General Motors for the first time in history earned the top spot among major automakers with the best quality, according to the widely watched J.D. Power and Associates 2013 Initial Quality Study, which measures quality problems reported during the first 90 days of ownership.
That news was met with GM’s CEO Dan Akerson acknowledging the woman in charge of vehicle quality, Alicia Boler-Davis, and elevating her to senior vice president of global quality and global customer experience. The promotion makes Boler-Davis the first African American female officer at the Detroit-based car company.
She previously had been vice president of global quality and U.S. customer experience, reporting to Mary Burns, GM’s senior vice president of global product development. Boler-Davis now reports directly to Akerson and is a member of the executive operating committee. In her new position, effective July 1st, Boler-Davis has global responsibilities for both functions—vehicle quality and customer experience—working with teams around the world to determine new initiatives, measure GM’s success, and drive improvements.
“Alicia Boler-Davis is a proven leader whose diverse experience in manufacturing, product development and customer experience give her a unique view into customer expectations,” says Akerson. “She will lead a companywide, global approach to infusing the voice of the customer into everything that we do.”
This is one of many firsts for the 19-year GM veteran who made history in 2012 when she was placed in the driver’s seat of two combined corporate areas and impressed GM’s leadership team with her emphasis on high-quality vehicles and the way customers are treated as key to retention.
Boler-Davis began her career at GM in 1994 as a manufacturing engineer, having earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Northwestern University and a master’s in engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She rose through various leadership positions including vehicle chief engineer and plant manager.
Under her watch, Akerson set GM on course to become the most customer-centric company in the global auto business. This year’s J.D Power results are proof of that. “Last year we were the most improved automaker, this year we are the best,” says Boler-Davis.
GM was the best performing major automaker overall in the J.D. Power consumer study, with two brands—GMC and Chevrolet—in the top five, and all four of its brands, including Cadillac and Buick, scoring above the industry average. GM won the top quality award in eight of 23 vehicle segments, and had 15 models rank in the top three within their segments. What’s more eight models placed first in their segment. No other automaker had more than three.
This is a huge milestone in light of GM’s market share decline, financial losses, 2009 bankruptcy, and federal bailout. The $150 billion carmaker has come out on top of the auto industry crisis.
Boler-Davis says quality improvement is a team sport and that customers expectations are changing. “In past studies, customers complained about things that broke. Today, customers are focused more on things not looking, feeling, or functioning the way they should,” she says.
The J.D. Power study found design flaws rather than product defects are what bug car buyers the most. The top two complaints: voice recognition and pairing a Bluetooth device to the car.
For these reasons, GM has created a dedicated Information Call Center in Austin, Texas that is staffed with specially trained advisers with expertise in infotainment and mobile devices. GM is making sure each dealership is staffed with a certified technology expert to explain how its in-car technology systems work.
It is vital that GM boost its rate of customer retention and loyalty. “Every 1% improvement in U.S. sales retention equals 25,000 new vehicles sales, or about $700 million in annual revenues for GM,” Boler-Davis says. “Long gone are the days when we could launch a new vehicle with problems and plan to fix them later. We need the first car off the line to be as good as the last.”
GM benchmarks not only against other competitors but companies outside of the auto industry. “Our customers are having different retail experiences that impact their expectations. We benchmark what is the best. We want to be the recognized leader when it comes to customer experience across the board,” explains Boler-Davis. Data is vital to GM’s analysis of customer expectations and experiences, which includes the use of mystery shoppers to provide feedback to dealerships. GM also is very active in the social media space, including blogs, websites, and different listening tools.
Boler-Davis looks to expand GM’s global imprint. As an African American woman having propelled up the ranks in a male-dominated field, she stresses the importance of taking risks. Her counsel to other women entering the industry: Not only, “do you need to have a passion for what you do, you have to have a reputation for delivering results. At the end of the day that is what counts.”