Alicia Boler-Davis is quick to tell this story: a new Cadillac XTS buyer, who enjoyed listening to audiobooks, found that the Cadillac User Experience (CUE) system muted--but didn't pause--the audio while she took a phone call via Bluetooth, which left her paragraphs or even chapters ahead when she finally hung up. She placed a call to GM's Infotainment Call Center and made a complaint. The message quickly made it to CUE engineers, who coded a fix, and the company will roll the changes out to current CUE-equipped cars in the near future.
If this sounds like something the "old General Motors" wouldn't do, it's because it probably is--the General Motors of the past is portrayed as a company focused on internal metrics and the opinions of company personnel, and changes like the CUE update could have taken years to show up. While high-tech, upgradable infotainment systems have helped to solve the problem, these kinds of issues fall to GM's Vice President of Product Quality and U.S. Customer Experience, Alicia Boler-Davis.
Boler-Davis took to the stage at a briefing Wednesday morning less than a year into her new job (itself a newly created position) with a message about GM and its commitment to quality. The message is this: while using internal metrics has helped post-bankruptcy General Motors polish its image, the company will turn up the heat on the competition in terms of reliability.
Looking inside the company, Boler-Davis says that GM is hard at work both internally and with suppliers to improve wear and tear components whose frequent replacement frustrates owners. Case in point: engineers recast the brake discs on cars like the Cadillac DTS and Chevrolet Malibu using Ferritic Nitro-Carburizing, which superheats rotors and rust-proofs them, reducing brake disc-related repairs by a claimed 85 percent. It also promises to improve relationships with suppliers by collaborating with them on product development (like the new headlights on the 2013 XTS, built by Hella), toughening supplier certification, and recognizing the highest-quality products and suppliers a bit more loudly.
But outward communication seemed to command a tougher focus. General Motors says it will hire 75 new district managers to streamline the conversation between dealers and corporate to improve the sales and service processes, and GM has completed roughly 21,000 mystery shops of dealers to gauge the typical sales and service processes. Select dealer employees will also spend time learning customer service techniques from companies like Disney and Ritz-Carlton in hopes of stepping up their game.
With the ideas of long-term reliability and sales/service experiences covered, General Motors said it will also focus intensely on how customers interact with their infotainment systems. Automakers have watched as infotainment went from simple radios and tape decks to complex navigation and infotainment systems, and complaints to neutral parties like J.D. Power and Associates about the systems' complexity have increased just as much. Infotainment problems are now the top problem area in studies like J.D. Power's Initial Quality Survey.
To make sure its complex Cadillac User Experience, Buick and GMC IntelliLink, and Chevrolet MyLink systems don't draw as much IQS ire as, say, MyFord Touch, GM has hired 25 new Connected Customer Specialists who will cover GM's five major regions of the U.S. and has trained one person at each GM dealership to act as "Certified Technology Expert." Customers with questions about systems like CUE can talk to dealers face-to-face, and GM's Austin, Texas call center will be devoted to issues regarding infotainment. That dealer interaction, however, will be key for many customers: GM engineers say that some Cadillac customers, many of whom are post-career, don't think twice about visiting a dealership repeatedly after a sale. If they have an issue, they're more likely to take the car to a dealer for a quick tutorial than pick up the phone.
For people who are a bit more tech savvy, however, GM promises to monitor major social media outlets (including Facebook, Twitter, and over 80 homegrown GM vehicle owners' forums) and can respond to general issues or individual problems. GM says its social media team has nearly 9000 social media interactions every month (of which one was with me: I tweeted @GM from the audience of Boler-Davis' briefing and received a personalized hello from GM customer service representative some three minutes later.)
That's not to say that customer feedback only begins after the product is on sale--GM says that its engineers did "ride-alongs" with hundreds of regular people, watching how they interact with their cars on things like commutes, errands, and vacations, to figure out how its new infotainment systems should work. CUE, which launched this year, has been in the works in some way or another for about five years.
Will all this talk spell success for GM? It's hard to say--we have heard platitudes about the company stepping its reliability and product quality game up before, and only to some success--and its position as firmly above average in reliability and initial quality studies makes it harder to make serious headway. But the promise to firmly include the customer in the process of engineering and updating some systems, while showing a response to problems, could be the next best thing to come from the General.