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Reuters/Erik de Castro
A call center in Manila.
LIGHTS OUT

Uber customer complaints from the US are increasingly handled in the Philippines

Josh Horwitz
By Josh Horwitz

Asia Correspondent

When Uber users have complaints, they tend to be personal and very specific. Their driver might have turned right on Second Street instead of First Street, causing the fare to go up when it shouldn’t have. They might have left their purse in the car, leaving them with no cash on hand until it is retrieved.

But as the company has grown, Uber’s customer service, at least in the US, is increasingly being conducted from afar. Until fairly recently, users in the US who e-mailed a complaint to support@uber.com (the only way to contact Uber’s customer service directly) would get a local customer service rep from the same city, or maybe even the same time zone. Starting in late 2014, though, Uber began outsourcing some of its US customer-service tasks overseas to low-cost areas including the Philippines, according to customer service representatives and company executives.

The process hasn’t always gone smoothly, one US-based Uber agent said. “The quality of the [agents in the Philippines’] work is absolutely abysmal. They don’t follow policies and procedures,” the agent said, speaking to Quartz on the condition of anonymity over the course of several interviews.

Outsourcing customer support is the norm for many big companies, but at Uber it comes with special challenges. Bank of America, for example, outsources a large part of its call center operations to the Philippines. American Airlines does as well. But Uber deals in people rather than pixels. It provides an immediate, real-world, very localized service. Drivers and passengers with specific concerns might feel that the best qualified service rep is someone from the neighborhood, who understands the city, its laws, and its culture.

One common mishap from overseas outsourced reps involves issuing canned responses to specific, and pressing, questions. Once, a woman emailed support to report an assault, the agent said, but it took 24 hours for her message to be sent to Uber’s incident response team. “This should go straight to the incident response team so we can take care of it right away. Instead they sent one of our general [canned responses for disgruntled passengers],” the agent said.

An Uber spokesperson told Quartz that the company does intend to “increase capacity” for US-facing customer service teams in Manila, but did not answer questions about its total number of customer service representatives it employs worldwide, how many it now employs in the Philippines, or when the company started making the shift.

Uber is currently hiring a “community support manager” in the Philippines who will, according to the job description, “take ownership of building Uber’s global support center that will deliver world-class service to tens of thousands of riders across the world.” Here’s more from the description:

  • As an early leader of a rapidly growing team, you will develop your own people, implement new systems, and create training programs to lay the foundation for a global support center that will employ large numbers of support representatives. You will lead by example, resolving the toughest of issues from riders and ensuring that your team constantly performs at a high level.
  • Uber is rapidly growing in cities across the globe. You will have daily interaction with city teams in different parts of the world to deliver amazing support that is critical for us to continue growing at this pace.

Uber’s spokesperson told Quartz that new hires in the Philippines won’t affect the jobs of Uber’s US-based support staff. The spokesperson also emphasized that the company would be building out a “customer support network” in cities such as Dublin, Chicago, Phoenix, and elsewhere.

Outsourcing came alongside Uber’s fast growth

Within four years, Uber has grown into a $40 billion company, active across 171 cities in the United States alone, and 58 other countries. It logs millions of rides daily, and since 2011 has gone from receiving thousands of monthly complaints to millions.

When the company started, driver and rider complaints in the US were once handled by the local staff for each city. Every reported lost wallet in Boston, for example, would be dealt with by a Boston Uber manager.

As riders and drivers grew in the US, and complaint volume increased, the company decided to hire remote, full-time employees to field complaints from home—all of whom were, at first, in the US and trained by Uber. “The first groups of [customer service reps] to be hired were hired on as actual Uber employees with full benefits, including amazing insurance, employee discounts, etc.” the anonymous customer service agent told Quartz. “We felt like we were a part of it.”

But once that staff ballooned, the company turned over the support team to ZeroChaos—an Orlando-based contractor. Service staff that signed on as original Uber employees were given one-year contracts, while new employees were given 90-day contracts. Gradually, overseas agents began trickling in as well.

“We started noticing that some of the agents listed in our ticket system were from Manila” in the fall of 2014, the customer service agent said. “We also started working on tickets with them. That was my first hint [that Uber had begun outsourcing to workers overseas].”

Transitioning to the Philippines

Like many companies that outsource, Uber has little direct involvement in the training or supervision of its Manila-based support staff. Instead, the team is supplied and trained by TaskUs, a Philippines-based startup with 3,000 agents in the Philippines that provides outsourcing services for other startups like Tinder and HotelTonight. TaskUs didn’t respond to requests for comment on this article.

Initially, agents in the Philippines managed initial requests while more experienced US staffers took on the delicate tasks. For example, a TaskUs employee might field an initial report for a lost wallet by sending the rider the driver’s phone number. If a driver were to ignore the passenger’s calls, a US-based rep would then step in and address the issue according to Uber’s protocol.

But agents in the Philippines quickly began training and performing the tasks that the US-based agents specialized in—examining trips for wrong turns, assessing payment issues, or mediating disputes between drivers and riders. More and more US agents found in late 2014 that their contracts were not getting renewed, and current agents are concerned they will be next.

When US agents pressed Uber staff during an “all-hands” meeting with the company’ headquarters last December, Uber assured them that they wouldn’t be replaced by overseas agents. “They said that Manila would work the late shift and we wouldn’t be affected by it at all,” the agent said.

Last May, on one of the several online forums where Uber employees and affiliates congregate, many US-based customer service reps congregated to discuss terminated contracts and wonder if they’d be next.

“Why keep only a few of the [US-based] at-home workers? They will be getting rid of all eventually” wrote one commenter (registration required). Agents in the Philippines “seem to already be trained and versed in nationwide tickets as well whereas everyone else is pretty much behind the curve.”

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