Customers aren’t willing to suffer through badly designed experiences anymore.

Case in point: the cab industry. Since the public hackney coach service was launched in London in the 17th Century — all the way through to today — the experience has literally gone unchanged:

1) Riders hail cabs (coaches back then) on the side of the road (if you can find one)

2) A car picks up the rider (often old, dirty, and road unworthy)

3) Riders pay cash for the ride based on a black-box meter (forget using credit)

4) Besides a number for the central booking operator (good luck getting an answer), there’s no way to provide feedback (and also good luck getting a real receipt)

Compared to a world before coaches or cabs, this service actually sounds like an incredible convenience for customers and surely was a revolution in the way people were able to move around.

But that was 400 years ago.

Cab rides today are often unreliable, unsafe, dirty — and expensive. Drivers tend to be unaccommodating and can even be belligerent toward passengers. The sighs and muttering when you say you’re going crosstown or would like to use a credit card. The guys who are horrible drivers and always, always on their phones.

Isn’t it ironic that the very thing that completely upended their industry was right there under their noses all along?

Enter the smartphone. And startups like Uber, Lyft, Sidecar, Hailo, Zipcar, and others. Leveraging mobile technology, they have managed to turn a nearly half-millennia-old business entirely upside down, in a matter of months. How? By creating an easy, transparent, and truly customer-centric experience. Let’s compare:

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This revolution in customer experience hasn’t just resulted in renewed convenience for customers — but it’s proven to be a successful business model. Uber, for example, has gone from solely operating in San Francisco to being one of the world’s fastest growing businesses. You can now “uber” in 35 countries. Similarly, its competitors like Lyft seem equally geared toward world domination through this no-longer-nascent customer experience upheaval.

Like the booksellers, travel agents, and phone books before them, the cab industry failed to innovate on behalf of customers. Instead of investing in improvements that could ease common customer pain-points, they did things like install TV’s to assail riders with ads and increase their profit margins.

“E-hailers” came in and started from scratch, investing in disruption at each customer experience pain-point. Here’s how they did it — tenets of modern CX that could be applied to almost any industry:

  • Remove Friction Points: No more curb waving, no more long waits, no more grumpy drivers, no more cash. Customers, more than ever, expect easy, fast processes for everything. In the Age of the Customer, if you are not fast and easy, you will be replaced.

  • Deliver Transparency: Your Uber driver is named John. He is driving a Prius (license plate number CXXP14) and will arrive in 4 minutes.The technology to keep customers informed in real-time exists and should be leveraged. Whether it’s tracking a FedEx shipment or the number of steps it takes to checkout while shopping online, the when and the why an order will be on-time or late (or any other important, available info on a given good or service) helps set customer expectations accordingly.

  • Use Feedback as a Currency: How would you rate your experience with your Uber driver? Why? Make it easy for both your customers and your employees to be heard and use their feedback to improve. In the case of Uber, feedback is a mandatory part of the experience — and why only the best (customers and employees) get the best service.

  • Make Human Connections: Thanks for riding, see you next time [fist bump]! That might be Lyft’s signature fist bump, but Uber similarly says their vision is about “Moving People” — not transforming transportation. Customers are people, and the companies that serve them are made up of people. Making things easy and transparent doesn’t mean cutting out the human element; in fact, the ease that technology enables requires that even more attention be given to encouraging the human touch. How do you ensure this happens? That’s where the feedback comes in.

While the phrase “It’s Uber for ____” might be spawning some fairly frivolous apps at the moment, there is a veritable world of important customer experiences that are ripe for the kind of redesign that the taxi industry got. Healthcare? Home repairs? Telecom? Real estate? It’s only a matter of time before CX-minded upstarts start eating the lunch of some of these old school players.

And just like with the cab companies, technology that was seen as Star Trek next gen one day — will pass them by going lightspeed the next.

Photo credit: jennie-o