Over the past few years, the landscape of Malta’s cab industry has changed dramatically. With just a few players on the scene, around 10 years ago Malta’s roads were introduced to eCabs. Since then, the number of people moving to Malta for work has exploded, together with traffic and increased overall activity.
Further still, Malta has also experienced a boom in ride-sharing applications competing with eCabs. In the light of this, the Malta Chamber discusses how technology is shaping the company and how increased competition has shaped its strategy with eCabs co-founder Matthew Bezzina.
Mr Bezzina’s aim is simple – in his own words, he wishes to “build a transport technology framework that is future ready.” He discusses the impact competition has had on his business, the lessons learnt from a decade in the industry and the lack of regard to customer safety by many operators in the space.
eCabs is close to a decade old – what would you say has been the biggest unexpected lesson learnt from your experience in the cab industry?
We entered the industry at a time when the disruptive era was still to commence. In effect, locally, it was us who triggered the disruption and in that context I would say the biggest lesson was to continuously challenge the status quo and drive change, based on the needs of the market, irrespective of the internal and external forces that will naturally resist change. Taking a cue from mother nature, species that evolve to adapt to the continuously changing environment are those that have survived thousands of years of evolution and change.
The technology behind how you deliver your service has changed drastically over time. Could you give an overview of the most recently revamped digital framework implemented within eCabs?
Initially, eCabs started from 2 booking channels, mainly the phone and OTC (over the counter) through our satellite sub offices in Paceville. In 2013 we introduced Malta's first cab booking app, which heralded the facilitation of the booking process and reduced the margin of error. Eventually, spurred by the technological advancements of international app based platforms, we took a bold decision not to rely on third party technology any longer and build our own tech assets to make eCabs’ technological offering and the our mobile app relevant to the peculiar needs of our customer base.
With constant releases and upgrades we are ensuring that our App offers a seamless user experience, from the booking stage straight through the customer exiting the vehicle. We are now on the doorstep of major technological breakthroughs in what eCabs stands for: the entrenchment of digital in our fabric will now be reaching new heights and deliver beyond customer expectations. Our aim is simple: to build a transport technology framework that is future ready.
Serious efforts have been made to push the use of the app rather than have people telephone in. This makes it easier for drivers to find their clients and serves as a transparent record of what has been ordered by the client. What would you say has been the biggest challenge and the biggest reward from the latest application developments?
First things first: behind the popular 21383838, there is an incredible set-up run by a team of dedicated and passionate people. We do not just take calls, but we provide mobility solutions to our customers. It would have been easy for us to follow the same route as many others and just implement an app and let the customer sort it out.
For example, how could we call ourselves a responsible transport provider if we ignored the fact that many people still do not feel comfortable enough with technology? Our strategy was to build a leading-edge app whilst still maintaining our call center channel extending the benefits of our technology to those passengers who do not use it. Needless to say, our vision is to accelerate the app usage not by merely talking about it but by exceeding our customers’ expectations.
Competition is certainly stiffer than it used to be, with Uber-style cabs becoming popular. How has this impacted the client base of your business and are you tempted to implement a similar business model, having such strong infrastructure and resources in place?
We are a live showcase that competition is healthy! It keeps all the stakeholders alert and to a certain extent helps eliminate underperforming players. As a person who has the sustainability of the industry at heart, I instigate competition, local and international. I believe that no one is owed a living and that we need to put our money where our mouth is if we want to be trusted by passengers.
However, competition can never thrive if there isn’t a level playing field. Unfortunately, over the past 3 years, our industry evolved into a veritable jungle with most of the mushrooming operations verging on severe regulatory breaches. Such platforms are marketing and offering their services to a new breed of self-employed drivers who have no employment or contractual relationship either with the platform itself or with the operators under whose permit the vehicles used are licensed.
Typically congested road in St Julian's
This is giving theses app-based platforms an unfair competitive advantage over legitimate operators like ourselves, who unlike such platforms are legally obliged to abide by a myriad of fiscal and employment rules. Also the fact that these platforms openly claim to have no responsibility over drivers and vehicles used for such services, is a matter of serious concern from a passenger safety standpoint, as while it is aimed to exonerate them from any obligation towards their passengers or responsibility for the service provided, it puts at risk the safety of passengers and hinders effective regulatory control.
On the other hand, customer safety has always been our priority, to an extent that we will soon be rolling out a Passenger Charter and an Emergency Assist button on our app, complemented by a call center and a control team manning and monitoring the operation 24/7. Thankfully the government has recently issued a very well-thought-out reform document and kickstarted a consultation period, which reform will mainly safeguard the safety of the passengers and the sustainability of the industry.