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Uber is built on trust. Now it needs to maintain it: Chris MacDonald

Money alone won't solve the company's problems

The Uber app is seen on a smartphone past cabs waiting for clients near the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, on December 9, 2014. A judge on December 9, 2014 banned the popular smartphone taxi service Uber from operating in Spain, court officials said, following similar prohibition action in several other countries.

(Quique Garia/AFP/Getty)

Uber isn’t in the taxi business. It’s not even in the tech business. It’s in the “trust” business. That is, it’s in the business of building trust between strangers. And if it can’t figure out how to do that, it will fail.

The company’s “UberX” program hit a horrifying bump in the road this week, as one of its drivers in Delhi allegedly raped a female passenger. The incident earned the company a complete ban throughout the Delhi region, and is sure to send shockwaves through a much broader global community of users and potential users of UberX.

For all its success, Uber has had plenty of troubles. It’s been accused of anti-competitive behaviours. It’s been accused of privacy violations. Some of these problems can be overcome through smarter use of technology — and after all, that’s what Uber is supposed to be good at. But it’s important to see that the key to Uber’s success isn’t its mobile app. It’s the ability to get strangers to trust each other. If Uber wants to keep its recent $40 billion valuation, it’s going to have to figure that out.

Because commerce— all commerce—relies upon trust.

When I hop into a taxi, I’m not just getting a ride to a destination. I’m getting an exchange of trust. Think about it: I’m getting into a car with a stranger. But the branding of the cab company, plus the municipal licensing, give me some assurance that a) I’m going to get where I ask to go; b) I’ll arrive there alive; and c) I’ll be given the correct change even if I fail to count it.

Uber got big by leveraging the pre-existing trust that most of us have in taxis. The key question, then, is whether Uber will be able to sustain that trust.

It’s not just about customers—trust has to be built and maintained with drivers, too. I spoke to one Uber driver recently who said that some drivers have left the service because of how the company has treated them. He suggested that such drivers feel that by introducing UberX, the company has effectively turned its back on the professional drivers that built the brand. Perhaps the company doesn’t care about the professional drivers—perhaps its long game lies with UberX. But if informed and experienced professional drivers don’t trust Uber, it’s hard to see how amateurs are going to do so.

MORE: Uber can’t be an $18 billion company with marketing this dorky »

So, Uber needs two things in order to build and maintain trust.

First, it needs to make smarter use of the technology at its fingertips. Some of that is already in place—simple, trustworthy financial transactions are clearly a key component of the company’s success to date. But it also needs to assure users that, for example, the company can be trusted with the vast amounts of data it gathers on their travel behaviour. Finally, the company needs not just the technical infrastructure of trust, it needs to engage in behaviour that will signal to users that the company is here to stay, here to be trusted, here to be a reliable and trustworthy service provider for the long run.

Chris MacDonald is director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management, and founding co-editor of the Business Ethics Journal Review.

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