* 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
* GM still faces image problems post-U.S. gov't bailout
By Ben Klayman
DETROIT, Nov 6 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.
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
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bailout and overcome what executives feel is an outdated view of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
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
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
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
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."