So, you're driving along, minding your own business, when your car starts making a funny noise. Or there's a gap in the upholstery that you hadn't noticed before. Or your windows won't roll up properly. You get home, and like most tinkerers in this day and age, you fire up the interwebs and do a little Googling to find a fix for the annoying problem.
Nine times out of ten, you're led down a rabbit-hole lined with fan forums and discussion boards, chock-full of posts from fellow owners who've complained of similar issues. Given the obscurity of some of those forums, it might seem that no one would ever read such kvetching, but according to Detroit News, Detroit automakers are indeed patrolling the boards -- and they're jumping in to address problems when they can.
It's a variation on what's loosely called "reputation management", which has been made possible, in part, by improvements to the web's major search engines. With Google, for example, company reps can scan for terms like "Ford Mustang" or "Chevy Camaro" and winnow down the results to reveal those that have been posted on blogs within the past 24 hours.
Chrysler appears to be leading the charge on this front, thanks to the work of Pietro Gorlier, the president of Mopar brand service, parts, and customer service at Chrysler/Fiat. Before the two automakers merged in 2009, he was doing exactly this sort of "listening" work for Fiat, and now, he's applied what he learned to the entire Chrysler/Fiat family.
Gorlier began by restructuring Chrysler/Fiat to focus on its brands, not on its overarching corporate identity. This is very similar to what General Motors has been doing the past couple of years, with GM stepping out of the spotlight and putting Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, and GMC front-and-center. The rationale for both companies' moves is identical: most customers don't buy the corporation, they buy they brand.
Part of Gorlier's strategy then involved creating brand teams to patrol key fan forums, scrolling through the seemingly endless threads. Gorlier's teams reach out to owners when they see a problem they might be able to fix, and they pass innovative ideas over to Chrysler/Fiat's research/development teams. In the past year alone, Gorlier's online staffers have posted over 3,000 messages to forums, which have generated contacts with nearly 500,000 individuals.
While Ford and GM don't seem to devote quite as much staff time to such activities, it's become part of their corporate game plan, too. Quite rightly, they focus their attention on models with loyal fan-bases, like the Ford F-150 pickup, since owners of those vehicles are most likely to take to the internet with their complaints and kudos.
What's interesting is that lawyers at Chrysler (and presumably at Ford and GM, too) initially objected to the idea of company reps trolling internet forums. Though the Detroit News story doesn't go into detail, we have a hunch that the lawyers' objections might've been tied to liability: offer a handy fix for a problem, and the company could get sued if the fix isn't quite as easy or effective as thought.
Then, too, there's the issue of contacting customers through "unofficial" means. Corporations generally have very specific ways in which they like to discuss things with owners -- ways that can be monitored and recorded in real time, as anyone who's ever called a customer service line knows. Unfortunately, forums aren't on that list.
And of course, there's the potential PR problem that automakers might face by speaking to customers in a forum environment. Fans have often assumed that they could grouse about their vehicles without the manufacturer listening in. Does it seem Big Brothery, then, when a company rep speaks up on a forum?
Gorlier and his colleagues at Ford and GM are absolutely on the right path. Although there are undoubtedly vehicle problems that online reps haven't been able to fix, as long as those reps make an effort to speak to customers with dignity, respect, and attention to their individual concerns -- not via canned messages -- those customers are likely to feel an increased loyalty to their favorite brands. And given how competitive sales are nowadays, that kind of loyalty can make all the difference.