Uber's varying quality should be an opportunity, not a weakness

By Sarah Lacy , written on October 16, 2012

From The News Desk

Most great things become slightly crappier the more mainstream they get. Is that a rule of the Internet, or all of life?

Whichever it is, it's particularly pronounced with things that are sold as luxury experiences. As soon as I heard that the Bay Area was selling out of Town Cars because the demand to be an Uber driver was so great, I assumed it was a matter of time before the Uber experience became less, well, Uber. In my experience, something different has happened instead. The drivers haven't gotten worse, but they've begun to starkly diverge in quality.

Consider the driver I had on Sunday on the way to the 49ers game. He called just after we got the text that he'd arrived and demanded to know whether we were coming. That's something I expect from Luxor, not Uber. When my husband got in the car and told him another person was coming, his response was "TODAY?" He had literally been waiting a matter of minutes. At the 49ers stadium, he pulled in the wrong entrance and proceeded to get into a screaming match with the attendant, while not letting us out of the car. Says Paul Carr about his own recent experience with a not so Uber car: "I was picked up the other day in what was essentially a refurbished hearse with candy in the back."

By dramatic contrast was my glorious driver yesterday. He picked me up at the Ferry Building, and this time I was legitimately running very late. But he couldn't have been friendlier: There was a full smorgasbord of water, gum, and candies all laid out, and soft inoffensive hits of the 80s playing on the radio. He happily swung by the Four Seasons, when I last-minute decided to pick up Paul on the way to my dinner. When Paul got in the car, even he commented how baller it felt.

There was a certain je ne sais quoi I can't quite articulate, but I truly felt for a moment like I was a billionaire with my own driver. The only other Uber experience I've had this good was the guy who had a silver dish of handmade and individual wrapped caramels. "Candy?" he said as he smiled doing his best Jeeves impression and sweeping the tray across the back seat. It was as if he was some kind of Uber/Zaarly mash up.

So Uber appears to be getting both better and worse at once. Here's the problem: Both of these drivers had similar ratings: a solid four-point-something. That says to me ratings simply don't work.

Here's an idea: Rather than accepting that the growing Uber quality spectrum is a roll of the dice, how about make it into an incentive for both drivers and passengers? I'd much rather pay a few dollars more for an amazing driver than a bigger car. I'd love to see an UberGold category for the best drivers in the fleet. Drivers strive to get -- and keep -- gold status. Either riders can pay extra for UberGold, or -- better yet -- give them the option of upgrading, like using mileage to get into First Class on a flight. The more you use Uber, you earn more points to get better drivers. Make it good enough and people would actually fight over who got to book the car on a group outing to get the credits.

Just one user's view? Maybe not. I have it on good authority that Uber ran a stealth campaign along these lines for the London Olympics. A VIP friend tells PandoDaily that he happened to get the same driver multiple times in London. Flummoxed, he asked how this had happened and whether there weren't many Uber drivers in London yet. The coincidence seemed uncanny.

The driver confessed that Uber had specially trained a SWAT team of elite drivers and flagged certain VIP accounts. They were told to make the VIPs feel like Uber was the most magical thing on earth.

I hope that's not a driver-spread urban Uber legend, because it shows uncanny savvy on the part of Uber to keep its fleet feeling elite -- at least for its most valued customers. And, like with an airline, "valued" should equal loyal, not famous and rich.

[Editor's Note: That amazing image is not of an actual Uber driver, but was found on Shutterstock.]