Share-a-cab Chronicles – A new Market Research Tool?

You might think that taking a Uber Pool or Ola Share is just a way of cutting down transportation costs. Or meeting interesting people on the way to office? Or going by the new rule introduced by Uber overseas where they ban flirting and physical contact between passengers using ‘Uber pool’ taxi service, after strangers used it to meet for sex. I somehow hadn’t imagined such a innovative way of using an Uber Pool or Ola Share but never mind. But people are innovating all the time. Remember the guy who was using Airbnb as a brothel. I hope the same rules are in place soon in India, where I live.

Well, you are wrong certainly about a pool cab only reducing your transportation costs. Taking a pool cab is great way of finding out more about people and how they behave. A new tool to study human insights, consumer behaviour and understanding people in general. In fact I think that it is a valid market research tool. Just like focus groups and one-to-one in depth interviews. Imagine if you were a researcher who took a pool cab every single day of your working week. You would have closely observed at least 3 people to and fro from office, which is 6 people a day x 5 days x 4 weeks = 120 a month or 1440 people a year. That could be a huge mine of data. This is ethnography on the move. Lets call it Ubergraphy!

I realised that a pool cab is very enlightening on November 8, 2016 when the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, announced demonetisation. I took a pool cab the very next day. An upper class Mumbai lady got into the pool cab. Clearly she was distressed. She had asked 10 of her domestic staff ( Indians don’t care to be politically correct – they still call them ‘servants’ here ) to go to her bank, exchange the old currency for the new one. Unfortunately the bank clerk suspected that the 10 people in the queue were from the same household. The lady in the pool cab was complaining to someone at home, probably her mother or even her mother-in-law ( its common for even upper class households to live in a joint family ) about how stupid the the domestic staff had been. Didn’t they have the brains to leave a few gaps in the queue’ she asked angrily. It was a great insight into how the Indian mind works in devious ways to work around even a strong dictat like demonetisation which shocked both India and the rest of the world. On this ride I got fantastic insights into the upper class Indian who stocks piles of unaccounted cash at home. And the surprising part is that this lady was thrifty enough to take a Uber Pool, when given her wealth she should have been traveling alone.

On another day I couldn’t help noticing that the well dressed corporate executive in a suit next to me was looking at muscular male bodies. At first I thought it was a little strange, but finally the apple fell on my head. Eureka! I was watching a man on a male dating site called Grindr. Considering that the cab had picked up this customer from one of Mumbai’s latest business districts made it even more interesting. This man could even be a investment banker I thought. It was comforting to know that downtown Mumbai is quite liberated and not so much behind the rest of the world.

And on another occasion, a young couple behind me exposed me to the various stages of the flirting, dating manoeuvre. Its no big wonder then that the new Uber guidelines say physical contact between passengers, flirting or asking if other car-sharers are single could lead to a permanent ban from the app. Already introduced in the US, now Uber plans to introduce it in the UK as well shortly.

You may think that I am just a ‘share a cab’ voyeur. No I am not. But unfortunately when you are in the same cab, with 3 or more people during the ride to your office, or home, for a good hour, you can’t but help listen to conversations, hear people talking on the phone or to the other passengers, and draw conclusions about their life and what they do. Take the lady who had her own unique way of dealing with her unaccounted cash the during the Great Indian Demonetisation.

And because traditional market research techniques, where researchers interlocute consumers can’t deal with the fact that people often lie about themselves, some quiet observation à la Sherlock Holmes might just work as a useful market research tool. The pool cab might even be a great way to do some informal mini focus groups. Because most of the people who travel in Uber, probably are the type that would never make it to a faraway destination only to attend a focus group. Or the more popular Customer Advisory Board which is a form of market research whereby a group of existing customers is convened on a regular basis to advise company management on industry trends, business priorities, and strategic direction.

Its not a coincidence I guess that the acronym for Customer Advisory Board is CAB!

And is what I am suggesting anything new? Not according to David McCaughan one of my readers below who says that way back in the 1980s, one of Wall Streets leading investors explained in an interview, that much more than the millions of $ his company spent on research, his No 1 source of valuable information was to randomly hire a taxi in the Wall Street area once a week and ask the driver to spend an hour telling him what he had heard passengers talking about during the last seven days.

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Prabhakar Mundkur has spent 40 years in advertising and worked in India, Africa and Asia. He is currently Chief Mentor with HGS Interactive a part of HGS in the Hinduja Group. He is on the advisory board of Sol 's Arc (solsarc.org ) an NGO dedicated to special education for intellectually challenged children. He is also a member of Whiteboard ( whiteboardindia.org ) which supports senior management of NGOs in financial management, PR, Communication and HR through pro bono expertise.

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