Ford is introducing a new customer rewards program, expanding a mobile vehicle maintenance pilot program with dealers and opening a new "smart lab" retail concept in the lobby of a mall in Belgium as part of a comprehensive focus on improving the brand's customer experience.

The automaker says it has doubled its spending on customer-experience programs, figuring the added expense will pay off via more customers sticking with the brand over the long term, buying or leasing a new Ford or Lincoln vehicle, and sharing their good experiences with others. Ford says it aims to improve on the 52% of customers who return to its dealers for their first maintenance appointments and capture more repeat business from the roughly 300,000 Ford and Lincoln customers who have an opportunity to renew their leases each year.

Ford is focusing its efforts on things including its FordPass mobile app, where the rewards program is launching, rethinking dealerships through a new "signature" brand concept and design standards, partnering with junior colleges to beef up automotive vocational programs and overhauling customer service. Ford next week will open a new customer call center near Houston, where 500 employees will use new customer relationship management (CRM) technology to replace traditional phone trees, with each operator staying with customers throughout the call. Playing to a strength, the center will have a team devoted entirely to helping customers who drive F-150 and Ranger trucks.

Ford says it has based many of the programs on progress made by its Lincoln luxury division, which has been working to improve customer experience programs for three years through things like its Lincoln Way mobile app, overhauled call centers and concierge program. Ford also spent time studying companies including Apple, Zappos, USAA, Starbucks and Delta that score highly in customer experience ratings. The company acknowledges that its customer experience efforts were too fractured and disconnected and that Ford lacked the humbleness and self-reflectiveness that characterize great customer-focused businesses, said Jason Sprawka, Ford's director of customer experience for North America.

"The customer experience is the most important area we can invest in to become the world's most trusted company," said Elena Ford — the great-great granddaughter of Henry Ford — who became the blue oval's chief customer experience officer in October. "The real measure of our success as a company is keeping customers' loyalty over time."

Ford said it planned to open a new "smart lab" retail concept on Thursday in a mall in Brussels, Belgium that is based on a similar idea it saw from one of its dealers in Turin, Italy. It'll be located in a high-traffic open area in the mall and owned and operated by a dealer, offering customers a "low-pressure sales environment" where they are free to check out vehicle models on display, read up on their specs, get quotes and even test drive one outside, said Roberto De Filippo, director of global in-store retail experience and network development. Two more similar concepts will open in June in Canada and Germany, with six "smart lab" stores globally by the end of the year, he said.

Ford says it developed its new "signature" dealership concept in concert with dealers as part of a recognition that people are increasingly doing most of their vehicle shopping online and visiting dealers only to do test drives or sign lease or purchase papers. The new concepts, which are already in place at 70 locations across Europe, borrow ideas from Apple Stores, such as communal waiting-area seating, less formal seating nooks where customers can chat with salespeople, more flatscreen displays showing pricing of products and services, and "farewell bays" where dealers will literally take the wraps off a customer's new vehicle and hand them the keys to drive away. Ford says it aims to have 300 of the new dealer concepts open in the U.S. by the end of the year.

The company is also expanding its Ford Mobile Service pilot, in which dealers equip a Transit van with equipment to conduct light maintenance such as oil changes, tire changes and rotations, change brake pads and even conduct some recall repairs remotely. Ford currently has 100 mobile vans piloting a fleet in the U.K. and will have five pilot programs running through dealers later this month in California, Texas, Illinois, New Jersey and Florida.

Ford began rolling out its new FordPass Rewards program last month. It lets customers who purchase or lease a new vehicle get points they can use for free maintenance, roadside service, parts or service, or apply toward a new vehicle.

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