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Uber sales execs on the future of customer engagement

April 22 / US

It’s been more than a year since the COVID-19 pandemic began. And we probably don’t have to tell you that it has changed the way our world operates. Businesses have had to adapt in ways big and small. Particularly affected is the way we interact with customers and employees, as we’ve lost the ability to connect in person—over a cup of coffee, across the counter, or in a boardroom. 

We sat down (virtually) with Uber for Business sales executives John Foong, Global Head of Account Management; Eric Lee, Global Head of Sales Development; and Christophe Peymirat, Head of Uber for Business in EMEA to discuss how COVID-19 has driven their teams to adapt to virtual selling, the new ways they’re engaging employees, and the future of sales. 

A focus on health and wellness

In the early days of the pandemic, Uber’s leaders were primarily concerned with keeping everyone safe. “There were a lot of health-related fears, mixed with gratitude that we could remotely continue to do our jobs,” Foong says. While most people expected remote work to be temporary, the situation soon settled into a longer timeline. 

“As things developed, I was using what I called my team’s hierarchy of needs,” says Foong. “Firstly, we want to prioritize personal safety, and physical and medical wellness. But pandemic survival is much more than physical: without mental and emotional health and wellness, and staying connected socially, we can’t be effective business leaders. We need to keep ourselves and our families well to keep the business healthy.” This encouraged employees to keep perspective on what’s important. 

“The hierarchy of needs was also useful for customers,” adds Foong. “We started reaching out to let them know that we’re thinking about them, finding ways to encourage them and share ideas, and discerning whether we can help or whether we are not top of mind right now.” 

As time passed, the teams continued to try and maintain connections with customers. “We checked in, however we could—email, saying hello, sharing news of interest,” Foong says. 

In April 2020, Uber launched Uber Eats on the Uber for Business platform. This allowed companies to leverage the Uber platform beyond rides. It has opened the doors to a new type of customer: companies looking for food delivery options for employees and customers. “We started to speak with people that weren’t our usual buyers,” Foong says. “From a selling perspective, now we’ve sold more new products than ever.” 

Customer engagement has shifted

“Pre-COVID, I was visiting 1 to 2 countries a week,” Peymirat says. “The way of doing business in Europe was really about relationships, and our customers expected to see people in person. There was quite a bit of gathering and networking.” Now that connections are made virtually, engagement has changed. 

Says Foong: “While we can still meet customers over video chat, connections are less intimate. The partnerships aren’t terrible but could be better. We want to be able to form strategic relationships and go deeper.” 

Team engagement is down

Without regular connection, employees are feeling the impact. “To some degree, we’re all feeling disconnected. Not being able to see my team, or peers in the office, makes work less fun, and also probably costs us in terms of innovation and knowledge sharing in a way that’s difficult to quantify,” Foong says. 

Lee echoes those sentiments: “The big piece we lack now is the inter-team collaboration. We can’t hear what people are doing on the phone, we can’t tap a colleague on the shoulder to ask questions. It’s so easy to get siloed in this remote environment.”  

But that’s OK 

Instead of focusing on the limitations of video calls, embrace and appreciate the benefits of the new platform. “You can make a lot more calls and be in less places,” says Foong. “It’s a bit more of a level playing field, a great equalizer. There are also a lot of interesting tools you can use, like polling or live high fives, to help keep people engaged.” 

It’s not forever  

To keep things moving, these sales leaders are trying to embrace and magnify the positives but also be conscious of what’s been lost. Chat tools such as Slack have become highly used to re-create as much of the in-person experience as possible. “We’ve done a much better job of using Slack—that’s what’s been successful,” Lee says. “We know we’re lacking on-the-floor knowledge, but we’re trying to make it up virtually with chats and with more regular weekly meetings.” 

To compensate, leadership is also working to find new ways to connect with their teams and help them feel safe and celebrated. “We’ve had really interesting team meeting ideas, fun Slack groups, cocktail hours, virtual quizzes,” Lee says. Adds Foong: “It’s about using digital to bridge the physical divide, trying an idea, showing intention and care.” 

Look for a new model in the future 

All 3 sales leaders were frequent travelers before COVID-19 hit, but they all agree that the sales process and associated travel will change. “It won’t go back to as it was before,” Foong says. “Hopefully the hybrid world enables us to reintroduce the in-person interactions we dearly miss but maintain the equality and lifestyle benefits of working remotely.” 

Everything is virtual at this point, but it won’t be forever. “Everyone is used to video calls now, and it works, but I think it will fundamentally change the way we do business,” Peymirat says. “If you look at the way business travel was organized pre-COVID, in Europe it was very common for business travelers to leave on a morning flight—say, Paris to Frankfurt—then return to the office in the afternoon. People got really tired. It’s super expensive. I think when companies reflect, my thought is that we will still go and meet with big prospects, but not as regularly. Now it is going to be more acceptable to conduct business on video-chat tools like Zoom. 

“The way people work is going to change. Especially short meetings are going to change. We have lost some of the quality of interaction, but from pure efficiency we have more time to work.”