Monday, January 27, 2014

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.


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