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Tech Tries to Do it All: What Uber's Phone-Ordering Service Tells Us About Customer Needs

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Brooke Lynch


The concept of Uber is simple: open the app and find a ride, all with the click of a button. What started as a convenience amenity has quickly turned into a billion-dollar corporation. Its success marked the beginning of a new app-based economy. Customers now turn to their phones to order dinner from Seamless and place grocery orders on Instacart. Apps are becoming the standard way to order, leaving older business models behind.

To a younger generation who grew up with these services, finding a cab or ordering takeout through a phone call may seem archaic and inconceivable. Uber, however, tried to bring this model back. With the app’s ubiquitous presence, it was inevitable that older generations would begin adopting the platform, bringing technology challenges.

To alleviate this, Uber introduced a new method to use the rideshare service in February; 1-833-USE-UBER. By calling the number, users could request a ride between the hours of 7am and 9pm ET. In April, it expanded the service to its Uber Eats platform. The update allowed callers to order meals to be delivered to their door after the pandemic left individuals stuck in their homes.

The services were introduced to appeal to an older generation, who may not be as technologically savvy. Uber framed it as an option for customers who prefer talking to someone on the phone; essentially the opposite of the platform’s initial demographic. 

But, it turns out, the service was unsuccessful. The hotline only brought in a few hundred calls each month during its initial run in New York, Florida, and Arizona. The service, which is being discontinued at the end of the year, offers a unique example of new tech’s failure in its adoption of more traditional channels. 


What’s Old is New Again

While it is admirable that Uber attempted to be more inclusive of an older, more tech-averse demographic, the service just didn’t resonate. Omnichannel support is becoming increasingly important to customers, but in this instance, we see a specific digital channel prevail. Users will certainly continue to call customer service agents to resolve disputes regarding their rides, but Uber’s adopters remain content to use the app to connect them with rides.

To give some Uber credit, the feature was built with older demographics in mind, but the hotline really only acted as a support model to their regular service. After an initial phone call, the customer received a string of text messages giving them information about their ride, pick-up location, and destination time. This texting counterpart may have still been a struggle for users inexperienced with their smartphones. At the very least, it added another layer of effort to a service predicated on simplicity.

Additionally, there may even be older individuals already using the app; in a study of transportation barriers facing older adults with disabilities, 95% of participants who were offered an unlimited ride-sharing service subscription ended up using it as a transportation method. Only a handful used a call-in service to hail a ride; after receiving personalized training on the service an overwhelming 86% opted to use the app. Looking at this study, Uber may benefit more from individualized training for older demographics.

From a customer service standpoint, it’s interesting to see companies like Uber opt for more traditional models of phone-service. It seemingly goes against their entire business model, as the app was created as a way to avoid the hassle of calling a cab. The appeal of convenience is what initially attracted Uber customers; but just because a service is convenient, doesn’t mean it can be used by every demographic.


Bottom Line

Some models of service just won’t appeal to everyone, and focusing on providing your customer with the best experience possible within your business model can be more effective than trying to include everyone. 

Uber already offered services within the app, like the ability to order a ride on someone else’s behalf and UberAssist for disabled riders, to provide customers with increased support. It should continue to include changes that make its platform better for users, but it doesn’t need to go back on its original intentions. Upgrading your customer experience to be as inclusive as possible is important, but completely changing the method in which customers interact with your brand isn’t always necessary. 

With this example, we can see firsthand how the adoption of every channel doesn’t always equate to success. The failure of 1-833-USE-UBER shows us that some customers will happily continue using services they’re comfortable with, and that’s ok. Before allocating resources to new channels, make sure it’s providing a service your customer truly wants.