber, Airbnb and Etsy.

And they’ve been growing rapidly.  In its early years the main TaskUs base of operations was the Philippines.  In 2015, they had 4,000 support reps working in the Philippines.  In 2017 they invested $25 million in a major expansion there and, according to Biz Journals, they now have more than 10,000 employees based in the Philippines.

Just last year they also opened a 32,000-square-foot space in San Antonio which will soon accommodate 500 new American employees – which is just five percent the size of its Filipino work force.

It’s clear that Uber is trying to save as much money on support operations as possible by having the vast majority of all support contacts handled in the Philippines while maintaining a skeleton US-based operation to handle the more complex calls and tickets.

Task Us Support Center in the Philippines

Since 2015, the Filipino agents have been quickly training for and performing more and more of the jobs that the US-based agents formerly handled.

However, as any driver or rider who has had to contact Uber’s support will tell you – that training has not been effective.

Sources told recode that often times “incidents would fall through the cracks as a result of the importance placed on quickly answering complaints as opposed to sufficiently answering them.  The company admits that the customer support infrastructure became too separate from its overall operations.  To that end, [Rachel] Holt has been leading the effort to ensure that this typically final touchpoint between drivers and the company is run properly and is prioritized.”

And there you have the bottom line as to why you’re not getting competent support from the Philippines.  The priority has been on answering support requests as quickly as possible.  And in fact, that is the one thing drivers have given credit to Uber for – they have noticed and appreciated that they get quick responses.  But the responses more often than not don’t answer their questions.  They don’t even exhibit that the responder has read and understood the question.

Customer service agents have told the media that their performance is measured not by how well they answer each ticket, but by how many tickets they answer each hour.  They’re rewarded for the number of tickets they answer and penalized for answering them right.  To rightly answer a support request takes a lot more time than a quick copy and paste job.  That explains why the drivers in this article got the same brain-dead answers over and over again.

This Promotional Video from Uber Illustrates the Problem

This is a promotional video produced by Uber.  It’s not clear what the purpose of the video is – whether it’s to recruit new drivers or to recruit support staff.  But what is clear is that these are full-time Uber support employees in Manila and they’re talking about how awesomely amazing it is to work for Uber!  Watch the video and then take note of a couple of things we mention below.

Notice at 00:34 a Filipino support representative says:

Every day we’re thrown in the deep end not knowing what kind of things we’re going to have to deal with.  When you think about it, it’s actually scary sometimes, but it’s the best way to grow.

You have to ask – why is she so scared?  Are they that unprepared that they literally have no idea what kinds of things they’re going to have to deal with every day?  Uber should well know exactly what kinds of things they are going to have to deal with.  And they should have extensive training to be prepared for those things so they wouldn’t have to go into work scared every day!

At 00:46 another employee says:

I’m the biggest advocate of Uber.  I used to be a rider and now as an employee.

Well, I think we can all agree that that really hits the nail on the head and gets us to the root of the real problem when it comes to Uber’s driver support operation.  She says she used to be a rider and now she’s a full-time driver support employee.  She went straight from riding to a full-time driver support job!  Perhaps if Uber hired a few drivers to handle driver support they’d be a lot more effective.  And we’d all get a lot better support.