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."