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Ryan E. Day

Customer Care

Going Face to Face With Your Customers

Ford augments paper surveys with live customer clinics

Published: Thursday, September 3, 2015 - 14:33

‘Would you care to participate in a quick survey to help us serve you better?” I suppose many people enjoy filling out surveys—their chance to sound off and all that. Personally, it’s not my favorite part of any transaction. Ford’s recent Customer Clinic in Irvine, California, though, was a different kind of survey.

Ford invited car owners to bring their vehicles and meet with vehicle engineers, as well as marketing and manufacturing teams, to discuss their experiences behind the wheel. The Irvine clinic convened customers who own 2015 Ford Mustang, 2015 Lincoln MKC and 2014 Ford Transit Connect automobiles to discuss topics including technology features such as SYNC, driver usability, design functionally, and product appearance.

Shaking hands and saving paper

“Our corporate quality process is really focused around the customer, so we gather a lot of customer data,” says Dan Lymburner, the Americas product development quality manager at Ford. “Externally we have sources like J. D. Powers, Consumer Reports, Strategic Reports, and we also have sources of internal data. Ford has a lot of smart people who can plot out the data, put it into Pareto charts, and slice it up, but until you really understand what the customer means when they check a box or the words they write down [in a survey], it’s really not very impactful. The face-to-face gives us much more visceral feedback.

So, three to four times a year, we go out and meet with our customers in person. Because while it’s nice to have their data, it’s really nice to have a conversation about what their experience has been in the vehicle. We ask a lot of questions about what we did right, maybe what we didn't do so well, and how we can make it better. It’s all about having a simple conversation.”

Although surveys at the dealership, along with customer service calls and analyzing social conversation, are great ways to stay connected with customers, good old-fashioned face-to-face conversation—even in the year 2015—is still invaluable.

Dan Lymburner

“These clinics are part of our ongoing process to make our products better over time,” explains Lymburner. “When we show up, we look at quality as the ultimate team sport. Product development can design good cars, but we also have to manufacture good cars, and then sell them. Everything from design to manufacturing to delivery to service has to be done in a quality manner. So when we put on a clinic we show up with somewhere between 60 to 80 [Ford associates] from a wide cross section. Engineers—typically from Dearborn—who designed the car [being critiqued], power train and chassis experts, interior and exterior experts, representatives from the plant that built the car, and some of our marketing and sales people assigned to those vehicles and who also interface with the dealers. This gives us an opportunity to assess the customer experience holistically. During a weekend event, we might get to speak with a 100 to 125 customers, so we all get to learn.”

Reminiscent of Elena Ford's description of Ford’s Customer Experience Movement, Dan describes a beginning-to-end, soup-to-nuts philosophy.

Meaningful improvements or marketing tactics?

Casting as broad a net as possible, the Ford clinics have been hosted around the globe, including in the United States, Germany, South America, and elsewhere.

Another clever idea led Ford to hold events in locations with more extreme weather patterns. Here in sunny California, we fret over whether the latest iPhone will sync with the infotainment center, but in locales where temps can drop to thirty below, priorities change. “We were in Alberta, Canada, last June to connect with our customers there to understand what they’re experiencing with our products in that particular environment,” says Lymburner. “We asked them which parts they would like heated—seats, windows, etc. They said, ‘Heat everything!’”

As a result of lessons learned, and to facilitate continuous improvement, Ford created a “Cold Weather Dealer Council” to address issues related to extreme cold climates, such as upgrading material on block heater cores, adding a heated windshield, and expanding cold weather packages in Ford’s owner guides for 2015 and 2016 model vehicles.

We mild-weather denizens weren’t overlooked, either, since the automaker also gathered feedback from more than 20,000 customers to identify the most critical issues, gather feedback, and create solutions to help improve its infotainment system. Based on that, Ford made software upgrades to further improve voice recognition, phone pairing, compatibility, and navigation.

Whether a tactic or a tool, anything that empowers customer-driven product development and enables designers and engineers to better implement solutions that improve quality in future models has to be a good thing.

“Every time I go to a clinic, I meet a customer who has found a unique way of using their vehicle—a way that, frankly, we had never even thought of before,” Lymburner confides. “Our customers really seem to enjoy themselves and we really enjoy learning from them, so it's a big win-win.”


About The Author

Ryan E. Day’s picture

Ryan E. Day

Ryan E. Day is Quality Digest’s project manager and senior editor for solution-based reporting, which brings together those seeking business improvement solutions and solution providers. Day has spent the last decade researching and interviewing top business leaders and continuous improvement experts at companies like Sakor, Ford, Merchandize Liquidators, Olympus, 3D Systems, Hexagon, Intertek, InfinityQS, Johnson Controls, FARO, and Eckel Industries. Most of his reporting is done with the help of his 20 lb tabby cat at his side.