Uber found itself on the wrong side of history -- or at least the 24-hour news cycle -- during the chaos over Donald Trump's immigration orders. CEO Travis Kalanick criticized the order on Facebook but then took fares at JFK airport in New York, even as cab drivers mounted a one-hour strike as a commentary. The result was a move by many to dump their Uber accounts and use an alternative.
Then rival lift stuck it to Uber by pledging $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union over the next four years. The ACLU had been successful in getting a court order temporary stay of Trump's orders and Lyft looked like a hero.
Uber's lesson is an important one for any business. You can do what you think is right -- and should. Business without conscience is distasteful at best and horrific at worst. But don't assume that your view of right is necessarily shared by your customers.
Let's review the timeline as reconstructed in part by journalist Dan Primack:
- Trump signed the order on Friday, January 27.
- On Saturday, January 28, chaos began to break out at airports as people were affected by the changes and many came to airports to protest.
- At 4:20 pm eastern time, Kalanick emailed employees and promised compensation to affected employees who had been traveling outside the countrya.
- At 4:55 pm, the New York Taxi Workers union called for a work stoppage at JFK, which heavily serves international flights, between 6 pm and 7 pm that evening.
- At 7:36 pm, Uber NYC tweets that surge pricing for JFK trips is off, meaning the price of transportation is lower than it otherwise would be.
- On the morning of Sunday, January 29, Lyft emailed its customers and announced the ACLU donation.
- All marketing hell broke loose. Many accused Uber of trying to undermine the strike by snapping up the fares of people who otherwise would have been inconvenienced. The #DeleteUber hashtag -- referring to deleting the company's ride-sharing app from people's smartphones -- went viral, according to MarketWatch. Lyft announced the donation to the ACLU the next day.
- On Sunday at 3:42 pm, Kalanick posted on Facebook, calling Trump's order an "unjust immigration and travel ban" and reiterating both lost compensation support for Uber drivers and legal support.
- On January 30 (apparently), Uber targeted Facebook users who would be interested in the ACLU, promoting Kalanick's post.
Now to parse the perceptions of Uber and customers. Kalanick, who is on a business executive advisory board for Trump, may have thought the company was taking a stand. His company would compensate drivers, who technically are contract workers and not actual employees. He offered legal support. Uber turned off surge pricing, making transportation easier to afford at a difficult time.
From the viewpoint of consumers, the actions read differently. First, Uber has a connection to Trump through Kalanick. When taxi drivers were going to strike and directly lose money as part of their protest, Uber would continue operations and charge. Dropping surge pricing didn't change the fact that Uber and its drivers were making money while the cab drivers were on strike.
Executives at Uber failed to stand in their customers' shoes and consider how any actions would seem to angry and upset people. Trying to navigate a complicated situation wasn't sufficient. Humans don't seem generally inclined to apply careful thought on a regular basis, let alone at a time when they are highly emotional.
By misreading people, Uber angered customers, lost some number, and provided an opening to a rival. Not the best strategic day someone has had.