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Rip Stauffer

Customer Care

Technology Is No Substitute for Service

Kicking the tires on Tesla customer loyalty

Published: Tuesday, April 11, 2023 - 23:03

A couple of years ago, my wife decided to surprise me by taking me over to our local Tesla dealership so I could test drive a Tesla. We put a deposit down to hold our place in line, and two months later took delivery of a Model Y Performance. I loved everything about it, took everyone who asked about it for a ride, and gave them the delighted customer’s sales pitch. I even tried to talk my nephew (who owns a limousine service near Pittsburgh) into swapping some of the gas guzzlers in his fleet for Tesla vehicles. I still like it a lot, and I will tell everyone that it’s a wonderful car—until something goes awry.

Don’t get me wrong. I still think Tesla builds a product that is a lot of fun to drive (and even just to sit in, watching Netflix, Hulu, or several other streaming services, or play video games). Plus, I can leave my dog in the car on the hottest or coldest day of the year, turn on “dog mode,” and the video screen will show a line cartoon of a dog wagging his tail, with “Don’t worry, my driver will be back soon. The temperature in here is ___ degrees.” (Insert user-set temperature). I can take on just about any other car off the line or on the freeway: The Model Y won’t beat a Hellcat in the quarter mile, but it will flat leave most other vehicles in the rearview mirror. (If you want to beat a Hellcat, you need a Tesla Plaid.)

So, it’s a fun car and has a lot worth recommending. However, I learned a long time ago as a fledgling quality practitioner that the quality of the product isn’t enough to keep customers coming back; it’s service that inspires loyalty. Unfortunately, Tesla has not learned that lesson yet.

Tesla has enjoyed market dominance in the EV space because it was the first to market with an EV product that is superior to its gasoline-powered competition. The cars don’t require routine maintenance; no oil changes or transmission fluid changes, no tune-ups—all you have to do is keep the washer fluid topped off and rotate the tires occasionally. As enhancements to the technology come out, they are pushed over the air. All you need is a wi-fi hotspot and you can download and install the latest upgrades.

So I was thrilled with it, and that honeymoon lasted a year. A year after I purchased it, I logged into my Tesla app and set up a service appointment to have a state inspection. Easy-peasy, right? The largest part of it—the emissions system inspection—is a no-brainer. I got a confirmation (in the app) that I had an appointment. Bright and early on the morning of the appointment, I showed up at the dealership. Because it was in the middle of the pandemic, the process involved dropping my keycard in a box and then letting them know in the app. I got a response giving me some Uber vouchers for my trip home. I went in to talk to the service manager, told him that I was just there for an inspection, and that I preferred to wait.

“Well, it will take all day,” he replied, “Are you sure you want to wait?”

I wondered why a simple state inspection would take all day. He told me that they had also scheduled me for some recall work on the AC system. This was the first I had heard of it; because I had plans that required driving later in the morning, I said I’d reschedule the recall work for another day. I went into the waiting room to wait for the inspection to be completed.

In other dealers’ waiting rooms I’ve seen over the years, there were vending machines, usually free coffee, and (in recent years) workstations where you could plug in a laptop and a phone and get some work done while you waited for your car. Usually there were televisions with CNN or some other network shows playing. The waiting room for our local Honda dealer actually had a sort of café with a short-order cook who would make you a nice breakfast to order.

The Tesla waiting room was furnished with nice leather chairs and tables with sales brochures. It also had televisions, but they only played Tesla ads in a loop. There was a counter for coffee, and it had two Keurig machines and a Keurig cup holder—but there were no Keurig cups in the holder, and no coffee cups or accessories.

So, when the service manager came to inform me that my car was ready, I took the opportunity to be a good customer and give him some feedback for improvement. I told him that I am in the quality profession, and that a big part of everything I’ve done in the last 34 or so years was to help people improve and provide great products and services for their customers. Then I told him about not being notified previously about the recall work, and about his waiting area.

He smiled condescendingly and said, “Oh, I see your problem. You’re used to the service you probably got on all your gas-powered cars.” Then he explained: “Elon isn’t out to make a profit on service,” followed up by, “We don’t see ourselves as a car company. We see ourselves as a tech company.”

I replied, “But, I bought this car from you. I appreciate the tech, but this is actually something that I get into and drive.”

As I drove away, I thought about that exchange. I have been frustrated for years by the lack of customer service or tech support I’ve gotten from most tech companies. If you go looking for help with software, you often get shunted to “the community,” where a bunch of other people who might have had problems similar to yours share their solutions. If you can find someone with your exact problem (which isn’t often), the best you can usually get is a workaround. There have been exceptions where you can actually get on the line with an engineer or developer who can fix the actual problem, but those are few and far between. For most of these companies, if there is a phone number, you have to wade through an extensive interactive voice response (IVR) and sit on hold for someone who might or might not understand your problem—and if they do, might or might not be able to help.

Is that really the service model Tesla wants to emulate?

After driving the car for a while, I noticed that some of the body panels had shifted. The passenger door was a little out of alignment, and the rear hatch was way out. This time, they sent someone to my house to work on it. It was pretty nice. The guy not only fixed my panels but also topped off my washer fluid and checked and inflated all my tires. So, credit where it’s due—chalk up a win in my book for Tesla on that. At least until...

A few days later, I got a notice through my Tesla app that I owed them $100 for the adjustments. When I called to ask about it, I was told that “Elon decided he was tired of paying for body panel adjustments after 12,000 miles.” I was astounded, and noted that a) I’ve never had a vehicle with body panels that shifted around; and b) 12,000 miles? What kind of warranty is that?

So, scratch the win.

Next came a flat tire. Tesla offers roadside assistance as part of its warranty, so I never bothered getting AAA or other roadside assistance insurance. One day I ended up with a flat and went on the app for roadside assistance. I had to send them all the information on the tire (because they had no idea what tire they had put on it when they built it). Then, after about 25 minutes, I received a call from someone who told me that they were a) sending someone with a “loaner tire” who would be out to me in about an hour; and b) they were setting me up for an appointment with actual Tesla roadside service, which would (in a couple of weeks) come out and repair or replace my tire. (I swear, this is all true.) In the meantime, she again asked for all the details on the tire—make, model, size, etc.

So, I was surprised, two weeks later, when the service tech showed up to replace the tire, and the first thing he said was, “Oh—you have Pirellis. They sent me out with a Michelin. I’ll have to go back and get the Pirelli.”

Five weeks or so later, after his repair van had been wrecked and repaired, he called to set up an appointment. We agreed on 10 a.m. the next Friday. I left an hour in my schedule to accommodate him. He didn’t show up or call at the appointed time. At 10:40, he called to tell me that he had been with another customer and could get to me in about 30 minutes. I just told him to forget about it. I would arrange for another company to come out and put a new tire on. So much for “roadside assistance.”

If you’re a Tesla owner, the worst thing that can happen is to have an accident. I somehow was able to back up in a garage with the rear door cracked open, and it caught on a post and jacked the door forward. I was able to close it, but it would not reopen and the window was stuck down. I happened to be in Maine at the time, which meant I was out of luck for repairs. There’s nothing in Maine, so you have to drive to Massachusetts. When I got back from vacation in early October, I called for repairs. You have to get body work done at a Tesla-certified shop. There are some in my area. The best one said they could see me in four months, on Feb. 1.

After waiting I finally got to drop my car off at the body shop. After seven weeks of delay due to bureaucracy at my insurance company, we finally got the needed repairs approved and parts on order. And guess what? Tesla has back-ordered two of the parts and won’t give the body shop an ETA for those.

So....

I still want my Tesla back. I love driving it, and can’t see ever going back to gasoline power. In the future, I am looking for a car that is that much fun to drive—but from a company that cares more about its customers and understands what service means. Tesla was a very cool and innovative product, and deserved to grab the market share it got.

Tesla did a lot right (e.g., dog mode, putting charging stations all over), but I fear for its future. If it doesn’t begin to understand some of the basics that other car companies had to learn if they wanted to survive the ’70s and ’80s, it will soon be overtaken by others who build better vehicles, warrant them better, and provide great customer service.

Discuss

About The Author

Rip Stauffer’s picture

Rip Stauffer

Rip Stauffer uses his extensive experience in total quality and Six Sigma to educate and counsel at all career levels with specific experience in government, manufacturing, medical devices, financial services, and healthcare organizations. A senior consultant at MSI, and CEO of Woodside Quality LLC, Stauffer is an ASQ senior member and statistics division member, a certified quality engineer, a manager of quality and organizational excellence, and a Six Sigma Black Belt and Master Black Belt. He also is an adjunct faculty member at Walden University, teaching graduate and undergraduate business statistics courses and international business courses.

Comments

Article - Technology Is No Substitute For Service

Wow, this article really opened my eyes and trashed any assumptions I had that Tesla benchmarked themselves to other car companies for all aspects of car ddesign and ownership. For Tesla to call themselves a tech company and not a car company is ignorance and arrogance all wrapped into one package. I will not consider an EV from Tesla in my future until I see they understand the market way better than what was reported in this article.