Dorian Stone

Last week, I couldn’t get Uber to work. Late at night, on a corner with little traffic, I called the local taxi company…and to my complete surprise, the person answering sounded very different than the last time I called. The gruff, usually impolite dispatcher’s voice rising above a background chorus of curt radio exchanges with drivers was gone. Replacing it? The clear and cheerful voice of a woman — it conjured up visions of a mid-westerner, sitting on the phone at the kitchen table while trying to help a neighbor.
The surprises didn’t stop there. The dispatcher took my name, my number and invited me to call back if I waited longer than expected. One minute before arrival, I received a text message that my driver would arrive. My driver promptly arrived, as promised, one minute later.
This type of change just doesn’t happen at a typical taxi company. It was cause enough for me to ask the driver of the taxi — an immigrant from India who bought his San Francisco medallion for $200,000+ almost a decade ago — about the changes that had taken place. He reported that 6 months prior, dispatch had been moved to a call center in Las Vegas. He also thought that the change was fantastic: gone was the previous model of dispatch based on favoritism and rewarded with kick-backs. Now, drivers were dispatched based on who could serve the customer quickest.
This seemed like a revelation. A taxi company operating as a taxi company should!
But the most striking thing about all these changes: all of them could have — and should have — been made before the arrival of Uber or of Lyft. The taxi companies knew what they needed to fix; they didn’t even need to ask. Any person who had tried to take a taxi in San Francisco could have told them; and that story is probably the same as the folks in any big city would have had. The taxi system wasn’t great. People didn’t use it because they wanted to; they used it because they had to. An incumbent, monopoly mindset prevailed; changes could be made slowly and on the taxi company’s terms — because customers had no other choice.
Until, of course, they did have a choice.
Tragically, it took serious pressure from a series of upstarts to create the most basic of changes that were better for customers and drivers: putting the most important actors at the center of the business. Taxi companies thought they were safe with their monopoly. They waited until they had to make the changes to do so. And then? Then it was too late. Customers remember how you’ve treated them; when a competitor finally comes along, how do you think they’re going to respond? If you don’t improve — why would they go back? And if you do improve — well, why did it take a competitor to come along to treat them with decency? You could have done this all along.
Why should I give you my business now?
The idea that you can rely on a monopoly to win in the long run is not just the wrong thing to do; with the rise of digital disruptors, it’s simply bad business. Increasingly, the only monopoly that you’ll really be able to create is one where you’re delivering to your customers and employees in such a way that they’d have no reason to go somewhere else.
For the taxi companies, it is too late to regain an regular usage from me. Too little, too late, and under too much duress to get it to happen is what I am left with.
The only question left for me: which industry is next?

Photo Credit: Bill Selak