Monday, January 27, 2014

A child of the digital age

The New York Times has published a fascinating story about the successes and tribulations of Uber, the digital taxi company.  To me, the really interesting part is the portrayal of the founder and CEO, Travis Kalanick.  I don't want to overstate this, but Mr. Kalanick embodies some characteristics of the "digital generation" that are problematic.  Specifically, while his digital skills are unquestionable, his interpersonal skills might need some work.

The story starts with a hint of the problem:

Mr. Kalanick, who is brash and aggressive even by the standards of Silicon Valley, created Uber four years ago to blow up the traditional taxi business. In more than 60 cities, from San Francisco to Berlin, it is doing just that. Anyone with a smartphone can use Uber’s software to get a ride. . . .  For that achievement, Uber is valued at $4 billion.

There have been some recent incidents, though, that raise questions about aspects of the company's business model and, in particular, its assertion that its service should not be regulated by traditional hackney licensing boards.  Mr. Kalanick agreed to talk to a reporter about these matters, but apparently he did not fully understand the way a CEO might want to talk to a business reporter.

About a recent accident involving an Uber driver who hit 6-year-old Sofia Liu and injured her mother and brother and has been arrested on suspicion of vehicular manslaughter:

In a testy interview at Uber’s offices here, Mr. Kalanick declined to discuss the accident except in the most general terms.

“We work our butts off to go above and beyond what is expected even by the regulators, including insurance, background checks,” he said. “And so it always comes back to, did Uber do something wrong?”

Whew, what a way not to give a positive impression of a caring company!

Not exacty the right response when the competition is able to deliver another kind of message:

The San Francisco Cab Drivers Association, which is losing drivers to Uber, prominently offered condolences to Sofia’s family on its website.

 “Uber may be the next Amazon, but Amazon doesn’t have the same potential capability to leave a trail of bodies in the street,” Trevor Johnson, a director of the association and a driver himself, wrote in an email. 

When asked about another incident, one in which a driver and a passenger got into a verbal and physical altercation late one night in November:

Mr. Kalanick declined to comment about this episode, and shortly afterward, ended the interview.

But, look, he is comfortable dealing in a digital format with people:

David Krane, who last summer led a $258 million investment in Uber by Google Ventures, was full of admiration for Mr. Kalanick and what he called his “superpowers,” including his attention to detail. 

“I know very few chief executives that on New Year’s Day would answer 100 customer service inquiries in public,” Mr. Krane said.

I think the head of the cab association has a good point.  When a company in the digital arena arrives on the streets or in people's homes or businesses to deliver goods or services, it enters into different kinds of business risks.  It would be a good idea to train the CEO of such a company in the basics of person-to-person communication.  I know too many people of the digital age who say, "Well, email and texting are a more efficient way to communicate."  Let's remember that empathy is the most powerful communications tool, one that most often has to be displayed in person.


Barry Carol said...

I think it’s also worth noting that Uber’s business model itself may be problematic. If I found myself in need of a cab on New Year’s Eve or during a snowstorm and found that the fare was going to be 4-7 times the normal rate, I might pay it but then go out of my way to NOT use their service during more normal times. Price gouging of that magnitude would be like Home Depot quadrupling the price of lumber after hurricane Sandy or one of the few gas stations open during a gas shortage charging $20-$25 per gallon for gas. There is a lot to be said for building a long term relationship with customers by treating them fairly especially when we need them the most.

Vamsi Aribindi said...

Hmm, I agree with the general premise of this article, but I don't think that poor interpersonal skills are restricted to "digital generation". In your experience Mr. Levy, I suspect you have many stories of meetings where the interpersonal skills of surgeons (a group I hope to join) are on full display.

Vamsi Aribindi

Paul Levy said...

Good point, Vamsi!

Anonymous said...

Have you read iBrain? The brains of the technology generation are wired differently. Author details his findings.

Unknown said...

This is an excellent blog piece.... applicable to medicine and the way medical errors or adverse events are handled too. It doesn't matter how cool our technology or techniques are when something goes wrong, it requires basic human interpersonal skills.

clsmt said...

This attitude is an entrepreneurial one – regulators will get in my way and slow me down, they are evil. Never mind that the competition is slow and encumbered because they are following the rules. The point of Uber wasn’t to be safe – it was to make money offering rides. That the CEO is not a terribly compassionate human being is not much of a surprise – he wants to make money not impress people with his personality. He has the virtue of being honest about things – I prefer that to the smiles and politically correct mouthings that mean nothing in terms of real action.
Troubles of this sort are not just limited to this CEO or his company. 23 and me and other “personal genomics” companies got into similar trouble marketing genetic testing to the public because they did not perform their assays in regulated labs. They argued that their tests were for informational purposes only (never mind that they would tell people about the probability of them getting diseases like diabetes and heart disease. The state of CA ordered them to stop testing until they could perform their assays with licensed staff in regulated and licensed labs and the FDA asserted their regulatory influence as well.

Danny Getchell said...

What I wish that Uber would say is that it's not regulation they have a problem with, it's regulatory capture.

The existing taxi regulators in all our cities should be confined to enforcing safety and insurance standards (and they should do that rigorously). They should refrain from attempting to control entry to the market.

Doctoid said...

Interpersonal skill is very important to handle difficult situations, From a distance everything will seem like simple, but when we are in that situation many things will rule in our brain like tension, pressure, stress, etc. It's depend up on balancing and managing the situation. It seems that Uber driver doesn't know how to handle a worst situation.