GM Opens Customer Engagement Center

IHS Global Insight

December 16, 2013

Recently, GM invited a group of analysts and journalists to see its newly opened Customer Engagement Center. The event included remarks from Mark Reuss, current president of GM North America (Reuss has since been promoted and will take on global product planning in January 2014), and Alicia Boler-Davis, senior vice-president of global customer experience and product quality. Along with a tour of the facility, Boler-Davis discussed several customer-oriented initiatives.

Reuss opened by saying, "The challenge we laid out a couple years ago was bold and straightforward: deliver the best overall customer experience in the business. That's a big statement. This impacts every part of the enterprise. It changes how each part of the business works with one another, and it changes how each individual approaches his or her job."

The new facility consolidates several other call center locations as GM shifts to managing them as a core part of the business rather than an outsourced headache. The new facility will hold 300 customer advisors and 35 GM managers by the end of 2013; the advisors are hired through a contractor, but the managers are direct GM employees. Each manager's role is to ensure their advisor team has whatever is needed to resolve a customer's question.

GM's approach is to hire advisors and promote the best with the expectation that they learn GM's customer-centric focus from the ground up and will eventually grow to take other positions within the organization, further cementing the customer focus into the organization's culture and daily existence. The new center is focused on North America, and handles calls that have been previously routed to call centers in Buenos Aires (Argentina) now that GM has decided that customer care cannot be outsourced.

Boler-Davis wants to make "listening to the customer a core competency" for GM, and is using the center to roll out a new case-development process for "satisfying customers as quickly as possible, not closing cases as quickly as possible." The new system includes milestones, benchmarks, and processes by which improvements can be identified and tested. With implementation in Warren, GM is able to test before rolling out changes to other centers. In staffing the center, Boler-Davis is focused on hiring the right people, training them in resolution and negotiation, as well as product and GM culture, and arming them with the tools they need?from a database to an engineer to care specialists at the dealer.

The call center space is designed to encourage collaboration and creativity, and to provide a high-energy environment. A significant amount of space is dedicated to two training rooms. The facility includes a Listening Lounge, specifically laid out so that engineers can listen in on calls and hear them first-hand. Another benefit GM has identified is that advisors can also learn from the engineers what information is most useful to them, and incorporate this knowledge into their processes.

GM now sees every customer contact as an opportunity to build a relationship. Boler-Davis is also managing GM's social media presence. Understanding infotainment is a complex consumer demand, with most GM dealers creating connection centers in their showrooms, so that consumers have certified technical experts available on site. "Winning automakers will be the ones who can make the complexity simple. We can streamline the software and hardware, and also train dealers," Boler-Davis said.

GM has been working to shift its corporate culture to be more customer-centric, complete with the phrase: "the customer is our compass." This supports the overarching corporate objective of making GM "the world's most valuable automotive company over time by attracting the industry's most loyal and enthusiast customers."

Reuss described the change as "the cornerstone of what we are doing different." In the case of the Customer Engagement Center, this includes the location at Warren for its proximity to product-development designers and engineers, and brings engineers into conversations with customers at the center, as well as an ongoing program of having key engineers spend 90 days working in a dealership.

Outlook and implications

While customer call centers are ubiquitous in the industry and many of the practices here may be similar to those employed at other companies, the significance of this is that GM's drive to change into a customer-focused company has legs, and is seeing continued support from top management. The automotive landscape grows more competitive every day, and providing excellent customer service can have a direct impact on the number of buyers an OEM retains.

An effort like this can complement a strong product line, but cannot overcome a poor one. Many of the changes in how GM handles customer calls were implemented ahead of this formal opening event; Boler-Davis says the time for resolution has been cut in half, while 10% more customers using the customer care lines check the top box on their exit surveys.

Among the most visible manifestations of this approach is promoting Alicia Boler-Davis to senior vice-president of global customer experience and product quality?putting together two customer-focused areas of the business under one role is a first for GM, according to Reuss. The level of communication between the customer engagement center and dealers, as well as product development, is structured for improved customer service and relationships across GM and its dealers.

Reuss also pointed out that the efforts of the past two years to address improving customer service will be tested as the first returning leasees turn in their cars. GM was unable to lease during the bankruptcy progress, and is hoping that it can retain these buyers in the future. When asked to compare these efforts to retain against the difficulty of keeping Saturn and Pontiac buyers as the brands closed, Reuss noted that a significant difference between then and now is that GM has showrooms full of new, competitive products.

The Customer Engagement Center is a visible manifestation of GM's "customer is our compass" value, from its basic existence to its location near design and engineering, its support from the highest levels of management, and an inclusive and collaborative approach.

Along with this new center, Boler-Davis' work in other customer engagement and experience areas includes social media outreach, support of the connection centers at dealerships, and a revised approach to service and customer care. GM has already seen results as rankings by JD Power and Consumer reports have increased. Reuss said this is a cornerstone of what the company is doing differently. The new center approaches customer listening and care as key to building relationships with customers and earning loyalty.

As vehicles become more technologically complex and more nameplates enter the space, connecting with consumers will be almost as critical as delivering great products. GM has installed a strong base for continuous improvement, and could grow into a force to be reckoned with in the customer care space. GM is not the only company working on these issues, but the Customer Engagement Center's processes and functions are designed to improve the provision of excellent customer service.

Going forward, the management changes announced on Dec. 10, including a new position for Reuss, should not slow or alter core corporate support for these programs. Boler-Davis reports to current CEO Dan Akerson, and will continue to report to the new CEO, Mary Barra, who is expected to continue the trajectory that GM is on right now and continue to support the "customer is our compass" approach, including the initiatives Boler-Davis has already begun. Barra is currently on the executive committee, and presumably already involved in making the core decisions that enable these initiatives.

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