A few days ago, I got a phone call from a puzzled friend who had just received an email from Uber detailing her interactions with the ride-sharing service, which she had joined in 2014. One number stood out: 4.5 out of a possible 5. How, my friend wondered, could this rating bestowed by Uber drivers be so relatively low (the vast majority of the people I know are in the 4.7-4.9 range, according to a rough survey I conducted), especially given the generous tips she regularly gives?
It was not an easy puzzle to solve nor, as it turned out, an easy discussion to have.
Because my friend has been a heavy user of Uber in recent years, her rating couldn’t be dismissed as distorted by a handful of peculiar cases. The sample size was large, and it included drivers in several U.S. and international cities and at different times of day.
Checking Uber’s website didn’t shed much light on the puzzle. My friend is known to be respectful of others, generous, polite and doesn’t engage in the activities that would harm an Uber standing according to the company’s “community guidelines.” That list includes “damaging drivers’ or other passengers’ property” and “physical contact with the driver or fellow riders,” along with “use of inappropriate and abusive language or gestures” and “carrying firearms.”
Also, I suspect that, had my friend engaged in any of these behaviors, the rating would have been a lot lower than a middling 4.5. So there was something else here, especially given her solid tipping track record -- a gratuity could make a notable difference in many drivers’ lives -- as well as her thoughtful restraint when it comes to eating in the car or bringing on board too many other passengers.
Obviously, generous tipping hadn’t proven sufficient to take the rating up into the 4.7-4.8 range, let alone 4.9. Also, again judging from my quick survey, this does not appear necessary; some of those I queried secured the higher ratings even though they don’t tip.
The explanation for the 4.5 lies, I believe, in understanding that the underlying feedback is anonymous and the chances of repeat business are low. As a result, the rating captures much broader considerations, including a measure of the respect drivers feel they receive from passengers.
Exploring this with my friend, I inquired about the time spent on the phone while in the car. I asked about the nature and topics of the conversations with drivers. And I pushed on how often the cars were made to wait, cancelled or had to be rerouted due to ambiguity about the pickup and drop-off points.
I suspect that quite a few people will be tempted to dismiss all of this as either too case-specific or as generally irrelevant. Others will have little interest in how they are seen by people they pay to serve them. I would caution against such an attitude. Rather than dismiss a middling -- or worse, a low -- Uber number, treat it in the manner that smart and successful businesses respond to their Yelp rating and comments. The information matters and, if unfavorable, warrants serious consideration and potential course corrections.
Now that Uber has made this number readily accessible, the company provides its users with an assessment of their interpersonal skills, perception of mutual respect and quality of engagement. These attributes, I suspect, are important for the majority of riders in many of their other personal and professional settings.
So, if you are an Uber user, go to your app and find out your rating (just press the three- line icon and the number should pop up under your name). If it’s below 4.7, ask yourself why, and not just by looking in the mirror. It may be less about how you believe you come across to others and more about how others actually perceive you. So, seek the frank assessment of trusted friends and acquaintances. You may well learn something that is useful for improving a broad range of personal and professional interactions.
That is what my friend is doing, set on improving the rating -- both Uber-specific and, I suspect, more general.
El-Erian is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the chief economic adviser at Allianz SE, the parent company of Pimco, where he served as CEO and co-CIO.