Uber trust and loyalty.

Uber logoLast month Uber suspended its self-driving car programme after one of its cars crashed on an Arizona highway. This was Uber self-drive’s first accident, the fault appears to have been entirely with the human driving the other vehicle, and nobody was injured.

Meanwhile both Google’s self-driving and Tesla’s autopilot-assisted vehicles have been in several accidents, one of which was sadly fatal, yet have both continued in development. So why did Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick choose, albeit temporarily, to publicly pull the plug?

It’s got nothing to do with the legal battle Uber are currently fighting with Google’s Waymo over their self-driving tech – that would only make them want to accelerate development. Instead, Kalanick wanted the public to clearly see that he was putting their interests before his own.

Uber and Kalanick have come under heavy fire recently over several things: from his leadership to Uber’s culture, to practices such as “surge pricing” and even Kalanick’s brief appointment to Trump’s advisory council. Customers, staff and increasingly investors, have been asking themselves the simple question: are the people running Uber actually good people – can we trust them?

Delaying the self-driving development could, strategically, be extremely costly for Uber, but a loss of trust could be even more expensive. If you want a quick overview of the research on trust, check my non-profit blog on the subject here. In summary though, trust is the primary driver (worth about 70%) of customer loyalty, which in turn drives around 50% of an average business’s performance. And it’s driven by our perception of just two key factors: benevolence and competence – essentially, we ask ourselves the question: “are they good people and will they do what they promise to do”.

The drivers of trust have hardly changed in the 20 years they’ve been studied. But what has changed, dramatically, is the speed at which bad news, poor experiences and negative press gets transmitted, amplified and whipped into a feeding frenzy in the echo chamber of social and mainstream media.

Most good businesses spend a big portion of their time building their competence; improving the quality and consistency of what they provide; ensuring they keep the brand promises they explicitly and implicitly make to their customers. But that’s only half the trust equation, and the most forward-thinking businesses have realised that now, more than ever, they need to become benevolent.

That means putting people before profit, championing causes, having a mission that goes way beyond money – not just as marketing spin, but as a genuine integral part of their values, strategic decisions and day-to-day operations. One way to test your own benevolence is to invite a customer and a junior staff member to meetings where you discuss anything related to quality, price and people. Now ask yourself, why is that a scary idea? What discussions would you not want them party to? What trade-offs wouldn't you want them to hear?

Uber CEO Kalanick was just one year old when, in February 1978, Lily Gray and Richard Grimshaw were driving her Ford Pinto along a freeway in his native California. When it stalled in the middle lane, the car was struck from behind, resulting in a fuel tank fire which killed Lily and permanently injured Richard. The case of Grimshaw vs Ford was just one of over 100 similar Pinto-fire claims against Ford, but it became by far the most publicised when the jury awarded over $125 million in damages, primarily because the evidence included a memo, sent by Ford’s engineering division to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration five years prior.

The memo explained that changes to the fuel tank to increase safety from rear-end collisions would cost over $130m, whereas the “social cost” of the potential deaths and serious injuries from the existing tank arrangement would be less than $50m. Despite the fact that the NHTSA accepted the argument at the time, it took Ford over a decade to recover the trust it lost when that single discussion document went public. If it happened today, they’d be out of business in less than a month.

Customers and staff will forgive you almost anything if they believe you’re a good person with their best interests at heart, and that will only happen if they know you’re putting their welfare ahead of your wallet. The moment they believe the opposite is true, they’ll desert you at the very next opportunity. What are you doing to build your benevolence and grow your customers’ trust?