How GM Uses Social Media to Improve Cars and Customer Service

November 27, 2017

How GM Uses Social Media to Improve Cars and Customer Service

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In 1933, General Motors President and CEO Alfred Sloan established the automobile industry’s first full-time consumer research department under the direction of Henry “Buck” Weaver, a pioneer in market-based decision making. Weaver’s staff sent three million mailings a year to GM and non-GM customers, achieving a remarkable 25% response rate. People were asked about GM products, upholstery textures, colours, vehicle designs, and technology, and their feedback was incorporated into GM vehicles. The approach was so novel that Time magazine featured Weaver on its cover in November 1938, reporting that his research led to 185 vehicle improvements, ranging from longer bumpers and rubber-padded pedals to air conditioning and the partial elimination of running boards.

We’ve come a long way. Today, Weaver’s mass-mailing tactics seem quaintly out of date. Thanks to the proliferation of smartphones, brand and online-shopping websites, social media, and vehicle connectivity, businesses have a unique opportunity to use technology to revolutionize the customer experience and to incorporate the voice of the customer into product development.

But where and how do you start?

Because of the exponential growth of social media in recent years, and the fact nearly half of U.S. social media users actively seek customer service through social media, according to Nielsen and McKinsey Incite, we’ve made getting globally aligned one of GM’s priorities.

In 2013, we created a global Social Media Center of Expertise (CoE), staffed by about 600 people in five regions from the marketing, communications, and customer care teams, with the goal of enhancing the company’s market-based decision making (part of CEO Mary Barra’s mantra of earning customers for life). As with any new endeavour, we have been learning as we go. Here are some of the lessons we’ve learned:

Centralise your social media team. The idea for a global Social Media CoE didn’t happen overnight. We had three different functional areas trying to “own” social media, each with their own goals and key performance indicators, and all of them often delivered a less-than-stellar experience to customers seeking information or help.Integration is hard. The teams had to lock themselves in a room and agree on roles and responsibilities, eventually deciding marketing would lead brand building and channel management, communications would handle news and reputation management, and customer care would focus on resolving current and prospective customer issues and questions — with appropriate integration points to ensure seamless interactions with our customers. It quickly became clear that support functions such as legal and IT would be critical to the team’s success.

    The processes and governance put in place would later become the global Social Media CoE, which sits in my Global Connected Customer Experience organization.

    Give your social media team the resources they need. To foster even greater collaboration between the functional areas, we relocated the U.S. social media customer care team to our headquarters in Detroit, Michigan, so they could interact daily with their brand marketing and communications counterparts. We built a Social Media Command Center, a high-energy, state-of-the-art engagement environment featuring dozens of wireless workstations, multiple collaboration rooms, and 18 HD monitors that display a wide variety of social feeds — all housed in a 6,200-square-foot workspace.

    In North America alone, GM staffs 26 full-time social media customer care advisers — not including marketing and communications personnel — covering more than 150 owned social channels from GM, Chevrolet, Buick, GMC, and Cadillac and approximately 85 earned sites such as automotive enthusiast forums. These advisers are assisting customers seven days a week, averaging 16 operational hours per day, adding up to an average of more than 6,000 monthly interactions on both an in-market pre-sale and customer care basis.

    And we’ve been replicating this successful model in several key markets across the globe: 28 markets are up and running across GM Europe, GM International, and GM South America operations.

    Keep it simple. The CoE has worked with IT and purchasing to procure a global set of tools for social media management, which are also integrated with our CRM systems. Since 2013, the team has reduced the number of publishing, listening, monitoring, and metrics tools used by our social media teams globally from more than 125 to fewer than six. This not only provides cost savings, but also helps our global network of social media professionals who are aligned and equipped to engage with consumers and customers more effectively.

    Be active listeners. Equally important to the proper structure and people are the processes to identify and resolve quality concerns. Active listening isn’t just hearing and robotically responding to customer feedback; it’s also interpreting the intended meaning, and communicating that understanding to your customers. This practice ensures any issues are communicated properly to the product development and manufacturing teams, fixes are made to current products, and lessons are applied to future ones.

    With the right infrastructure, governance, and tools in place, we are able to help resolve real-time quality concerns. We recognized early that there was a wealth of information in the online vehicle owner forums, and that we should be feeding that information back into product development (in quality, engineering, and technical assistance).

    Our advisers actively monitor vehicle owner forums and other social media platforms to identify potential issues, and they are empowered to provide real-time customer feedback to brand quality and engineering leaders. In some cases, our social media advisers flag issues earlier than we discover them from traditional surveying or dealer feedback.

    Recently, the team identified a faulty climate-control part when a customer posted the issue on a product-owner blog. After seeing the complaint receive dozens of replies and thousands of views, it was clear we needed to investigate further. The CoE elevated the issue to the engineering leads. Once the team determined the root cause of the issue, a technical service bulletin was released to all dealerships to replace the affected HVAC control modules on vehicles already built. We fixed the original customer’s vehicle within 10 days, and beyond helping a customer who didn’t directly ask us for help, we also made adjustments in production to ensure no additional customers would be affected.

    It’s also important to realize not every customer interaction has to be about problem resolution. Helping a customer get the most from a product, navigate the service process, or increase consideration for other products are also excellent ways to enhance customer experience.

    In the end, there is no quick way to incorporate connectivity into current business processes and become a truly customer-focused company. It takes strong leadership focused on providing a best-in-class customer experience, an honest look at current processes, a culture shift from simply “hearing” customers to really “listening” to them, and, most importantly, taking action. However, the reward is significant for companies that “get it.”


    This article was originally written by Alicia Boler-Davis, and full credit goes to the Harvard Business Review, who published this article over a year ago. This article has been reprinted for the purpose of education.


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