GM gives fast-rising Boler-Davis a broad mandate Her job: Win disaffected customers back — and keep them

GM gives fast-rising Boler-Davis a broad mandate
Her job: Win disaffected customers back — and keep them
Mike Colias
Automotive News | October 7, 2013 – 12:01 am EST

DETROIT — Twenty months ago, Alicia Boler-Davis was an assembly plant manager at General Motors. Today, the 44-year-old is one of the company’s top 20 executives, reporting straight to CEO Dan Akerson.

As senior vice president for global quality and customer experience, she oversees 2,500 employees and has a voice on everything from future products to the setup of GM’s call centers.

Her rapid ascent says as much about GM’s game plan for success as it does about the fastidious engineer and Detroit native. Vehicle quality and customer care are key fronts on which GM is fighting to shed the baggage of its 2009 bankruptcy and to reclaim customers who long ago abandoned the automaker.

“We’ve got one chance to get people back into our cars and trucks and treat them right and retain them and grow market share,” GM North America President Mark Reuss said in a recent interview. “I wanted someone with passion and a different set of eyes to look at how we create a customer experience that sets us apart.”

By the time Reuss called on Boler-Davis, in early 2012, she had impressed her bosses by pulling off double duty as the vehicle chief engineer for the Chevrolet Sonic while she was manager of the Orion Township assembly plant in suburban Detroit where the car is built. It was a high-profile launch: GM overhauled its operations and labor agreement to contain costs in a bid to turn a profit assembling the Sonic, the only U.S.-built subcompact.

Reuss: “She tells it like it is.”

Boler-Davis was an unconventional pick for customer experience chief. She had spent most of her 17-year career inside GM’s factories, far from the front lines of dealership showrooms. But when approached by Reuss and GM product chief Mary Barra, she was intrigued by the scope of the job.

“Mark said, ‘We want to be recognized as the leaders in customer experience within two years. Go make it happen.” Boler-Davis says. “My reaction was: ‘You’re going to unleash me to do that? Great.'”

The selection meshed with GM’s unusual approach of combining customer experience and quality into one organization. The idea is to speed customer feedback from the retail front directly back to design and engineering.

For example, a Cadillac XTS owner phoned a customer call center last year to complain that her book on CD was muted but kept playing when she received an incoming call via Bluetooth. The complaint was routed to GM engineering, and a fix was done within three months.

GM executives believe those small victories eventually will help build market share, which was 18.0 percent this year through September, down from 19.9 percent at the end of 2009. Boler-Davis said last year that GM’s customer retention is average, which she defined as around 53 percent of owners who stick with a company for their next purchase. Adding just one percentage point to that rate would boost GM’s vehicle sales by 25,000 units annually, or $750 million in revenue, she says.

Big footprint
GM’s 300-employee customer experience group oversees these functions that overlap with some big and historically territorial departments.
• Sales: Develops standards and reward guidelines for dealerships
• Marketing: Compiles customer feedback on trim and option packages
• Design: Recommends design tweaks based on customer complaints
• Engineering: Flags customer gripes that may have an engineering fix, such as an infotainment bug

GM stunned many industry insiders in June when it became the first Detroit automaker to finish atop the J.D. Power Initial Quality Study in the survey’s 27-year history. Another J.D. Power survey that measures customer satisfaction with dealership service ranked Cadillac the No. 2 luxury brand and Buick, GMC and Chevrolet in the top five among mainstream brands.

Akerson was so pleased with the quality result that in June he made Boler-Davis a direct report and gave her job global reach. He also put her on GM’s inner-circle Executive Operations Committee, a group of about 20 key execs from around the globe who meet regularly to hash over major strategic decisions.

“She’s a spark plug. She’s got ideas. She’s a force,” Akerson said of Boler-Davis last month.

Her promotion also shows how eager Akerson, Reuss and other GM brass are to dismantle the persistent parochial divisions that have long splintered GM’s corporate structure. Boler-Davis’ 300-employee customer experience group (she oversees 2,200 on the quality side) was given a broad mandate to make changes that overlap with some big and historically territorial enterprises, such as sales, marketing, design and engineering. While GM has periodically assigned executives to such cross-departmental, troubleshooting roles, none was given the global reach and direct authority to effect changes that Boler-Davis has.

Last year, her team helped develop a program that required Chevrolet dealers to attend a three-day training jaunt to a Walt Disney theme park, or risk falling out of compliance with GM’s brand-image program. Her group has pushed more mystery shopping of GM dealerships and required enrollees in the company’s dealer-excellence program to adopt reputation-management systems.

There has been pushback among some dealers and field staff, she acknowledges. “I’ve had people look at me like: ‘OK, who are you and why are you telling me I need to do things differently?'” she says.

She sought to convince skeptics that the customer experience push wasn’t a flavor-of-the-month program but a long-term strategy that would win over more customers.

“We already had so many things going well: great products, a very engaged dealer body, a seasoned sales force,” Boler-Davis says. “The question becomes: How do we take that to the next level and separate ourselves from what everyone else is doing?”

Early in Boler-Davis’ tenure as customer experience chief, GM hired an outside research firm to survey customers inside and outside the auto industry. It benchmarked GM’s customer service standards against companies “known for delivering a great experience,” such as Apple, and online shoe retailer Zappos, she said.

That process resulted in several measures that Boler-Davis’ team has since put in place:

• GM hired around 50 so-called connected customer specialists from companies such as Apple and Best Buy as on-call specialists stationed around the country to troubleshoot infotainment problems for dealerships and customers.

• GM took over management of its previously outsourced customer call centers, in Austin, Texas, and suburban Detroit. “We’re putting the customer that much closer to the people who are designing and engineering the products and solving the problems,” Boler-Davis says.

She says the average time it takes for a dealer to resolve a customer’s problem has been cut in half over the past year. (She said that it’s measured in days but won’t specify a number for competitive reasons.)

• GM is dispatching around 90 lead engineers through six-week rotations at GM dealerships to get familiar with the retail side of the business. A key finding: Customers find the myriad trim and option packages across GM’s models too complex. So GM is setting stricter thresholds for take rates on certain trim levels and packages. Those in low demand will be removed from next-generation products.

• Within the past year, GM has expanded its vehicle reliability testing. Depending on the launch, engineers test 20 to 100 vehicles across the country, from thin mountain air to baking desert heat, as a supplement to the durability testing GM has long done at its test track in Milford, Mich.

Alicia Boler-Davis
Title: Senior vice president for global quality and customer experience
Age: 44
Education: Bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Northwestern University; master’s degree in engineering science from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Career highlights
• Joined GM as a manufacturing engineer at mid-sized/luxury car division, 1994
• First African-American woman to be plant manager of a GM vehicle factory (Arlington, Texas), 2007-09
• Led successful launches of Chevrolet Sonic and Buick Verano as manager of Orion Township assembly plant in suburban Detroit; doubled as Sonic vehicle chief engineer, 2010-11
• Named U.S. vice president of customer experience, later adding quality, 2012
• Appointed to current post and to GM’s Executive Operations Committee, June 2013

Tom Libby, head of North American forecasting for R.L. Polk & Co., says that GM has long suffered from subpar quality, but that it is starting to turn the corner with its recent wins in the J.D. Power surveys and Consumer Reports reviews.

Boler-Davis will be under pressure to repeat the initial quality performance next year, given GM’s busy slate of vehicle launches, Libby says. “If they can keep this up, there’s little doubt that it will translate into improved market share and loyalty,” he says.

People who have worked for Boler-Davis describe her as hands-on and assertive but approachable. At the Orion Township plant, Boler-Davis was unusually visible on the plant floor, says Evelyn Baldwin, a team leader in the plant’s paint shop.

“Seeing her on the floor and communicating to them and knowing them by their name, that was very important for the workers,” Baldwin says.

Reuss says Boler-Davis’ candor about GM’s shortcomings helped her land the job. He describes her as “unemotional but very passionate.”

“She tells it like it is,” Reuss says. “For years I’ve listened to VPs of quality who would tally and measure our vehicle quality, but wouldn’t affect it. She is affecting it by getting at the reality and transparency of where we are and what we need to do.”

Boler-Davis, the mother of two young boys, applies that same problem-solving approach and candor at home.

Her older son recently started middle school and, for the first time, has been getting assignments from multiple teachers. Some use e-mail to assign homework. Others might have a Web site or blog. Boler-Davis finds the patchwork frustrating.

“There needs to be a standard,” she says of the assignment process. “I can’t wait for parent-teacher conferences.”

Alicia Boler-Davis has benchmarked GM’s customer standards against companies known for quality service such as Apple, Amazon and Zappos.

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