FEATURE-GM's new customer-service guru faces big task
* 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 assembly plant
* GM still faces image problems post-U.S. gov't bailout
By Ben Klayman
DETROIT, Nov 6 (Reuters) - Consumers who call to complain about their General Motors Co 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.
The idea is to erase any lingering resentment from the bailout and overcome what executives feel is an outdated view of the company's poor reputation for quality.
"We know the perception of our products from a quality perspective still lags our actual performance," Boler-Davis said in a recent interview at her office in GM's technical center outside Detroit.
ANSWERING PHONE CALLS
Though Boler-Davis has been on the job in its current form for only about four months, GM has already tallied some victories this year. It led the industry with eight vehicles garnering top honors in their segments in J.D. Power and Associates' initial quality study, and Consumer Reports named the Chevy Impala and Silverado the top sedan and pickup in the United States.
While Boler-Davis should not receive too much credit for vehicles developed before her tenure, she has brought a new focus to the company's care and quality efforts, industry analysts said.
Born in Detroit and raised in nearby Romulus, Boler-Davis had a summer internship in 1990 with Ford Motor Co, the company that employed her grandmother and briefly her father.
After earning a chemical engineering degree at Northwestern University and working in the pharmaceutical and consumer foods industries, Boler-Davis joined GM in 1994 as an engineer in the midsize/luxury car division. In 2007, she became the first African-American woman named a manager of a GM assembly plant.
The mother of two boys aged 8 and 11, Boler-Davis is studying for a business degree in her free time.
Though she was already working for GM in the quality and customer-care areas, she was promoted in July to senior vice president in charge of GM's global quality and customer experience efforts - a newly combined job. This is because CEO Akerson views these areas as critical to winning more customers. Before that, she was a vice president and her customer experience responsibilities were only in the United States.
Boler-Davis' directive is to bring the voice of the customer into the process even earlier so that the company can head off problems during product development.
In one case, some employees on her team of 1,200 people relayed to GM engineers a complaint from a Cadillac XTS owner who said her audiobook continued to play instead of pausing as she spoke on the phone through her car's sound system. A fix was quickly implemented.
GM's Moloney said one of Boler-Davis' innovations has been to flip the company model, pushing to bring call-center employees back in-house even though that meant spending more money up-front. She felt that this approach would result in improved customer service and loyalty.
As part of her management style, Boler-Davis personally fields about four telephone calls a week from GM owners, so that she can stay more directly connected to customers.
"She gives pretty clear instructions, but without being a traditional command-and-control type," said David Sargent, vice president of global automotive at J.D. Power. "As you would hope from someone in that position, she enjoys the good news but is actually more interested in the bad news."
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