Only in rare instances do we encounter a service experience that shifts our expectations. In this column, I’ll describe how my experience with a local taxi company that leverages SMS messaging for most of its customer interactions has changed both my stated viewpoint on human interactions and my expectations of taxi services.
Taxi Service: Nothing to Improve
Overall, the expected experience for using a call-ahead taxi service in the United States is as follows:
- You call a phone number for a taxi company—after doing a search online or using a phone book.
- The company answers and asks you for the details of the pickup—location and time—and destination.
- They may ask you whether you need return transportation—for example, from an airport.
- They confirm costs and accepted modes of payment.
- The taxi arrives at the appointed time of your pickup. Dispatchers or drivers may either call you, be waiting for you with a sign, or honk the horn to let you know they’be arrived.
- They drive you to your destination.
- They may help you with your luggage.
- You make payment—for example, by giving the driver cash or signing a credit-card receipt—and optionally, supplement the payment with a gratuity.
This customer journey is simple, transactional, and straightforward. Customers have a similar experience regardless of location or taxi service. Moreover, taxi services are regulated, so standards exist to ensure customer safety, price fairness, and customer satisfaction. For example, our local Jersey City Taxi Rider’s Bill of Rights includes the following rights: a courteous driver, a clean passenger-seat area, a clean trunk for storage of baggage or packages, a radio-free trip, and the most direct route to your destination. The Department of Commerce provides channels for customers to file complaints. Therefore, I had perceived the taxi service to be an example of a service that really didn’t need any changes. The current experience is consistent and straightforward, and if a problem should arise, customers have an authority with whom to address it.
Grove Street Taxi: Why I Chose Them
Three years ago, I needed to get a taxi to take me to Newark Airport, in New Jersey, then to pick me up after my business trip. I decided to look for a recommended taxi service on a very active message board, called Stylistically. Not surprisingly, people had their individual preferences for their taxi service, which were based primarily on reliability and costs. A few people shared horror stories of taxis arriving late or drivers increasing the price above what the service had quoted. But overall, there was minimal controversy on the topic of taxi services. I searched for a few of the suggested services and noticed that Grove Street Taxi had more of an online presence than the others. Well, by presence, I mean that they have a Web site, while the others did not.
Imagine that your local taxi company had a Web site. If you’re picturing a site that looks like it’s from the early 2000s, with centered text, clip art, and competing background graphics and colors, you’re spot on. However, two things struck me about the Grove Street Taxi site. One, they had a reservation page that looked like it really would take your information and not go into a void. It asked for pick-up and drop-off details and requested payment through a secure form. And two, they had a Helpful Links page that provided links to local tourist attractions and read, “As part of our quality services, we have provided some helpful links to enhance your travel experience.”
To be brutally honest, I don’t believe many people would rely on a taxi Web site for advice on things to do in New York City. But if the Web site communicated anything to me as a potential customer, it was that the business is trying to leverage the digital channel and is more helpful and passionate than most taxi-service providers about actually providing a service experience. So I decided to call them.
“Your Car Is Outside”
When I called the number, the dispatcher picked up immediately. He asked for my basic information: my address, where I was going, date, time of pickup, return details, and flight information. So far, the experience did not differ from my other taxi-service experiences. But at the end of our conversation, the dispatcher asked, “Do you text?” Admittedly, this caught me off guard. Texting is a personal activity, which I had done only with friends and family. I was a bit reluctant, but I answered, “Yes.” And he said, “Okay, we’ll text you when the car is outside to pick you up.”
Interesting. It’s such a simple interaction, being told you’ll receive a text message when the car is outside. But this is when Grove Street Taxi began to unravel my taxi-service expectations. In that one statement, “We’ll text you when the car is outside to pick you up,” I felt a sudden confidence and trust in this provider. Not only would they take down my information and send a car, which was my basic expectation of a taxi service, but they’ll text me when they arrive rather than honking or expecting me to look outside? And they were telling me this in advance, so I’d know what to expect? When the pick-up time came, sure enough, I received a text that said, “Your car is outside, brown Lincoln.” They even included a description of the car, so I would not be confused by the other parked cars.
Texting with a Stranger
Several months later, I needed a taxi service again. I called the same number, and the dispatcher had likely pulled up my information because he said, “You text right?” I confirmed that I did. The dispatcher said, “Go ahead and text me the details of your pick-up date and time and flight information. I know your home address already, so if you need us to pick you up at your home, you don’t need to provide that information.” What? So now, I don’t need to speak to him directly about the details? I wans’t sure how I felt about this.
As I mentioned earlier, I like direct human interaction in a service experience. It makes me feel as though someone will be accountable because I’be spoken to him or her. I was now reticent about transferring details regarding my pick-up and drop-off needs via SMS. But I did it, and I remember thinking, “Well, let’s see how this goes.” When I texted him the pick-up information and, within 30 seconds, received the response, “What is your return flight information?” I was relieved. He had acknowledged that he had received my first text and added the request for my return information. He then asked me to, “Text us when you land.”
A few days later, I realized that I had never confirmed payment. I texted him and said, “Can I use a credit card for payment.” And he said, “Sure, I have a Visa card on file with your email address, [email protected], is that correct?” It was correct. He asked me if I wanted a receipt, and I said, “Yes.”
Again, when the pick-up time approached, I received a text, “Black Town Car is outside,” but the dispatcher added, “Have a safe flight,” and reminded me to “Text when you land.” I texted back, “Thank you very much.” Later that day, I had a receipt for the fare in my inbox.
If my husband did not trust me implicitly, I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had questioned this text-based relationship I’m forming with this stranger. And he would be right. A love was blossoming. A love of using texts to engage with my taxi service. I was amazed at how easy the experience was, but it wans’t until my return flight that I could fully appreciate the value of using SMS in this taxi-service experience.