GM's new customer-service guru faces big task

Reuters

* GM seeks to improve reputation for quality, customer care

* Boler-Davis, 44, represents 'voice of the customer'

* She was first African-American woman to run GM assemblyplant

* GM still faces image problems post-U.S. gov't bailout

By Ben Klayman

DETROIT, Nov 6 (Reuters) - Consumers who call to complainabout their General Motors Co car or truck should not besurprised if they end up bending the ear of the fast-risingexecutive in charge of putting a friendlier face on the U.S.automaker.

Less than two years removed from running a car assemblyplant, Alicia Boler-Davis, 44, is leading GM's push to boostvehicle quality and improve customer satisfaction as part of aneffort to increase sales.

In the past, GM divided these "quality" and "customer care"responsibilities among several people who reported to seniorexecutives. But it now deems these areas so important that ithas combined them and placed oversight under one person, andthat person reports directly to Chief Executive Dan Akerson.

Reversing the No. 1 U.S. automaker's poor reputation forvehicle quality and customer care has been paramount to Akersonsince GM emerged from bankruptcy in 2009 with the help of a$49.5 billion taxpayer-funded bailout.

To get the job done, he turned to an African-American womanwho has worked on the factory floors but can also talk to boardmembers about big-picture issues.

"She is street smart and boardroom-savvy," said Jim Moloney,general director for the company's call centers. "She's builtcars, so you can't take her out on the factory floor and B.S. her, but she is also completely comfortable in a meeting withAkerson."

The old, pre-bailout GM was more focused internally oncutting costs, analysts and executives have said. The newwatchword is to improve service provided by the company'sdealers, call centers, online and even inside the vehiclesthrough its in-vehicle OnStar service that connects drivers tolive operators for directions or emergency help.

The new emphasis is also about dollars - potentially $5billion or more in additional revenue in the United Statesalone. One extra percentage point in GM's customer loyalty rate,which is currently in the range of 52 to 53 percent, is worth$700 million in annual U.S. revenue. GM is aiming to boost thatto industry-leading rates topping 60 percent.

The idea is to erase any lingering resentment from thebailout and overcome what executives feel is an outdated view ofthe company's poor reputation for quality.

"We know the perception of our products from a qualityperspective still lags our actual performance," Boler-Davis saidin a recent interview at her office in GM's technical centeroutside Detroit.

ANSWERING PHONE CALLS

Though Boler-Davis has been on the job in its current formfor only about four months, GM has already tallied somevictories this year. It led the industry with eight vehiclesgarnering top honors in their segments in J.D. Power andAssociates' initial quality study, and Consumer Reports namedthe Chevy Impala and Silverado the top sedan and pickup in theUnited States.

While Boler-Davis should not receive too much credit forvehicles developed before her tenure, she has brought a newfocus to the company's care and quality efforts, industryanalysts said.

Born in Detroit and raised in nearby Romulus, Boler-Davishad a summer internship in 1990 with Ford Motor Co, thecompany that employed her grandmother and briefly her father.

After earning a chemical engineering degree at NorthwesternUniversity and working in the pharmaceutical and consumer foodsindustries, Boler-Davis joined GM in 1994 as an engineer in themidsize/luxury car division. In 2007, she became the firstAfrican-American woman named a manager of a GM assembly plant.

The mother of two boys aged 8 and 11, Boler-Davis isstudying for a business degree in her free time.

Though she was already working for GM in the quality andcustomer-care areas, she was promoted in July to senior vicepresident in charge of GM's global quality and customerexperience efforts - a newly combined job. This is because CEOAkerson views these areas as critical to winning more customers.Before that, she was a vice president and her customerexperience responsibilities were only in the United States.

Boler-Davis' directive is to bring the voice of the customerinto the process even earlier so that the company can head offproblems during product development.

In one case, some employees on her team of 1,200 peoplerelayed to GM engineers a complaint from a Cadillac XTS ownerwho said her audiobook continued to play instead of pausing asshe spoke on the phone through her car's sound system. A fix wasquickly implemented.

GM's Moloney said one of Boler-Davis' innovations has beento flip the company model, pushing to bring call-centeremployees back in-house even though that meant spending moremoney up-front. She felt that this approach would result inimproved customer service and loyalty.

As part of her management style, Boler-Davis personallyfields about four telephone calls a week from GM owners, so thatshe can stay more directly connected to customers.

"She gives pretty clear instructions, but without being atraditional command-and-control type," said David Sargent, vicepresident of global automotive at J.D. Power. "As you would hopefrom someone in that position, she enjoys the good news but isactually more interested in the bad news."

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