Tech

Contracts And Chaos: Inside Uber’s Customer Service Struggles

Uber’s customer support staff is the company’s first line of defense against driver and rider misconduct. But a BuzzFeed News investigation reveals that during Uber’s transition from a local customer support operation to a global one, these employees worked under conditions that sometimes made it difficult for them to do their jobs.

Michelle Rial / BuzzFeed News

On the evening of May 19, 2015, Katherine accepted what was to be her last fare as an Uber driver.

A former customer support representative for the ride-hail company, Katherine — who asked to be identified by her middle name to protect her anonymity — hadn’t been driving for Uber for long. In March, her contract as a customer service representative with the company had been terminated without notice, so she’d done what so many other freshly unemployed Americans have, and tapped into the gig economy. Now, two months into her new gig as a driver, Katherine was forced to reconsider her decision.

While Katherine and a passenger, an older man, were sitting curbside at his destination, he reached across the seat and grabbed her breast. When she slapped his hand away, he offered her money for sex, she told BuzzFeed News.

“He said ‘I’ll pay you. Come upstairs. Let’s make it a threesome,’” Katherine said. “I said, ‘Get out of my car.’”

Katherine reported the rider. Hours later, she got her response — a canned email reply. “Thanks very much for providing this information,” it read. “And I am very sorry to hear about this incident. We appreciate your remaining professional throughout this ordeal…”

For Uber drivers in situations like Katherine’s, the only way to report a passenger altercation to the company — short of finding a partner support center and visiting it in person — is through the “I had an issue with this passenger” feature in the Uber app. To this day, the customer support representatives reviewing the emails the app generates are Uber’s first responders for incidents of passenger or driver misconduct. (See also: Internal Data Offers Glimpse At Uber Sex Assault Complaints).

But between December 2014 and February 2016, some of these CSRs, as they call themselves, struggled to handle problems like Katherine’s, undermined by sudden and confusing shifts in Uber’s customer support operations. During this period, about 500 CSRs who joined the company as contractors were let go in droves — often without notice, and despite what many insist were promises of ongoing employment and even full-time gigs at Uber itself. Meanwhile, the quality of Uber’s customer support stuttered as the company quietly replaced U.S.-based CSRs with contractors in the Philippines and India, transitioning away from its system of U.S.-based CSRs to a global one with “Centers of Excellence” in key cities in the states and abroad — sometimes via politically motivated deals.

Uber says it made no such promises of ongoing employment to contract CSRs. The company contends that by establishing customer support Centers of Excellence in the United States and abroad it created more jobs to service its increasingly global business.


Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Until April 2014, Uber’s customer support operation was composed of local employees who pitched in replying to inbound emails from riders and drivers on an unofficial, ad-hoc basis. But the company was growing too quickly for that system to remain viable, so Uber established an experimental remote team of fewer than 10 CSRs to manage what had become a deluge of customer support queries.

The people on this team worked from home and were employed by Uber. They were all given renewable, six-month contracts and considered “normal, full-time employees,” according to former Uber CSRs who asked not to be named. But when the first contract period ended, Uber did not renew. Instead, it asked its first CSR team to sign contracts with ZeroChaos, a workforce management company.

“It was sold to us as a technical change in our employment,” one former CSR told BuzzFeed News. According to this person, CSRs were under the impression that “yes, we would still be Uber employees.”

But the CSRs BuzzFeed News spoke to said that after the company made the ZeroChaos transition, they lost many of their benefits — including employer-sponsored health insurance, ride credits, and paid vacation days — as well as their job security.

One CSR said she signed a contract with Uber in September 2014, but was asked to sign a new contract with ZeroChaos weeks later, when she was already in training. Crucially, that contract stipulated an end date. “We were never told [our employment] was temporary,” this CSR said. “We were just told ‘sign this contract — everything is good. We are just using an HR firm because we’re so busy with Uber.’”

Other CSRs told BuzzFeed News similar stories. “The job description had nothing that said it was temporary,” said one CSR who began working for Uber in May 2014. Otherwise, this person said, “I do not feel I would have applied.”

The ZeroChaos transition also seemed to foreclose the possibility of ever becoming a full-time Uber employee, something many CSRs said the company led them to believe. Said one former CSR from this period, “I think the overarching experience to sum it up is that we were sold a bill of goods and told that our job was going to be a certain way and then systematically and routinely that has not been delivered on.”

Indeed, few of the 15 U.S.-based CSRs with whom BuzzFeed News spoke were told by interviewers that they would be contracted to ZeroChaos. Several said that both the recruiters who interviewed them and Uber team leads who managed them spoke of an opportunity to be “folded back into” Uber if they performed well. But the contracts these individuals signed with ZeroChaos said otherwise. They also included language that explicitly negated any promises or pledges upon signing.

Uber says it did not tell contract CSRs they might someday be converted to full-time Uber employees. It contends contract CSRs were kept abreast of changes to the company’s customer support operations.

Uber declined to answer specific questions about the recruiting and hiring of contract CSRs or these alleged promises of future employment. Uber “can’t speak for ZeroChaos,” a company spokesperson told BuzzFeed News, stressing that CSRs were employed by ZeroChaos, not Uber.

ZeroChaos did not respond to repeated requests for comment via email, phone, and social media made over two weeks. A representative of the company’s outside PR firm told BuzzFeed News it was “unable to connect with ZeroChaos on this request.”

“It was like the scene in The Hunger Games where all the players are dropped in and there’s absolute chaos trying to get supplies they wanted.”

According to some CSRs, long-term employment wasn’t the only promise Uber made and later broke. One stay-at-home father said he accepted a CSR job after an Uber recruiter assured him that he’d be permitted to work a Sunday–Thursday schedule. “I said I’ll never take a Sunday off and I’ll work whatever hours you need me to,” he said. “The rep was very accommodating in the interview, but once I got through training I found you had no say on what your schedule would be. You could give your preference, but you absolutely could not be off on the weekends. It was a direct contradiction of what I’d been told in the interview process.”

Instead, according to this former CSR and several others, CSRs competed for shifts via a weekly bidding process. “It was like the scene in The Hunger Games where all the players are dropped in and there’s absolute chaos trying to get supplies they wanted,” he said. “That was what it was like every week to pick shifts. If you’re not at your computer, there’s a potential that you have to work the leftover shifts. That was extremely frustrating, especially when they specifically said there would be flexible scheduling.”

These representatives are yet another example of a new class of workers who — whether by choice or necessity — depend on high-flexibility, low-security contract labor to make ends meet. In this case, these precariously employed workers are the only mechanism for Uber’s millions of drivers and riders to report problems on a platform with a public history of sexual assault, rider and pedestrian endangerment, and more. And many of the CSRs whose contracts Uber declined to renew had themselves built out Uber’s customer service operation, with little training and assistance from the company. “There was no CSR team before we got there,” a former CSR named Rickisha Hawkins told BuzzFeed News. “They didn’t have a knowledge base! They were just blowing smoke up people’s butts before a bunch of us got together and said we need a process. … We started putting together little secret calls to go over real tickets and say, ‘This is what really happened and this is how you handle it and why.’ They didn’t have rules so we had to make some rules.”

Uber doesn’t contest this. It should not surprise anyone that a young company did not have a fully formed knowledge base, the company told BuzzFeed News, adding that it is equally unsurprising that Uber continues to use the macros that were created in those early days, referring to canned responses or otherwise templated emails used to respond to support tickets.

Other CSRs with whom BuzzFeed News spoke noted a lack of guidance from Uber team leads who managed them. Some complained that they were unresponsive. One CSR said she had five different managers in a single year and never had a meeting with any of them. Said one CSR, “We didn’t really have anyone to guide us; we guided us, basically.”

All this created an environment that wasn’t just unpleasant for the people who worked in it, but that also sometimes left Uber’s CSRs — the first line of defense and support for the company’s customers worldwide — unequipped to handle emergency support requests. “If I had an emergency complaint in the middle of the night, no one knew who to send it to,” said one CSR who handled driver live chats. “So I would go ahead and send it to my supervisor — but I work nights so they weren’t always available. Recently —and I hate to say this — I just go around my own manager to someone who has more sense and will respond faster.”

When Uber held a weeklong, off-site in Las Vegas in September 2015, rank-and-file CSRs interviewed for this article said they were left largely to fend for themselves. From a CSR email from Uber Community Operations Manager Devon Langston sent a few days prior to the event:

Hi CSRs …

As some of you may know, many Uber employees will be out of the office attending a training next week between September 27th – October 1st. You may see their presence limited in HipChat, and they may be a little slower to respond than usual. That said, we are of course still accessible by email – response times will just be a bit delayed.

According to multiple CSRs, more than 4,000 “level 2” tickets accumulated during Uber’s week in Vegas. Level 2 tickets are tickets that are not emergencies, but are not as easily handled as, say, fare refunds.

Asked how level 2 tickets and above were handled during the company’s week-long offsite, an Uber spokesperson said they were handled as they always were. According to Uber, the company’s customer support Centers of Excellence operated as usual during this time and any large queue volume was related to normal spikes in volume, which can happen throughout the year.

Uber’s Centers of Excellence are the brainchild of the company’s vice president of global community operations, Tim Collins. A 16-year Amazon veteran, Collins was tapped by Uber in December 2014 to refresh and overhaul the company’s customer support operations. In his view, the best way to do that was to centralize Uber’s support centers in a handful of global hubs.

“The previous model was a very localized model,” Collins told BuzzFeed News. “Pretty much every city in the country had their own local team handling customer support and driver support issues. We transitioned to a more centralized global view [to do a] number of things you can’t do at a local level.”

Based on this logic, in 2015, Uber began shifting its CSR workforce away from remote employment and toward these Centers of Excellence. One former CSR, who previously worked as a remote CSR for Amazon, told BuzzFeed News that she “was told it was an eight-month contract, but that if I hit all my standards and marks and I did well I would be converted to an Uber employee. I’m a top-ranking agent; I’m a hard worker. I have never missed any days. Eight months came along and I got an email that said, ‘We’d like to renew our contracts for two months.’ Just two months.”

Two months later, Uber declined to renew this CSR’s contract. But it did offer her a new job — at the company’s newly opened Phoenix Center of Excellence. “I was offered $1,500 to cover moving expenses — and less pay,” she said. The job? Another contract position with the promise of full-time employment with Uber at its end — assuming certain performance goals. She declined, as did three other CSRs with whom BuzzFeed News spoke. All were top performers — a standard measured by assessing tickets answered per hour and satisfaction rate. Said one, “Who’s to say that once they build up their support teams in Phoenix that they won’t do the same thing to the people there?”

In January 2015, U.S.-based CSRs began seeing unfamiliar names in their support tickets and the company chat client. Some noticed tickets answered in broken English, sometimes incorrectly. Quick checks of the location information associated with the HipChat messaging accounts used by these agents revealed that many were working outside the United States. But when they inquired about these issues and what would later prove to be a group of Manila-based support agents, their questions went unanswered. “There was a code of silence about the Manila agents,” one CSR said. “The managers would say, ‘Just do your work; they’re none of your concern.’”

But to these CSRs the Manila agents were cause from concern. Because in March 2015, Uber began terminating the contracts of some of its CSRs — often right before their renewal dates. “It always happened a couple days before the end date of someone’s contract,” said one CSR who moderated chatrooms to help overseas agents at the end of her tenure. “We called it the death march.”

Sources inside Uber who declined to be named because they are not authorized by the company to speak publicly told BuzzFeed News that in some cases contracts were not renewed because CSRs wanted work-from-home employment and declined to relocate to an Uber COE. And, to some extent, this was true.

“I was told via two of my managers on personal phone calls that I could move to a major city and apply in-house — they basically guaranteed me a job — but that if I didn’t, I would be laid off in 2016,” another former Uber CSR told BuzzFeed News. “I have a child with special needs, so unfortunately that was not an option for me.”

The mass terminations, which continued until February 2016, unsettled Uber’s stateside CSRs. “People were being let go randomly,” said one CSR. Another whose contract Uber did not renew in February told BuzzFeed News she worked throughout her pregnancy hoping that level of performance would secure her job. “My son was in his bassinet,” she said. “None of us could risk taking a day off. None of us could risk anything — we were terrified for our jobs.”

According to 15 CSRs with whom BuzzFeed News spoke, Uber replaced U.S. contractors with overseas contractors so quickly during the spring and summer of 2015 that the quality of its customer support suffered. These CSRs said they often needed to redo tickets processed by overseas agents new to the task.

An example: In September 2015, a rider filed a late-night ticket complaining about her driver. “The driver told her that if she gave him a blow job, she wouldn’t have to pay for the ride,” one CSR said. “The Manila agent just sent it up to regular escalation to level 2 instead of advanced. The sense of urgency was lost in translation.” According to this CSR, the ticket in question should have escalated immediately, but instead it sat in the level 2 queue until a U.S. employee spotted it.

Other CSRs told BuzzFeed News some Manila agents struggled with basic support tickets, processing them with incorrect macros. “A driver wrote in about a rider vomiting in his vehicle, so the Manila agent sent him a ‘lost item’ macro,” said one CSR. “Then he notified the rider that he had left an item behind in the vehicle. He told him how to reach out to the driver to arrange a time for a return.”

Some ticket-processing errors were decidedly less amusing. Five CSRs interviewed for this article claimed to have seen evidence that some overseas agents approved profile picture changes that didn’t match the driver’s background check or license. “There were profile picture tickets in queue where the driver’s license showed a man, but the profile picture was of a woman — or vice versa,” one CSR said. This sort of account swapping, in which one person hands off an approved account to another, essentially bypassed Uber’s screening process, these CSRs said.

Uber disputed these claims, saying it had no knowledge of such incidents. The company argued that, because of its quality assurance processes, it is “highly likely” that account swapping like this would have been caught.

Some CSRs question Uber’s commitment to safety — and the company’s ability to deliver on it. One of these people provided BuzzFeed News with screenshots of Uber’s CSR ticket-management system showing hundreds of incidents flagged as “assaulted” and thousands of others flagged as “rape.” These screenshots include some of Uber’s customer support logic matrix, which reveals escalation protocols explicitly tied to “media interest” and “real threat of media/LE (law enforcement) interest.” Uber contends these protocols are industry standard and simply evidence of CSRs being told to alert the company’s communications teams when a driver or rider has contacted the press or filed a police report. But some protocols include language where a level 2 ticket for “driver stalking or inappropriate communications” is escalated to Uber’s “Crisis Team” as a level 3 ticket if media or law enforcement interest has been confirmed. This protocol also states, “If rider does not wish to escalate, follow strike system, issue warning, and resolve without escalating.”

CSRs with whom BuzzFeed News spoke say ticket quotas at TaskUs and Telus International — which manages Uber’s customer support operations in Manila — encouraged CSRs to value quantity over quality. “There was a competition for numbers, which was why some agents put aside the process and focused on the quantity,” said one Manila agent. TaskUs told BuzzFeed News its agents are given “productivity goals … based on our experience of achievable metrics,” but declined to say what those goals are. A Telus spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that the company does not disclose information regarding current or potential clients.

This agent left Telus in the summer of 2015, but said that prior to that the company was onboarding Uber CSRs so quickly that some agents didn’t have the acumen and experience needed to properly process tickets. Mistakes were made — but forgiven, as long as agents met their quota. “We reported people constantly,” the Manila agent said. “As long as an agent hit their goal, they kept that agent.”

Uber first disputed the idea that Manila CSRs were working under quotas, but subsequently conceded that they were held to “performance standards,” which are common practice for customer support jobs. The company explained that it determines what’s “reasonable” based on how many tickets the average agent typically handles each hour, the complexity of the tickets being handled, and the level of time and support needed to appropriately solve the issues for riders and drivers.

Uber also maintained that its CSRs are well trained. The company told BuzzFeed News that CSRs are tested on their knowledge and given additional training in areas where they are not proficient. Uber’s spokesperson again referred BuzzFeed News to ZeroChaos as the employer of record for its CSRs. ZeroChaos was unresponsive.

“We were guinea pigs for how Uber customer support was going to work.”

Uber established its first Centers of Excellence in Chicago, Illinois, and Phoenix, Arizona, in the summer of 2015. Interestingly, Uber was facing regulatory issues in both markets at the time — issues that quickly resolved themselves once the COEs were finished. Today, Uber also has COEs in China, Costa Rica, Ireland, and Poland; these too were markets where the company once struggled or continues to struggle against regulators.

Multiple sources confirm that in July 2014, Uber offered to expand its headquarters in Chicago to add 425 more jobs — so long as then-Gov. Pat Quinn vetoed a bill that Uber argued placed “overbearing” insurance requirements on the company and its drivers. At the time, Quinn was in the middle of a tough gubernatorial race against now-Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner. In August 2014 — little more than a month before that first class of CSRs were signing new contracts with ZeroChaos — Quinn vetoed the bill. The following month he announced that Uber was expanding its operations in Chicago.

Around the same time, Uber was suffering regulatory woes in Phoenix, Arizona, where its drivers were required to have the same level of insurance coverage as taxi and other for-hire vehicle services. Then-Gov. Jan Brewer’s administration was particularly diligent in enforcing the regulation.

That all changed in January 2015, when Gov. Doug Ducey was sworn in. In a matter of days, the insurance citations stopped. Then Ducey fired Shawn Marquez, the head of the Department of Weights and Measures, which oversaw them. According to Daniel Scarpinato, Ducey’s communications director, the governor ordered that the Department of Weights and Measures stop citing drivers in preparation for the influx of tourists that the Super Bowl was expected to attract. But in April, Ducey passed a bill that upended the insurance requirements Uber had been fighting under Brewer’s administration. On April 8, Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton announced Uber would be opening a Center of Excellence in the city that would create 300 jobs for local residents.

Multiple sources familiar with the legislation and Uber’s machinations told BuzzFeed News the company’s selection of both cities was made in part to incentivize favorable regulations. In Chicago, a government source confirmed that Uber’s promise of hundreds of new jobs was a key consideration in then-Gov. Quinn’s decision to veto the ride-hailing bill the company protested. Asked to comment on sudden regulatory shifts in Phoenix and Chicago, Uber told BuzzFeed News it locates its COEs in cities with high quality workers, various language skills, good real estate market conditions, and “supportive” governments.

As of early February 2016, the only U.S. work-from-home agents under contract with Uber and ZeroChaos were those whose responsibilities included making outbound calls warning drivers against unionizing in Seattle. The bulk of Uber’s customer support is now handled at eight Centers of Excellence. Six of them are located outside the United States. Of the many CSRs interviewed for this article, none remain with Uber. The last was let go in February, part of a group of 20 to 30 work-from-home CSRs who lost their jobs.

Asked what percentages of U.S. and global Uber customer support tickets are handled offshore, Uber declined to answer, saying the information is competitive and can’t be publicly discussed.

In retrospect, most CSRs say, they’re no longer surprised how things turned out or that Uber used them as temporary bridge to a centralized customer support operation.

As one CSR put it, “We were guinea pigs for how Uber customer support was going to work. We were just a placeholder for what was next.”

UPDATE

You can read Uber’s response to this story from BuzzFeed News here.






























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