General Motors Works Overtime To Keep Customers Happy

September 20, 2012

Back in January, J.D. Power and Polk released some interesting data about customer-retention rates in the auto industry -- or, in everyday language, brand loyalty. The two research firms came up with slightly different statistics, but both agreed that companies like Ford were making real progress on the customer-retention front.

Not to be outdone by one of its crosstown rivals, General Motors is stepping up efforts to keep customers happy, and the company's new vice president for Global Product Quality and Customer Experience, Alicia Boler-Davis, is leading the charge.

GM and customer loyalty

GM didn't fare poorly on J.D. Power's scoresheet. (Polk released only the top scorers, so it's hard to tell how non-winners ranked.) According to Power, 57% of Chevrolet owners traded in their ride for another Chevy, and Cadillac's customer-retention rate of 52% wasn't much lower. That put both brands above the industry average of 49%.

GMC fell below that line, though, at 46%. And Buick placed a bit further down the chart, resting at 38%. (Though in fairness, Buick probably has more ground to recover than GM's other brands, and like Cadillac, it scored high marks on Power's recent Customer Satisfaction Index.)

According to the Wall Street Journal, GM as a whole boasts a customer-retention rate of 52% -- respectable, but not good enough for Boler-Davis.

The plan

In a press release, GM has outlined some of its efforts to boost its number of repeat customers. Those include:

Merging the company's Product Quality and Customer Experience programs into one, headed by Ms. Boler-Davis: Since the former so heavily affects the latter, it seems like a no-brainer to wrap the two units into one department. Otherwise, it's very easy for the left and right hands to lose track of what the other is doing. And that's often where problems start.

Dealership renovations: GM says that 88% of its dealers have either recently upgraded their showrooms or are in the process of doing so, which is the biggest renovation project in the company's history. To some, that may seem irrelevant, but for customers about to spend thousands of dollars on a new vehicle, malfunctioning light fixtures and shoddy furniture don't exactly scream "Buy here!" The renovations should boost customer opinion, confidence, and comfort. Let's not forget: you only get one chance to make a first impression.

An army of tech consultants: Remember last year when Ford plummeted in J.D. Power's Initial Quality rankings because of its in-dash tech systems, SYNC and MyFord Touch? Well, GM certainly noticed, and it's hoping to avoid the same fate by placing 25 "Connected Customer Specialists" across the U.S.. Those staffers will visit showrooms in their area to train dealers in technology like Cadillac CUE and Chevy MyLink. What's more, each dealership is creating a position for a Certified Technology Expert, who will keep up with tech developments year-round and offer in-depth training for customers.

Social media SWAT team: As we've seen in other industries -- often air travel -- social media can cause headaches for companies when customers aren't happy. GM's new social media team will engage with customers before complaints spiral out of control.

Empowering front-line workers: How many times have you waited on hold to speak to an operator, only to hear, "Oh, that's not my department. Let me transfer you"? GM wants to change that. Taking her cue from companies like JetBlue, Boler-Davis is instituting new programs that will empower front-line employees -- from sales personnel to customer service agents -- to resolve issues quickly, on their own, without forcing customers to slog through a long and winding phone tree.  

Finalizing designs earlier: Boler-Davis says that vehicle design will now be "locked in" about 18 months before a vehicle launches. That will offer GM more time to evaluate the vehicle and identify any shortcomings.

Only time will tell if Boler-Davis' efforts pay off, but we admit, her plan is awfully impressive, especially for an automaker that was once considered a bureaucratic behemoth. Given the state of computer networks these days, there's no reason that a company -- even one as big as GM -- can't streamline communications. That should help make customers feel special, and not like they're just another hamster making its way through the maze from showroom to financing to service.

GM customers: we'd love to hear from you. If you've had a bad experience with your local dealership, does this make you a little more optimistic about your next visit? Drop us a line, or leave a note in the comment below.

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