GM's new customer-service guru faces big task

Wed Nov 6, 2013 3:42pm EST
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By Ben Klayman

DETROIT (Reuters) - Consumers who call to complain about their General Motors Co (GM.N: Quote) car or truck should not be surprised if they end up bending the ear of the fast-rising executive in charge of putting a friendlier face on the U.S. automaker.

Less than two years removed from running a car assembly plant, Alicia Boler-Davis, 44, is leading GM's push to boost vehicle quality and improve customer satisfaction as part of an effort to increase sales.

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

Reversing the No. 1 U.S. automaker's poor reputation for vehicle quality and customer care has been paramount to Akerson since 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 woman who has worked on the factory floors but can also talk to board members about big-picture issues.

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

The old, pre-bailout GM was more focused internally on cutting costs, analysts and executives have said. The new watchword is to improve service provided by the company's dealers, call centers, online and even inside the vehicles through its in-vehicle OnStar service that connects drivers to live operators for directions or emergency help.

The new emphasis is also about dollars - potentially $5 billion or more in additional revenue in the United States alone. 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 that to industry-leading rates topping 60 percent.   Continued...

GM customer-service guru Alicia Boler-Davis is pictured in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters November 5, 2013. REUTERS/John F. Martin/Handout