How a Local, SMS-based Taxi Service Earned My Loyalty

Service Design

Orchestrating experiences in context

A column by Laura Keller
July 8, 2013

I’m a staunch supporter of the value of person-to-person interactions between a service provider and its customers. You’ll never hear me say, “Just make it all digital, and you can get rid of your call center.” Even customers who tend to prefer self-service or are very digitally savvy often say that they still want to know that they have access to and can interact with a human during a service experience.

If a service works and customers are satisfied, don’t change it. It may seem like I’m a service curmudgeon, but part of why I make this declaration is because, over time, a customer comes to have certain expectations of a service experience, so changing it without a good reason can lead to frustration. For example, when using a dry-cleaning service, a customer expects to know how much he will pay for the clothes he drops off, to be told when they will be ready to pick up, to receive a ticket for those clothes, and that the service experience will conclude with satisfactorily cleaned clothes. These expectations arise not from his interactions with an isolated dry-cleaning service, but rather from his many interactions with multiple dry cleaners over time. In general, we come to expect the same service journey in the same service genre.

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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.

Parking Area 5

At the end of my trip, as my plane taxied toward the terminal, I sent a text message to Grove Street Taxi, telling them that I had landed. The dispatcher asked whether I had luggage, and I replied that I did. He told me to give him a few minutes, then he would tell me where the car would pick me up. While I was walking to the baggage-claim area, he sent another text, “The driver will let you know where he is.” Then, as I waited for my bags, I received a text from a different number, which read, “Come to Parking Area 5 - upper level - black limo.”

With my luggage in tow, I went out Door 5 and looked for a black limo. Nothing. I texted the driver again, “I’m here, but I don’t see you.” He wrote, “Are you on the upper level? It’s the drop-off, check-in level.” I wans’t on the upper level. I had exited at the main passenger pick-up area, not the drop-off area. When I found the driver, he explained that at certain times of day, they prefer to pick up passengers at the drop-off area rather than the pick-up area because it’s less congested. The dispatcher texted to confirm that I had found the car, and I replied that I had.

In this pick-up scenario, what I found incredibly valuable was the real-time ability of the driver to tell me where to go. In the context of a busy airport, this made exiting quicker. I could easily confirm where I was and get to the right location to get picked up. Moreover, I was impressed that the dispatcher knew when to handle the communications himself and when to put the driver in direct contact with me.

Service Evolution

The experience I had with Grove Street Taxi has made me reconsider some of my long-held beliefs about creating good service experiences and when change is valuable. But before I become too self-deprecating and humble, let me say that my previous cynicism about evolving a service experience was based on actual experiences that I’be had where a provider has done something differently, seemingly arbitrarily, making me scratch my head and say, “Why the heck did they do that? It was fine before.” In contrast, I believe Grove Street Taxi was successful at evolving its service for a few reasons.

Focused Change

In case you haven’t noticed, I never mentioned the quality and comfort of the cars, the friendliness of the drivers when they picked me up, the safety of their driving, the cost, or any of the other facets of the customer journey that represent the core of a taxi service: getting a person from point A to point B. When service providers decide that they need to evolve their service, focusing their changes on specific layers of the service experience—in this case, the communications for booking, drop-off, and pick-up—can help to mitigate any potential customer backlash.

Interaction Alternatives

As I mentioned earlier, using SMS messaging for communications is not for everyone. Grove Street Taxi offered SMS messaging as an option for those customers who are comfortable using this mode of communication to interact with them. But they also offered alternatives at every major step in the journey—through their Web site and phone—for those customers who preferred those channels of communication.

Well-aligned Communications

I can’t stress enough how well the timing and content of the communications aligned with the overall service journey—both my journey and that of the taxi service’s employees. From their initial response to my request for service, to the back-and-forth that was necessary to obtain a complete picture of my transportation needs, to communications with the driver about his location at the airport, these communications were seamless and intuitive, and they solidified my trust in their overall service delivery.

Transactional, But Courteous

Part of what makes SMS messaging so appropriate for a taxi service is the quick, transactional nature of the interactions between the service provider and its customers that enable them complete the service successfully. The information exchanges that are necessary are concise, detailed, and predictable: address, destination, date, time, and any flight information. Payment by credit card adds some complexity, but asks for nothing that a customer isn’t accustomed to providing.

However, despite the transactional nature of the information exchange, the dispatcher’s and the driver’s friendliness and courteousness were obvious—from their wishing me a safe flight to their asking whether I wanted a receipt. SMS communications could very easily have felt cold and disconnected, as though I were corresponding with a taxi dispatcher automaton, but they felt human and approachable.

My New Perspective on Service Experiences

Seeing Grove Street Taxi evolve its service for the better has made me realize that I needed to question some of my beliefs. First, I had previously thought that the only necessary change for a service was one that fixed an existing problem, arising from customer dissatisfaction or process inefficiencies. Because the overall service experience with taxi companies is generally straightforward and well accepted, I didn’t believe that they could, or should, evolve their service. I hadn’t really considered that services could change their customers’ service experience dramatically just to evolve and make the experience better rather than to solve a problem. I had previously thought that such changes were arbitrary, unnecessary, and likely to frustrate or confuse customers.

Second, I have become a believer in the use of SMS messaging for service communications. I had previously thought that SMS was incapable of emulating live, person-to-person conversations and the resulting trust that they can engender. But the accountability that I appreciate when experiencing a live interaction with a person was actually present when texting with this service provider. Perhaps that is why it felt strange, at first, to be communicating with the taxi dispatcher through text messages.

In the past, texting had been a communications channel that I had reserved solely for personal relationships. The dispatcher was someone who I had never met. In some ways, the personal nature of texting likely influenced my willingness to trust this stranger with whom I was communicating. When the service delivery overall proved to be a success, that trust was validated, and I became a loyal customer. 

Director of Strategy & Experience Design at NTT Data

Woodbridge, New Jersey, USA

Laura KellerLaura’s 10 years of experience have focused on representing the human element in any interaction with a brand through actionable, business-impacting insight gathering and design. At NTT Data, Laura leads cross-channel experience design strategy engagements for clients. Clients have included AstraZeneca, Hachette Book Group, GlaxoSmithKline, Prostate Cancer Foundation, Honeywell, and the NBA. In addition to her Service Design column for UXmatters, Laura has written articles for the Service Design Network’s Touchpoint: The Journal of Service Design, User Experience Magazine, Communication Arts, and Johnny Holland. She has presented on service design at SDN’s Global Service Design Conference, the Usability Professionals’ Association International Conference, IxDA New York City, and IxDA New Jersey.  Read More

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