How Chrysler can keep its customers and gain new ones

Or, “dang, that headline is too long.”

We were having a debate in the allpar.com forums, and the subject of quality came up. Chrysler, which used to be “world class” in quality, has fallen and seemingly can’t get up.

Admittedly, just about every quality survey now includes the caveat, “Pretty much anything that’s not the absolute bottom is interchangeable for the average customer.” In other words, statistical variation is often greater than actual differences. But every time Chrysler comes out below average in quality surveys, it hurts.

Every time a new customer has to go to a dealer, it hurts.

Every time a customer goes to the dealer and the dealer screws up, it really, really hurts, and dealers are all too frequently screwing up. There are too many dealers who are terrible at repairs and very good at taking money from hapless, helpless, or ignorant people, or even just people who are trusting the wrong businesses.

dealer repairs bay shop

Keep in mind there’s little Chrysler can do to stop dealers from being crooks if they really want to, because each state has laws that protect them, and the dealer lobby is strong enough to wrangle exemptions from numerous laws.

Long ago, I published an article on how companies can defend against this sort of thing.  First, I have to point to research from Technical Assistance Research Programs, Inc. (TARP):

  • Roughly one of five customers who has a problem which was not resolved will be lost. On the other hand, when customers report a problem and are completely satisfied with the eventual outcome, customer loyalty often increases.
  • Most customers who have problems do not complain. Those who do but who are not helped on their first try generally do not contact the company again.
  • Most of those who do complain speak with people other than the call center or customer service representatives.
  • Those who are dissatisfied with a company’s response to their questions or problems will tell as many as 16 others about the experience.
  • The largest number of lost sales come from those who never contact the company.

They said the return on investment in customer care programs can be as high as 500%, publishing their research and calculations so anyone can see them.

Using people

From what I understand, and I may be wrong, Chrysler has its call center in the US, but pays its reps little, and as a result has high turnover. (This is all based on hearsay). Even so, getting to them often helps to resolve a problem, but most customers never even think about the call center.

Traditional suggestion #1: Make it very, very easy to contact the call center by putting the phone number on the price sticker, the purchase contract (if possible), the front and back cover of the owner’s manual and warranty book, a sticker in the glove compartment, etc. — anything and everything the company can do. 

Proactive suggestion #1: Call customers randomly to see how their experience was. Vary the percentage of calls based on internal ratings of the dealer’s service records. Chrysler already knows which dealers are naughty, and which are nice. The naughtier they are, the more customers should be contacted after each service to see how they were treated — if not by phone, then by post-card or letter.

five star dealers

In Chrysler’s “Five Star” program, dealers were supposed to call each customer after a service or sale, address complaints, and track issues, and their own actions. Managers were required to survey employees and address issues raised by those surveys. Admittedly, only good dealers did this, but it made good dealers better. There’s a precedent, in short, for calling customers after service.

Rather than having managers contact each customer, in the late 1990s, Sears used inbound telephone surveys of customers (whose incentive was a coupon printed on their register tape, now routine). Managers could access this information, including transcribed comments, through the Internet; they could also view the actions of other stores. Managers were encouraged to meet with lower-level employees to discuss the feedback and plan for action. Sears improved while they had the discipline to keep the system going.

Using the Internet

We need to have a multiple-pronged approach, too. These days, the Internet is supremely important, and Chrysler’s record is not good. If I put my VIN into the Chrysler IOS app, it insists my car was never made and doesn’t even try to decode the VIN or offer me a way to report the error. (I’ve both typed it and scanned the barcode.)

Well-designed Web sites can answer frequently asked questions and route customers to help. The sales sites need better direction to support sites, and the support sites need to be much, much, much faster than they are. When you have a problem, you don’t care about flash, you care about speed.

Traditional suggestion #2: Make the customer care options easier to find and faster to use.

Traditional suggestion #3: Have ways for customers to report problems with the apps and web sites more easily. 

Back in the 1990s, customer care at SPSS, Inc. was not only available by e-mail and the Web, but also through Internet newsgroups (“Usenet”). When employees felt that an SPSS question was not answered by fellow users, or when a customer had maligned the company in error, they corresponded with the customer to help them. This reached people who did not contact the company, provided early warnings of software problems, and also helped SPSS to keep the pulse of their customers.

Yet, as far as I can tell, Chrysler does not do this — at least, not on Allpar, which gets 980,000 unique visitors per month.

Proactive suggestion #2: Monitor forums, newsgroups, Facebook, Twitter, and such to find dissatisfied customers, research their problem, and try to solve it. 

You would be amazed at how good Chrysler is at solving problems and making dealerships do things they don’t want to do, because, well, too many dealership owners/managers and service managers would rather do a cash extraction than make a customer happy. Since many dealerships deal in multiple brands, they also don’t care much about customer loyalty.

Prevention

The best way to increase quality is to prevent problems, and FCA has started taking that more seriously with the decision to make quality, not cost, the first priority in purchasing.

FCA should also look into the old SCORE program (supplier suggestions and saving money/increasing quality with a systems approach) and various employee-suggestion programs, which saved the old Chrysler Corp. billions of dollars while reducing waste and improving quality.

At Toyota’s NUMMI joint venture with GM, the people who made suggestions were, where possible, given the power to implement them, easing the burden on managers and making action more likely.

The biggest problem may be getting executives and managers, including plant managers, to take quality seriously, after decades of quality being a game or fad. The company used to put quality and engineering first, but production and profit have been king for far too long.

block-castings

Some best practices for using customer care input in continuous improvement include organization-wide commitment; clear channels of communication; a unified plan for collecting and integrating data; conversion of research into revenue estimates; giving this information to managers in form which provokes action; and tracking to ensure that actions are taken. Even in the late 1990s, programs with all of these components were rare.

At the call center level, some reps should be designated as specific content area experts and given training and testing to support that, having relevant calls routed their way.  Companies that have trained and paid employees well and given them strong support tools and authority have in some cases closed 95% of customer calls without callbacks.

Traditional suggestion #4: Get more employee and supplier involvement and give people a reason to change things.

Traditional suggestion #5: Have designated, well trained experts in the call center for particular issues (e.g. pairing phones, idling issues, rattles.) 

FCA is part of the way there, but like so many things at FCA, it seems as though everything is half baked. There is no room for that now. Chrysler brands in particular need to be exceptional, and the company is finally getting the cash flow to make it happen. Loyal customers increase cash flow.

The company can choose to save money now and pay later, or pay now and start saving right away. It’s up to Sergio Marchionne and his team, but from where I stand — getting complaints and impressions in real time — immediate action is needed.