In one of their most popular posts covering the Philippines, Humans of New York profiled a 75-year-old taxi driver who found himself raising six grandchildren as his own kids after his daughter suddenly passed away from cancer.

“If I get too worn down, the children will take a ‘vacation’ at their auntie’s house. But that never lasts long. Because I miss them too much and want them back,” he said in his pithy 190-word capsule profile.

The piece was subsequently shared over 11,000 times, received 2,700 comments, and liked over 200,000 times, as of this writing. The story struck such a nerve with Filipino readers because it was one of contrasts. The Filipino public doesn’t usually sympathize, much less admire, taxi drivers, yet here was one with the mask pulled back and he was like one of us: He was hard-working, honest, and family oriented, perhaps even to a fault. How could you not like him?

Unfortunately, his story was so striking because there are also many other taxi drivers who are not like him, and as a team member of taxi-hailing platform, Micab, I have to spend time with these less inspirational characters. I’ll admit: This is tough. When I first founded Micab back in 2012 and people advised me that I would have to spend a lot of time with users — in my case both drivers and passengers, since we’re a platform. I thought it would be a piece of cake. It was just interacting with them and learning their pain points, after all. How hard could that possibly be? I could not have been more wrong.

Many taxi drivers are stubborn, difficult, inefficient, and exhibit a host of other unsavory traits, and the painful truth is that, as founder, the toughest segment of your user base to spend time with is those you will learn the most from.

What’s the use, after all, of preaching to the choir? You want to reach out to the people who don’t buy into what you’re doing and find out why. I’ve rode taxis 1,175 times last year, and the most valuable instances were ones where the driver still had a long way to go as a customer service professional. In every interaction with these drivers, I think to myself:

What will it take for more Filipinos to use these cabs? What needs to be addressed in their training, pricing, or systems?

Through my interactions, I learned that they are never born this way. No cab driver enters into the profession wanting to ask every passenger to add additional fare on top of the meter or contract a higher rate — they are always forced by circumstance to. If they do not ask for an extra fifty pesos, they may only break even on the trip, or even incur a loss; if they do not contract a flat rate from one location to another, they may not be able to buy groceries that week. By no means am I excusing away their behavior, I’m just explaining the root causes of what manifests to users as unsavory practices.

Because the fare structure for cabs has gone unchanged in eight years, traffic being what it is in the Philippines, and inflation rapidly increasing, they often return home to their families with no income to speak of, having barely passed the “boundary” that their operators have set(Editor’s note: in the Philippines, public utility drivers pay a daily rent to the operator, called the “boundary” — they take whatever is left as their profit) . They thus have to make ends meet, even if it means illegally trying to top up their fare.

This problem is the root of all bad taxi driving experiences. To think anything otherwise assumes an inherent maliciousness in a group of professionals that is just not there — like any other collection of blue-collar or white-collar Filipinos, they just want to survive. The key to helping them is in understanding this fact and building a sustainable business solution that can help them in the long-term. The operative word there is sustainable. As we saw in Uber’s operational exit of Southeast Asia through a deal with Grab, subsidizing fares, and in turn, incurring massive losses, is not sustainable.

Also read: The Grab-Uber deal is just the beginning for homegrown SEA startups

Because I’ve taken pains to spend time with difficult drivers and learned the root cause of their untoward behavior, I developed Micab with our team in such a way that it forces everyone of them to be their best. From the beginning, we have a best-in-class training program that culminates in a test and professional oath, brown bag seminars that upskill them with various skills, such as business English, and a feedback system on the app itself that produces a virtuous cycle: Good drivers rise to the top, and bad drivers must improve, or find themselves removed from the platform. Moreover, these systems are supported by a business model — B2B advertising on the taxi toppers that ride atop each Micab cab – that is a successful revenue generator, and thus sustainable.

On a regulatory level, Micab is one of the biggest private supporters of taxi companies, associations, and drivers, and our pet cause of the moment is the long awaited fare hike. We are consistently lobbying to federal policymakers, legislators, and regulators to increase the base fare for taxi drivers, so that they can focus on providing the best possible customer experience to Manila’s passengers. The increase has yet to be implemented, but our advocacy has rallied a growing body of support for the change and what it will bring: the advent of “Taxi 2.0” for our country’s commuters, evidenced in cabs – many of them Micab’s own – that are clean, modern, and driven by friendly, courteous, and kind drivers.

If we make all these changes to both cabs in particular and the industry as a whole, will you now patronize our cabs? Like every other founder in Asia, I will stop at nothing till that answer becomes a resounding yes!

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Thie article was first published on e27 on April 26, 2018.

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