Ford rolls out rewards, moves to boost 'customer experience'

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News
Ford Motor Co. is experimenting with mobile service vehicles that would allow customers to schedule oil changes at their house or office.

Allen Park — Ford Motor Co. officials say it's more profitable to keep return-customers than to find new people to buy its vehicles. And the company plans to launch new services and spend more money to keep people coming back for their next car.

The automaker on Thursday announced a string of "customer experience" pushes under Elena Ford, the company's chief customer experience officer. They include a new rewards program through the FordPass smartphone app, a new call center in Houston focused on servicing truck customers, and pilot projects for vehicle service house-calls and early lease-renewal programs.

"We have good loyalty, but we need more," Elena Ford said. "We want customers to keep coming back. We benchmarked the best companies, and we said this is the way we want to go."

She and her team spent months meeting with executives at companies like Apple, Delta Airlines and Marriott International to rethink how the carmaker could give customers better reasons to use the FordPass app that was introduced nearly three years ago. The company also compared its dealerships and experience centers to those at Apple. 

The customer-experience team is focused mainly on making people feel good about owning a Ford product. The new loyalty program would allow app users to rack up points for scheduling vehicle service through their dealer. In return, the points can be used toward oil changes and other regular maintenance, or saved to be used toward a new lease.

New Ford customers starting in April would get 42,000 points — enough for three routine service appointments — upon signing a new lease or purchase agreement. That incentivizes customers to come back to the dealership for service. Currently, only a third of Ford buyers return to a dealership for their first service appointment, according to Frederiek Toney, president of Ford's global customer service division.

The rewards program, new service models, lease renewal programs, mobile service pilot and other new programs were inspired by CEO Jim Hackett, according to Elena Ford. Hackett mandated early in his tenure that every new Ford model would have an embedded modem connecting it to the internet — and thus, your phone — by the end of this year.

All but 18 of Ford's 3,000-plus U.S. dealerships will use the rewards program, said Jason Sprawka, Ford director of U.S. customer experience. Meantime, the mobile-service pilot aims to allow busier customers the chance to schedule oil changes and other regular maintenance at their house or office. A custom Ford Transit crewed by certified technicians would come to customers' homes for maintenance and repairs.

That's coupled with other global experiments to revive dealerships with sleeker "Ford Signature" establishments modeled after Apple stores. The automaker has 70 around the world and is targeting 300 by the end of the year.

The automaker is also testing smaller "Ford Smart Labs" outside of the U.S. in shopping malls and other areas with high foot-traffic. They would have a handful of vehicles on the floor along with employees who could get potential customers quotes from local dealerships.

Elena Ford said the automaker isn't moving to uproot its dealerships. It's looking to improve the way customers interact with them.

"We need dealers because customers need a place to come and have their vehicles serviced," she said. "That's going to be for a very long time. They want to come in. They want to touch the vehicle... they want to test-drive the vehicle."

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau