The idea is to give the people who develop GM's vehicles -- engineers who rarely venture far from GM's technical center and proving grounds near here -- a view from the front lines and have them funnel their learning and impressions back to headquarters. GM executives hope the engineers will view future vehicle-development decisions more through customers' eyes, and that it rubs off on their peers.
"Whether it's service problems or just customers who don't know how something works, these engineers will see our vehicles in the real world and be able to channel that back into their work," GM North America President Mark Reuss said in an interview. "They'll appreciate how hard and involved the sales and service process is on the ground."
The program is part of a broader push by GM to improve quality and customer satisfaction. For instance, GM has hired specialists from Apple and other tech companies to help dealerships solve customers' infotainment headaches. Last year, GM added a customer-retention metric to its bonus structure for salaried employees in North America. And it appointed a customer experience chief, Alicia Boler-Davis, to monitor customer tastes and demands. GM also made her head of product quality as a way to get the customer's voice heard earlier.
GM claims to be the only major automaker to consolidate the quality and customer experience roles.
The training program is another in a long line of efforts by GM to try to break down barriers between its divisions and regional operations, and ease the bureaucracy that GM executives have said led to a lack of focus on the customer. Many current and former executives have pointed to the company's historical complexity and infighting as a factor in its 2009 bankruptcy.
Since taking over as CEO in 2010, Dan Akerson has pushed his management team to make GM's web of offices, labs and factories work like a more integrated global company. Until now, though, that effort has not extended much to the dealer network.
"It's almost like the telephone game, where you're trying to understand what the customer or the dealer wants, but there are all of these levels in between us and them," says Sarah Cohen, an engineer who oversees test facilities at GM's proving grounds in Milford, Mich., and visited the Hendrick store last week. "This experience gets rid of all of those levels."
Engineers selected for the training program are from a cross section of GM's U.S. engineering ranks, including up-and-coming rank-and-filers to upper-level managers. Thirty of them, including Cohen, are among a first wave that has rotated through stores in California, the New York area and Atlanta. Cohen's group includes an engineer who handled the exterior lighting on the recently launched Chevrolet Impala, another who conducts battery testing on the Chevy Volt and a vehicle system engineer on the Cadillac XTS.
Cohen, who manages test labs where GM engineers seek to eradicate squeaks and rattles and other imperfections before vehicles are shipped, said it has been helpful to see how dealership service techs in the field pinpoint trouble spots.