PHILADELPHIA - In the parking lots of Home Depot and Target stores, Al Giombetti tracks down 'firebreathers.'
Giombetti, Ford Division's truck group brand manager, requires his marketing staffers to hang out in grocery-store and mall parking lots quizzing passionate truck owners.
'We spend a lot of time at Home Depot watching people use their trucks, ours and our competitors',' he said. 'In the parking lot at Home Depot they will tell you the good, the bad and the ugly.'
Giombetti's on-the-street approach is part of Ford's worldwide push to understand better its own customers and buyers of competitive makes. For example, the company's top 350 executives must visit at least two dealerships this year.
In public places and on the Internet Giombetti tracks down what he calls firebreathers, truck owners who readily explain why a specific truck inspires loyalty.
Automakers long have relied on consumer feedback through focus groups and research. But watching people actually use their vehicles and talking face to face creates 'a gut feel' about what the customer wants, Giombetti said.
He said he has discovered features on competitive trucks that are now being considered for Ford models, but he would not discuss specifics.
Customers already have influenced the 2001 Ford F-150 SuperCrew, which bows in January 2000. The sport-utility pickup will be offered with an optional rear-seat digital video entertainment system.
Said Giombetti: 'An entertainment system was not on anybody's radar screen until we listened to customers.'