GM stunned many industry insiders in June when it became the first Detroit automaker to finish atop the J.D. Power Initial Quality Study in the survey's 27-year history. Another J.D. Power survey that measures customer satisfaction with dealership service ranked Cadillac the No. 2 luxury brand and Buick, GMC and Chevrolet in the top five among mainstream brands.
Akerson was so pleased with the quality result that in June he made Boler-Davis a direct report and gave her job global reach. He also put her on GM's inner-circle Executive Operations Committee, a group of about 20 key execs from around the globe who meet regularly to hash over major strategic decisions.
"She's a spark plug. She's got ideas. She's a force," Akerson said of Boler-Davis last month.
Her promotion also shows how eager Akerson, Reuss and other GM brass are to dismantle the persistent parochial divisions that have long splintered GM's corporate structure. Boler-Davis' 300-employee customer experience group (she oversees 2,200 on the quality side) was given a broad mandate to make changes that overlap with some big and historically territorial enterprises, such as sales, marketing, design and engineering. While GM has periodically assigned executives to such cross-departmental, troubleshooting roles, none was given the global reach and direct authority to effect changes that Boler-Davis has.
Last year, her team helped develop a program that required Chevrolet dealers to attend a three-day training jaunt to a Walt Disney theme park, or risk falling out of compliance with GM's brand-image program. Her group has pushed more mystery shopping of GM dealerships and required enrollees in the company's dealer-excellence program to adopt reputation-management systems.
There has been pushback among some dealers and field staff, she acknowledges. "I've had people look at me like: 'OK, who are you and why are you telling me I need to do things differently?'" she says.
She sought to convince skeptics that the customer experience push wasn't a flavor-of-the-month program but a long-term strategy that would win over more customers.
"We already had so many things going well: great products, a very engaged dealer body, a seasoned sales force," Boler-Davis says. "The question becomes: How do we take that to the next level and separate ourselves from what everyone else is doing?"
Early in Boler-Davis' tenure as customer experience chief, GM hired an outside research firm to survey customers inside and outside the auto industry. It benchmarked GM's customer service standards against companies "known for delivering a great experience," such as Apple, Amazon.com and online shoe retailer Zappos, she said.
That process resulted in several measures that Boler-Davis' team has since put in place:
- GM hired around 50 so-called connected customer specialists from companies such as Apple and Best Buy as on-call specialists stationed around the country to troubleshoot infotainment problems for dealerships and customers.
- GM took over management of its previously outsourced customer call centers, in Austin, Texas, and suburban Detroit. "We're putting the customer that much closer to the people who are designing and engineering the products and solving the problems," Boler-Davis says.
She says the average time it takes for a dealer to resolve a customer's problem has been cut in half over the past year. (She said that it's measured in days but won't specify a number for competitive reasons.)
- GM is dispatching around 90 lead engineers through six-week rotations at GM dealerships to get familiar with the retail side of the business. A key finding: Customers find the myriad trim and option packages across GM's models too complex. So GM is setting stricter thresholds for take rates on certain trim levels and packages. Those in low demand will be removed from next-generation products.
- Within the past year, GM has expanded its vehicle reliability testing. Depending on the launch, engineers test 20 to 100 vehicles across the country, from thin mountain air to baking desert heat, as a supplement to the durability testing GM has long done at its test track in Milford, Mich.