While driving the Buick LaCrosse, I asked Line Director Jeanne Merchant a question: what could she tell me about reliability that would persuade me, a satisfied Toyota owner, to jump ship? Merchant gave a pretty good answer, but I was busy trying not to run over traffic cones. In a subsequent phone interview, Merchant said reliability starts early in the process. From design to component testing, from durability tests to audits and feedback, from computer modeling to real world testing, they make sure every part of the car and all its systems are built right and performing to specification. And they take it very, very seriously. “The LaCrosse is very personal to me,” Merchant said. “I’ve worked with it for years. Everybody else involved feels the same way. And the same goes for the other product lines.” Process and passion. Is it enough?
After hanging-out with the front line troops, I believe GM’s employees are fully committed to product excellence. But the product, manufacturing and service providers all depend on GM’s top management for critical support in delivering customer satisfaction and value. They’ve got to have top management support to make the hard decisions to put customer satisfaction and value first—even if it’s going to cost GM some money.
I asked two of the product managers, “Does Bob Lutz help you build better cars?” The first one I asked was taken aback. There was a moment of silence. He swallowed, started to speak, stopped and then, slowly, said, “Y-e-s.” I waited a minute. He didn’t elaborate.
The second manager I asked leaned back in his seat, tipped his head to the side, looked thoughtfully at me for a moment and then said, “Yes and no.” Apparently, there are things the troops want and don’t want in the vehicle. And then there are things top management wants and doesn’t want. Two guesses who wins that debate.
Lutz is just the most visible and outspoken GM executive. But he’s symbolic of GM’s top down management style. CEO Fritz Henderson told us the New GM would put the customer first. But the morning’s events left me with the overwhelming impression that nothing has changed at GM, and nothing is likely to change. The good people at the sharp end must still bend their will to executives; heavy hitters with a tin ear for the advice given by the people who really know how to make great cars.
Did GM Win Me Over?
To get an actual sale from me would be tough. I want a very quiet car with exceptional fuel economy and good interior room at a good price. I want a decade of reliable, trouble-free motoring, because that’s what I have now and it’s worth a lot of money to me to keep it. Dave wants the same things, too.
GM employees were only happy to address these issues. But finding a way to reassure me that GM is on track for Prius-beating answers was not an official part of the days’ events.
Dave is a very focused guy. His benchmark is Hyundai’s 10/100 warranty. He won’t have to worry about his two cars for quite some years after they’re paid off and he likes it that way. He mentioned this requirement to GM people at the track or whenever the opportunity presented itself.
He sat beside me through Lutz’ talk and heard Lutz say, “I get letters telling me, ‘you should offer a 100 thousand mile warranty.’ I tell them, ‘We have a [five year] 100 thousand mile warranty!’” I actually heard Dave snort. Maybe I don’t know Dave as well as I think I do, but I’d bet his decision didn’t take very long. “No 10/100? Well, thanks for the rides. Be seein’ ya.”
GM didn’t win Dave over.
The people I talked to at the Proving Ground made a very favorable impression on me. Most of the cars made a very favorable impression on me. I liked the LaCrosse quite a bit. I liked the Cruze interior very much, and I’m sorry the car couldn’t be driven. In a world without a Prius, I would be the target market for that car. Yes, I’d rate the Malibu “not as good” as the Camry, but it’s still pretty good. There are cars in the GM lineup that appeal to me.
If GM had flown me from the Twin Cities to Detroit at lunchtime, brought me straight to the Proving Ground and walked me right out to the cars, GM would have won. But GM brought me to Detroit twenty-one hours early and exposed me to GM’s top management.
Lutz seemed convinced that five years coverage is as good as 10. He wanted me believe that GM is a victim of a “perception gap”— when we know that GM is actually a victim of its own reputation and many years of failing to put the customer first. The party line is that GM quality is right up there with the leaders, but GM won’t back the cars as though they believe it. Henderson didn’t add anything concrete.
GM failed to provide a compelling reason to believe that GM products will deliver the 10 year reliability that I, and millions of other motorists, expect. They could have shown me some engineering excellence up close and personal. See? This is where we beat the competition. This is the difference between us and them. They didn’t.
The message I received from my junket: GM’s top management doesn’t think they have to deliver the goods on customer satisfaction. They believe I can be manipulated into believing whatever they want me to believe about GM, and that the appearance of caring for the customer is more important than the care the customer actually receives.
GM didn’t win me over, and, frankly, I feel pretty bad about it.
While I was on the phone with Jeanne Merchant and Randy Fox, Randy asked a couple of leading questions. I told them how the story was going to end. I explained my lack of confidence in GM’s top management. I didn’t feel that they would leap on an opportunity to fully resolve—and learn from—a customer satisfaction problem. I asked Merchant what she thought about that.
What’s most painful to me is the feeling that we’ve let the customers down. I’ve been involved in recalls and they’re painful but we do the right thing. I keep pushing until we do the right thing.
No wonder the real journalists drink. You meet some great people on these junkets, but if you pay attention, the story just doesn’t go their way. Maybe GM will call in a crack re-write team. Meanwhile, no sale.