Early on the morning of Sept. 15, Stephanie Gertz and her 11-year-old awaited the arrival of a Lyft driver at their Hingham home for a 30-mile trip to an important medical appointment.
The driver got there on time, much to Gertz’s relief. But Gertz still had plenty on her mind. They were due at the Waltham campus of Boston Children’s Hospital in an hour.
This was not an emergency situation, but it certainly was important for Gertz to get her child there on time for a long-scheduled battery of tests expected to last several hours.
Lyft, the second-largest ride-hailing company in the country, generates an upfront price on every request it gets for a ride based on numerous factors, including distance, route, ride availability, and demand. The price Gertz got in advance was $57.94.
Gertz’s husband planned to drive to the hospital later that day to be included in a meeting with the medical staff. They all looked forward to driving home together.
All was going smoothly until a few miles into the trip when the driver startled Gertz by saying his vehicle was overheating and he had to cancel the ride.
The driver told Gertz it was her responsibility to arrange a substitute ride. Gertz and her child were on the sidewalk in Weymouth. Feeling a bit stressed as the clock ticked down, she used the Lyft app on her mobile phone to book the quickest available ride. (The first driver stayed with Gertz and her child until the next driver arrived.)
Gertz said she didn’t pay attention to the price when she booked it. After arriving at the hospital she took notice: almost $138.
Why was she being charged almost $80 more than the original price when the need for the second ride was Lyft’s fault? Well, that was the price Lyft generated to get her the nearest-available car. (She was not charged for the short, aborted ride.)
Gertz recognizes there are plenty of things in life more concerning than being overcharged $80.
“In the scheme of things, what’s important is that my child is okay,” she wrote in an e-mail asking me to intervene with Lyft on her behalf. “But it’s not right that I was charged more than twice as much for a ride through no fault of my own.”
Gertz said she had assumed Lyft would readily refund the $80 once it knew the circumstances. She expected a credit toward future rides. It seemed so basic. But Lyft denied her a refund in a five-minute online chat, the kind of communication in which she and the Lyft representative — possibly a robot — typed short messages back and forth.
“It’s a small issue, but the ‘wrong-ness’ of it is still bothering me,” she wrote to me.
Gertz shared with me the text of the online chat. I found it infuriating. It’s a testament to how condescending corporate America can be to us, the little people who pay the bills. The Lyft representative in the chat may have been a human or a machine. It’s hard to tell. But what’s obvious is Lyft wasn’t listening while spewing out a bunch of scripted, silly, “happy talk.”
Twelve times, Lyft thanked Gertz while denying her a refund and her request for reconsideration.
Sprinkled throughout the short conversation were these: “Thank you for contacting Lyft”; ”Thanks for patiently waiting”; “Thanks for being part of this amazing community”; “Thank you again for contacting Lyft”; “Thanks for your message!”; “Thank you so much for your reply”; “Thank you so much for trusting Lyft”; “Thank you so much for getting back to us”; and “Thank you for reaching out and have a great day.” (One of four times Lyft wished her a “great day” in the brief exchange.)
Lyft also apparently sought to convey empathy: “I truly understand your concerns”; “I definitely understand where you are coming from”; and “I just want to make sure all your concerns are resolved.”
And how willing was Lyft to help? “It’s my pleasure to help you”; “I am more than happy to help”; “I am more than happy to continue helping you”; “I really, really hope this information helps”; “Is there anything else I might be able to help you with?”; and “I’m here to help you,” this last one followed by a smiley face emoji.
And Lyft was so sorry: “We are very sorry to hear about your experience”; “I sincerely apologize for any inconvenience this might cause you”; “Please accept our apologies”; and ”We are very sorry to hear that the vehicle … was broken”.
And all this came in an exchange of only a couple hundred words.
Then, also, there was some perplexing syntax: “I know money is important as it represents a valuable part of your time and effort, so I don’t want you to feel it is being taken away from you unfairly.” Huh?
Embedded in all this puffery was Lyft’s rationale for refusing a refund. In essence, Lyft said its records showed Gertz booked the second ride on her app; therefore, she’s responsible for the stated price; no extenuating circumstances considered.
Gertz’s succinct reply: “I am stunned that you are being so irrational about this. I have always used Lyft over Uber, now I will reconsider.”
I contacted Lyft on Gertz’s behalf, arguing it owed her a refund on moral, if not legal, grounds.
“Ms. Gertz and Lyft agreed to exchange a ride to the hospital for $57.94,” I wrote. “But Lyft failed to fulfill its side of the bargain. It left Ms. Gertz and her child on the side of the road.”
I said Lyft, after making its original deal, had an obligation to deliver on it, which meant delivering Gertz and her child to the hospital at a cost no more than the $57.94 originally quoted. What if Gertz had tried to change the terms of the deal by paying only $30 after arriving at the hospital?
“Actually, Lyft could have gained some good will by waiving the charge in its entirety, in light of the distress it caused,” I wrote.
One day later, Lyft wrote to Gertz to apologize, refund her $80, and even give her a $20 credit toward a future ride.
I give Lyft credit for its quick action. But I find it hard to believe, as Lyft asserted in its apology to Gertz, that it was “surprised” she wasn’t treated better after she first explained the circumstances.
I think a lot of corporate honchos are content to let their low-wage, under-trained, front-line customer service people (or machines) routinely deny legitimate requests for refunds, and then feign disbelief when the likes of me come knocking.
It fattens the bottom line for corporations because few have Gertz’s gumption.