Ford turns to dealers as quality dips
Frustrated drivers need lessons on technology
Ford Motor's John Felice: "We listen, we learn, we improve."
When Ford Motor Co. launched its redesigned Explorer in December, Rasmussen Ford of Storm Lake, Iowa, initially had a hard time getting the hot-selling crossover.
Then a customer who bought one elsewhere brought his Explorer into Rasmussen because he was having trouble with the vehicle's telematics.
"We went through and redelivered the vehicle to them," says Chris Rasmussen, general manager and part-owner. "We walked them through the technology and taught them how to link the phones because their selling dealership didn't do it."
When customers have trouble with Ford technologies, and when dealerships can't or don't explain those technologies adequately, Ford's reputation can take a hit.
Ford and its dealers have been working for months to fix the problem. But the issue took on added urgency last week, when J.D. Power and Associates released this year's Initial Quality Study.
Ford didn't finish last, but it was this year's most prominent loser.
Last year Ford was the top-ranked mass-market brand and No. 5 overall, and Lincoln was No. 7 overall. This year Ford plunged to No. 23 and Lincoln to No. 17.
Their rankings got hammered by owner complaints on two fronts:
1. Electronic systems, which had early glitches and hard-to-use controls.
2. Powertrains, tweaked for maximum fuel economy, that seemed to hesitate when shifting gears or accelerating.
J.D. Power said complaints of those types were common industrywide for all manufacturers with redesigned or refreshed product launches. And Ford had both: new vehicles and electronic systems such as MyFord Touch and Sync.
Ford, knowing it has a problem, has been borrowing solutions from its consumer electronics partners, including Microsoft Corp. and retailer Best Buy. They include:
-- Paying dealers for additional customer training. Since February, Ford has paid $75 for each Ford equipped with MyFord Touch and $125 for each Lincoln with MyLincoln Touch. Dealers can choose to pay salesmen to teach customers at delivery, offer aftersale training sessions or weekend group sessions or send trainers to customers' homes.
-- Updating powertrain and electronics software for free on new vehicles and those on the road.
-- Improving online instruction. MyFordTouch.com has 30 training videos and owner-posted videos and comments. Syncmyride.com added an owner forum.
-- Adding Sync experts to the staff of Ford's 800-number call center.
Says John Felice, general manager of Ford and Lincoln marketing: "We listen, we learn, we improve."
But the challenge, ultimately, will fall to dealers.
"We trust the dealers to know what they need to do in their own markets," Felice says.
Dealers say it's a challenge to keep staffs up to speed.
"The level of technology on the vehicles, much like cell phones, has moved up so far that the average consumer has not kept up with it," said Robert Valdes, general manager of El Centro Motors in El Centro, Calif. "In many places, neither has the staff."
3 weeks of training
Valdes has made training a priority. "If I hire a new salesperson today, he needs to be certified before he talks to a customer. It takes three weeks, and I'm happy to pay them for that time."
He also had noticed that the average time to deliver a vehicle had jumped from about half an hour to an hour or even two. But the typical customer is usually tired and overwhelmed at the end of the car-buying process and doesn't retain the information.
El Centro instructed salespeople to limit delivery to 30 to 35 minutes, instruct the customer to drive the car for a day or two and then set up an appointment to come back -- and bring their spouse's cell phone or any electronic device they want to link to the car.
"We make it mandatory, and we make it part of our process and our pay plans for that to happen," he said.
Industrywide, new or redesigned vehicles generated more complaints this year, and electronic complexity was the cause, said David Sargent, Power's vice president of global vehicle research. That reversed a long-term trend toward better quality on new and redesigned vehicles.
Problems on those vehicles rose to 122 per 100 vehicles, from 111 last year. Problems on carryover vehicles fell to 103 per 100 vehicles, from 108 in 2010.
"It's a trade-off. The added technology is often the reason customers want to buy new vehicles," he said, but the perceived "quality isn't as good the first year as later on."
Ford's situation is "like an echo" of BMW AG's iDrive, Sargent said. In BMW's case, drivers had difficulty learning to use iDrive to control increasingly complex vehicle functions. In 2001, BMW introduced iDrive, a central knob and LCD display that controlled secondary systems such as heating and cooling, audio, navigation and communication.
But many customers and auto reviewers criticized the system as difficult to learn. In 2008, BMW simplified iDrive and added voice-recognition functions to ease the complaints.
Going for technology leadership "is going to be good for Ford in the long term, but it is a short-term hit," Sargent said. "They're feeling the pain of taking risks while others wait to see what Ford learns."
You can reach Jesse Snyder at email@example.com.