Editorial: How GM Tried to Win Me Over, Part Three

Darwin Hatheway
by Darwin Hatheway

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.

Darwin Hatheway
Darwin Hatheway

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  • Jmatt Jmatt on Nov 02, 2009

    >>> "I believe GM’s employees are fully committed to product excellence." It's a little late, ain't it? If they had been committed to product excellence twenty or thirty years ago, people might still consider them when purchasing a vehicle. I'm sure the workers are all fine people but let's face it, the union destroyed those companies. Instead of the company being run for the satisfaction of its shareholders or its customers, it was run for the benefit of the UAW who never missed an opportunity to demand more for less. While you won't be shedding a tear for management when this experiment reaches its final conclusion, I'll be laughing my arse off at all the unemployed UAW hacks. The freaking industry is on life support and the Ford workers today rejected the contract. No, when they all end up unemployed, it won't have been management's fault. Chalk it up to the Wagner Act.

  • Olddavid Olddavid on Nov 05, 2009

    I have enjoyed reading the content of the commentary as much as the articles. I grew up in the business, and consequently have a long history of personal observation. I believe that the decline of the domestic auto business is directly related to dealer saturation policies practiced post WWII. The customer's experience is completely in the hands of the man who takes their money. However, when said dealers are attempting to make a go of it in an environment of the $25 net-net sale it is hard to justify having a driver - let alone a fleet of loaners. The city that I live in has at least 10 Chevrolet dealers and four Toyota. You don't need an MBA to see who makes more profit. When making payroll ceases to be a white-knuckle exercise, your CSI numbers rise accordingly. I believe that the domestic sales price focus misses the mark. When you are talking about the second largest purchase to most individuals, I think that most would opt for after sale service and attention and sacrifice a few hundred dollars to get that security. But, when staring at 120-day supply at $200 per month, it is hard to remember the long term goals. I guess what I am trying to say is that in the current marketplace- with the quality parity that I have observed- the dealer experience you have has the ability to swing the bar higher- or lower- in a dramatic way. Therefore, shouldn't Maximum Bob and his Merry Men use their newly slimmed-down network to improve customer relations? How about something simple, like allocating enough $$ to give every current owner of your brand an oil change and car wash? Or use those same dollars to make sure each store has at least staff to drive every service customer to work and back? Preferably, have at least 3-4 loaners available at all times. I was always amazed at the small cost these practices had- especially in relation to the goodwill they brought about. When talking about money in the tens of BILLIONS, surely making everyone who has already spent money with you smile has to be a worthy goal. That, and get rid of the adversarial sale technique...............but that would be a thousand more words.

  • EBFlex More proof of how much EVs suck. If you have to do this, that means you are trying to substitute what people want...and that's ICE.
  • Akear The only CEO who can save Boeing, GM, and Ford is Alan Mulally. Mulally is largely credited with saving both Boeing and Ford. The other alternative is to follow a failed Jack Welch business model. We have all witnessed what Jack Welch did to GE, and what happened to Boeing when it was taken over by GE-trained businessmen. Below is an interesting article on how Jack Welch indirectly ruined Boeing.https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-boeing-was-set-on-the-path-to-disaster-by-the-cult-of-jack-welch
  • ChristianWimmer The interior might be well-made, but the design is just hideous in my opinion. It’s to busy and there’s no simplistic harmony visible in it. In fact I feel that the nicest Lexus interior ever could be found in the original LS400 - because it was rather minimalistic, had pleasing lines and didn’t try to hard. It looked just right. All Lexus interiors which came after it just had bizarre styling cues and “tried to hard” if you know what I mean.
  • THX1136 As a couple of folks have mentioned wasn't this an issue with the DeLorean? I seem to recall that it was claimed you could do a 'minor' buff of the surface and it would be good as new. Guess I don't see why it's a big deal if it can be so easily rectified. Won't be any different than getting out and waxing the car every so often - part of ownership, eh.
  • ToolGuy This kind of thing might be interesting in a racing simulator.