Ford is turning to its softer side to improve the customer experience, or CX. Ford this spring is rolling out an airline-style rewards points program and is training call center reps to be friendlier and more knowledgeable. It will even send a truck to your home or office to do the minor kinds of repair and service work that auto dealers have been losing to Jiffy Lube. Much of this CX initiative is built around the FordPass smartphone app and telematics-equipped Ford cars, SUVs, and pickups using Sync Connect.
How serious is Ford Motor Company? The CX efforts fall under the purview of chief customer experience officer Elena Ford, Ford as in the great-great-granddaughter of company founder Henry Ford. Project CX also means you’ll see newer, cleaner, friendlier Ford dealerships, they say. Some will be in shopping malls or urban pop-ups. The traditional suburban dealership will have more open floor-plans and round conference tables to make it less of a you-versus-them feeling.
FordPass Makes It Easier for the Owner (Also Ford)
FordPass is the company’s smartphone app for scheduling service (as long as it’s with a Ford dealer), managing car payments (as long as it’s with Ford Credit), and tracking FordPass Rewards points (that can be spent at Ford dealers). Much of the information passing electronically among a Ford owner or lessee, the dealer, and Ford is via FordPass. The app also lets a Ford lessee see about moving to a new car early in a program called “Drive New, Now” (as long as it’s another Ford). FordPass even pops up the exact payment for the same car and trim level, but for current model year (or the closest match trim available at the current selling dealer).
FordPass, through Sync Connect telematics (think OnStar, by Ford), also handles owner-to-car services such as location-finding or remote start. It also sends diagnostic information to Ford and receives over-the-air updates. All Fords (and Lincolns) now get embedded telematics modems in their cars. The basic service for remote door unlock, locating the car, emergency crash notification, or finding parking is free for five years. You pay only if you want a data plan for streaming music or a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot.
Rewards Points from Ford
Ford’s Elena Ford said the company had benchmarked service leaders from multiple businesses including Apple, Delta, and Marriott. Nor surprisingly, Ford hit on the idea of rewards points. Buy a new Ford, you get 42,000 points. Do service at Ford, get more points. Check the accumulated points on your phone. Then spend the points on accessories or service at Ford. At an airline, 40,000 miles would get you a cross-country domestic coach ticket, round trip, worth maybe $300-$500. Ford said it could not provide a dollar equivalent for its rewards points.
Ford (Elena) wants to bring customers back for service. Ford said that half of new-car buyers don’t even come back for their first oil change. (They probably would if the dealer made the first one or two free.)
FordPass took a while to set up because Ford wanted to get dealer buy-in from all or most of the dealers, which it now has. Jason Sprawka, Ford’s director of U.S. customer experience, said all but 18 iconoclasts from among Ford’s 3,000-plus dealers are onboard now.
Service that Comes to Your Door
Ford also said it’s expanding a mobile-service pilot program that brings a Ford Transit van to your door — home or office — to perform light maintenance: oil changes, brake pads but maybe not rotors, and tire rotations for sure. The expansion is modest. The coming step is from one state, California, to dealers in Texas, Illinois, New Jersey, and Florida. One dealer per state. (In the UK, there are now 100 Transit vans on the road doing service work for commercial accounts.) One issue is each dealer has to find a technician who’s presentable enough to go out on the road and be comfortable interacting with customers, not just cars.
The results from the small pilot programs will determine if Ford goes further. There are additional costs to the dealer such as drive time, so it’s possible the services will cost more. They also may not be the services customers need. For instance, if you were bold enough to buy one of Ford’s high-performance trim line ST vehicles with low-profile rims, those alloy wheels are vulnerable to pothole damage, but there’s no immediate plan to bring you a new wheel and tire. Too complex.
Bigger, Smaller, Pop-Up Dealerships
Like just about every company, Ford finds itself coming up short compared with the joy of getting a package next day from Amazon (always delivered, seldom a day or two after it was promised), or being greeted quickly and warmly as by an Apple Store employee. The big stores, or Ford Signature dealerships, will have a greeter’s desk just inside the front door so you don’t wander without help, and sales desks will be round tables to make it less of a you-versus-them experience.
Or Ford Signature could do it all wrong. How so? I went into a non-Ford dealer recently, one with a greeter desk inside the main entrance, and the greeter looked up from her phone long enough to ask for my name, phone number, and email address. So in the first 90 seconds, the dealer is already taking advantage of the customer in the guise of helping the customer.
Stores out in the sticks could be scaled down so they can survive and still provide a welcoming Ford presence, although Ford’s dealership guidelines only work if they’re Ford-exclusive. Keeping small-town dealerships alive helps not only non-urban Ford owners but also vacationers and businesspeople traveling through.
For urban areas, Ford is opening a handful of stores outside the US called Ford Smart Labs. Ford says:
Ford Smart Labs are small retail point in a high-traffic area surrounded by shops, food and entertainment, where customers can experience Ford products in an engaging and no-pressure environment. The Brussels store is modeled after a successful retail mall concept developed by Ford dealers in Turin, Italy. Ford plans to roll out five additional Smart Lab designs by the end of 2019, including one in Germany and another in Canada.
If the Smart Labs concept comes to the US, the urban stores would be owned by a dealer, not by Ford. With a handful of exceptions, all retail stores of all brands are owned by dealers, not the automaker. America’s 17,000 dealerships are united in their belief that Tesla’s direct control of the sales process is an abomination.
Ford Needs More and Better Product
Ford wants to do a lot to improve how customers perceive the company. Right now, customer satisfaction is mid-pack among auto brands, Elena Ford acknowledges. For truck owners, Ford will open a call center in Texas to cater to them. It wants the first person the caller reaches to resolve whatever issue the called phoned about because multiple transfers annoy customers.
But Ford’s challenges run deeper. It built great sedans such as the midsize Fusion, but not enough buyers wanted one, and now it’s going away. Ditto the Ford Focus, a decent compact sedan. In fact, the only sedan Ford plans to keep from the current fleet is the Mustang. It will also add the Ford Focus Active this year and that’s a hatchback that could be called a crossover. Ford’s SUVs have sold reasonably well but the competition is ferocious.
Ford was out early with hybrids and EVs but they’ve had mixed success. That’s one reason Ford cut a deal with startup Rivian for EV technology.
Right now more than a third of Ford’s entire sales comes from the F-Series pickup truck, 910,000 of 2.5 million US sales. If another energy crisis hits, businesses will keep on buying pickups (with more efficient engines), but Ford may lose discretionary sales of high-margin pickups such as the F-150 King Ranch, which starts at $54,000.
So, the touchy-feely, customer-satisfaction efforts can’t hurt. Building more great cars will help, too. What’s left? To get dealers on board with being better dealers. Many buyers, especially those on the coasts and in big cities, have mixed emotions about how they’re treated. Ford’s problem — the industry’s problem — is that it’s hard to push back against mediocre dealers, let alone kick them out. FordPass, service that comes to your door, and rewards points are all Band-Aid fixes. Ford’s CX initiative is the start of a long road, and the road has potholes.
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