Letter to GM: it’s time to get serious about the user experience

December 3, 2008

 
Rick Wagoner
General Motors
300 Renaissance Center
Detroit, MI 48265

cc: Allan Mullally, CEO Ford; Robert Nardelli, CEO Chrysler

Dear Mr. Wagoner,

By now you are probably tired of hearing every so called “expert” who has studied, analyzed or written about the auto industry — or simply driven a car — give you advice on how to survive this recent crisis, but I just wanted to tell you one more thing.  Like the advice given to Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate: “Plastics” my advice can be summed up in a word (okay, two words): “user experience.”

As you struggle to consolidate your brands, close factories and dealerships and figure out a way to continue operations before you run out of cash I urge you, no, I beg you – please do not forget to invest in satisfying your customers’ experiences. 

Your recent decision, along with your esteemed colleagues at Ford and Chrysler, to fly your private jets to Washington to ask American taxpayers to fork over billions to help you continue operations not only set the wrong tone, it is indicative of your company’s inability to understand the emotional needs of your customers and those that left the fold years ago to buy from your European and Japanese competitiors.

Having worked on advertising campaigns for a couple of automakers (US and Japanese) over the years I have some sympathy for both you and your dealer network in these trying times; I know how difficult it is to research, manufacture, market and sell products that have a long product development cycle.  However, the experience also provided me with keen insight into how customers are often left out of the process.  Going forward, here are a few suggestions that I hope you will consider:

  1. Hire a ‘Chief Experience Officer’ immediately: this would be the senior executive responsible for understanding customer experiences across all communication touchpoints among all of your audiences.  Make sure this person reports directly to your CEO.  And, give him/her veto power over dumb decisions (like flying private jets to important public meetings or killing popular programs while ignoring your fan base).
  2. Keep us in the loop: stay in touch with customers over the next year or two about what your plans are, even if it means having to tell us bad news.  If there’s going to be pain, own up to it.  You won’t be fooling anyone by communicating via the typical corporate-speak – or worse – by giving us the silent treatment.  Two-way communication has to be part of the new GM paradigm.  Which leads to …
  3. Be a good listener:  don’t rely solely on your research department for insights.  Put someone in charge of reading blogs, emails and snail mail from customers that has the ear of your CEO.  Keeping an ear to the ground while putting your nose to the grind stone is difficult, but an absolute job requirement in this new economy. And blaming the press for the public’s “misperceptions” about GM’s lineup of fuel efficient cars (as your Vice Chairman Bob Lutz has done) isn’t going to cut it.
  4. Don’t be afraid to look overseas: Your brand Opel is a well respected name throughout Europe.  Right now Saturn is the only division that has announced plans for using the Opel platform (the 2010 Saturn Aura is essentially the Opel Insignia) – but ask 100 people on the street and I’ll bet you’ll have trouble finding 1 person that might know about it.  With Saturn going away, don’t lose sight of Opel for helping you create cars in the US with some European sensibility and style.
  5. Do something fun that surprises people: when was the last time someone beyond the gear-head crowd thought “Wow, GM gets it.  They know how to reach me by doing something fun?”  Think Mini Cooper, and the VW Beetle.  Fun is the intangible gift that keeps on giving and can create a positive halo acrosss all of your models.  And don’t say “Chevy HHR.”  The 60’s was Detroit’s heyday for youthful, fun design, not the 50’s.  Some ideas: how about a US version of the ’66 Vauxhall XVR or an updated 60’s era Opel GT? Or what about making the Chevy Volt fuel efficient, fun to drive and affordable?
  6. Walk the walk (don’t just talk the talk): When you introduced Saturn to the world back in 1990, you promised a “different kind of company, a different kind of car” and really tried to create a new way to approach the customer.  Now it looks like you will be closing or “consolidating” the Saturn brand.  What happened?  You wrote the words but forget the music.  You and your predecessors gave up on Saturn’s mission after only four years  by making the division just another GM brand and failed to provide the kind of experiences — and cars — that could compete effectively with the Japanese.  

If you start to rebuild your company and your product line from the bottom up (i.e., putting the customer first) I’m confident that you can become a leader again in cars, not just trucks.  But, I’m already bracing myself for the slogan “A new GM” and the multi-million dollar ad budget that will go along with it.  Don’t make the mistake that Microsoft is making with Vista.  Why not demonstrate the change and trust the customer to create the label this time?

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