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Useless Technology: Ford's Fall From Grace

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In my recent book, Voice of the Customer Marketing, I praised Ford Motor Company for executing one of the great business turnarounds in recent business history. This year, however, there is disturbing evidence that Ford has gone off track.The firm slipped from fifth place in the 2010 J.D. Power survey of consumer satisfaction -- highest among non-luxury automakers -- to 23rd in this year's survey. Something bad must have happened to the recently solid relationship between Ford and its customers.

I didn't have to look very far to find out what it was. After months of our own ongoing complaints, we watched in disbelief as Ford washed its hands of the problems we were having with my wife's new Lincoln... because "no one else had complained about these problems" and the technicians "could not replicate" them.

Neither statement was true. Ford had indulged in what I call the "Useless Technology Syndrome" and was not taking responsibility for the problems that resulted. (See this blog for other examples of consumer-hostile technology "advances".) "Useless Technology" is what happens when new technology is developed with more emphasis on the "wow" factor versus the "function" factor... and adequate consumer testing is not conducted. It's beginning to look like Ford bet the goodwill of its customers on an ill-conceived plan to get to market first with a host of new, complex, and poorly conceived technological changes to its cars.

These changes involved a wide range of high-tech design and engineering "upgrades" to the Ford fleet, notably in the navigation, music, and phone interfaces (via a new system called MyFord Touch) and the transmission and powertrain (via an option called PowerShift, meant to boost fuel economy).

As publications like the New York Times, Consumer Reports the Detroit Free Press and many other sources have reported, mishaps and consumer complaints related to the much-hyped MyFord Touch system are legion. These include problems with:
  • starting the car using the keyless, push-button ignition
  • a "voice recognition" system that quickly became notorious for its refusal to recognize human voices
  • a navigational system that was slow and unresponsive
  • a touch screen computer interface that rebooted unexpectedly and was less intuitive and far more cumbersome than the old-fashioned buttons and switches.

Ford seems to have rushed the pre-testing process and, instead, conducted its beta testing for its new Useless Technology systems on several million live customers, including our family. To top it off, Ford customer service was not straightforward about the numerous problems consumers were having with the new technology.

Now Ford is paying the price. All of that hard-won Voice of Customer insight, guidance, and good will from 2009 and 2010 is in jeopardy because Ford insisted on being "first to market" with systems that were manifestly not ready for the marketplace... and that many customers do not want.

The kinds of complaints Ford is now receiving are signs of a serious breach of trust in Ford's ongoing relationship with its customer base. The right next step is for the automaker to spend time listening to aggrieved consumers... so Ford can find out what customers need to see and hear in order to restore their trust in the Ford brand. For starters, I recommend a high-profile apology.

Ernan Roman is President of the marketing consultancy, Ernan Roman Direct Marketing.

2010-12-08-ernan.jpgErnan was named to "B to B's Who's Who" as one of the "100 most influential people" in Business Marketing by Crain's B to B Magazine.

His fourth and latest book on marketing best practices is titled:Voice of the Customer Marketing: A Proven 5-Step Process to Create Customers Who Care, Spend, and Stay.