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My old truck was on its last legs and it was high time for a replacement. So I’m now the proud new owner of a 2021 Ford F-150 hybrid truck. Because I love car technology, it’s fully loaded with all the new ADAS and connectivity options. That’s the good part. The bad part was my sales and initial ownership experience.
Buying a new technology-laden truck reminded me that traditional automakers have some fundamental issues.
Simply put, sales, support, and service are woefully unprepared to handle the tech in the cars they’re selling. I encountered numerous trouble spots that I think would stymie the average customer. But I persevered through many of the issues being a long-time Ford fan who deeply understands automotive technology. But I’m not sure everyone would.
This is a problem legacy automakers absolutely have to solve if they want to compete with the likes of Tesla and Rivian.
Salespeople need a handle on software
I really liked my salesperson. But he knew very little about the truck’s hybrid or ADAS features, except that I’d “save gas” and “be safer”. Any time I asked him a detailed question, he had to defer it to service or management or somewhere else. I quickly concluded that as an educated buyer, I knew more about the truck’s technology than he did.
Granted I’m a guy who reads manuals for fun (I’m not kidding) and my questions might have been a bit more in depth than your average Joe or Josephine. But based on my salesperson’s responses, I’m relatively convinced that the myriad of questions from a less sophisticated buyer would have been met with the same blank stares. No matter how much we try to simplify the UI, we are talking about some significantly complicated features in new cars. Not understanding them intimately is a huge problem if you want to get customers to commit to a hugely expensive purchase.
The technology rampant in new cars means that you can’t rely on the same type of salespeople. I’m not saying salespeople need to be programmers, but they need a passing knowledge about what makes software tick if they want to be helpful. Dealerships need to start hiring people who understand software and technology. Or they should tag team salespeople with tech specialists. Or have an on-site FAE “geek squad” for the inevitable questions that come up.
Dealer leadership is in denial
I got into a conversation about the F-150 Lightning with the floor manager at the dealership where I bought my truck. He said that they don’t plan on selling the Lightning or the Mustang Mach-E, because “our customers don’t want electric vehicles”. Somewhat ironically, this was immediately after I told him I planned on buying an electric truck for my very next vehicle. (I pointed out to him that if I’m buying one of his trucks, I think I qualify as one of his customers.) I also explained that his logic was self-fulfilling, and it would force me to buy elsewhere. He was in denial that EVs are the future and didn’t seem to understand that ignoring them won’t allow his business survive the next decade.
What this interaction told me is that dealerships don’t want to sell EVs. Bloomberg chalks it up to not knowing how to sell the tech, but I think the problem is much simpler – the EV threatens the dealership’s profit model. EVs won’t need oil changes, transmission work, or many of the expensive and regular services that are a staple of the dealer diet. Dealer leadership are the proverbial ostriches with their heads in the sand – and there’s soon going to be an EV tire track over their head.
Support centers can’t manage software issues
My new truck has this nice little “welcoming” feature: as you walk up with the key fob, the exterior lights turn on once you get about 20 feet away. Not having had a vehicle that has a key fob proximity sensor before, I didn’t realize that this was the cause of a lot of mysterious behavior when I took it on my first camping trip.
The key that was sitting in the camper was close enough to the truck that it turned on the lights every 20 minutes or so. Not realizing this was the issue and thinking something was wrong, I used Ford’s handy support app to see if they could help diagnose the problem. Fantastic idea! An app that knows my truck’s VIN and can communicate to a support center where they can pull my truck’s logs and diagnostic trouble codes (DTCs), and immediately solve the problem!
So how did that go? Not very well. The person at the call center didn’t have an FAQ or trouble-shooting tips. They had no access to my vehicle or its data. All they could do is call a tow-truck, which I thought was overkill, so I told them I’d worry about it in the morning.
The morning came and the truck battery wasn’t dead thankfully (it’s a hybrid after all with a huge battery). I got in the truck to see if I could diagnose last night’s issue. Although it was running (on electric), it was sitting still in our campsite in Park, when it suddenly popped up with a message that said something like “Pull over immediately.” (I did mention it was parked, didn’t I?) The red “engine trouble” indicator lit up, and the truck refused to start again. I called back the support line, and once again, the best they could offer was a tow truck, so I asked them to send one. After half an hour the tow truck hadn’t got there yet, so I tried to start it one last time and it worked. No sign of the former issue or DTC. Not precisely a comforting experience since I had no idea what had happened or if it would come back.
OEMs that have connected vehicles must take advantage of them. They need to give their support people the ability to grab a vehicle’s DTCs, logs, behavior history, and configuration. You better believe that any of the new mobility OEMs are going to have a support line where they can read everything a car has done and why it’s not working while talking with the customer. That’s how to make customers walk away happy and confident – no service bay required. (BTW, Ford – OnStar has been doing this forever now, so there’s no excuse.)
Service departments are flying blind
I brought my vehicle back to service the week after. By that time, I had figured out the key proximity issue myself. No, this was to diagnose the “engine trouble” problem and to connect the Ford Pass app for remote lock, unlock, engine start, and diagnostics. The Ford Pass app kept giving me error messages that looked like it wasn’t even bothering trying to connect to the truck. Following a lot of online forums and deleting the app off my phone or resetting the car wasn’t working. (I do note that based on online forums, app connectivity issues seem to be an extraordinarily common problem; they really should be something that dealers ensure is working seamlessly before customers leave the lot with their new vehicle.)
I explained the issues and the tech said they’d take my truck for the day to look into it. I talked to him later and he said that the car had no trouble codes but they reflashed the software just in case. No DTC for a red engine problem indicator when the car said “Pull over immediately”? I found that exceedingly hard to believe – I’m pretty sure either he didn’t check or didn’t want to bother looking it up in the service record while talking to me. Reflashing the infotainment system to fix a bug is like reinstalling Windows from scratch every time an app has a hiccup. These service techs need to be doctors with scalpels, not demo teams with dynamite.
Dealer service teams are flying blind. They’re used to the old problems, where you can physically examine the wear of a brake pad or the gap on a spark plug. New problems aren’t like that. They’re software bugs, user interface quirks, and user training gaps. That’s not the domain of grease monkeys. OEMs need to help them get as much information as possible – and OBDII DTCs in most cases aren’t going to cut it. They’ll need access to full logs, and most importantly, they’ll need someone with the skill to interpret them. (As we discuss in another blog, vehicle logs have got their own set of issues.) This can only mean one thing – staffing up.
Missed opportunities for dealerships and OEMs
The issues I mentioned here were some of the bigger ones, yet I had a raft of other smaller issues and questions that I didn’t even bother bringing up to the dealership or support line. Instead, I experimented with the car myself. I dug through online forums and YouTube videos to figure things out. Because, based on my other experiences, I knew I couldn’t get satisfactory answers from the OEM or the dealer directly. And that’s a huge missed opportunity for a positive customer experience (CX) in an area that automakers say they want to improve.
To be perfectly clear, this is not just a Ford problem. While my personal experience is just a single anecdote, this is not an isolated case. Friends and peers with all sorts of makes and models from traditional OEMs have shared similar experiences when it comes to new car ownership whenever the software is a dominant feature.
It’s not like we didn’t see this coming for the last twenty years. Analysts and media have reported on issues with dealerships and technology for a long time. My good friend Roger Lanctot has been sounding the alarm on this for over a decade. But the traditional disconnect between OEM and dealerships are being brought into stark relief by the explosion in car technology, especially when it comes to EVs, ADAS, connectivity, and hybrid technology.
Bad software can dominate the customer experience
New OEMs are software literate from the ground up. They understand that managing software out in the field as a living, breathing thing needs much more – better people, better tools, better diagnostics, better service, and better sales. It doesn’t have to cost more, but it does need to cost differently.
Existing car companies now “get” software, which is a major step. They’re not passing all the responsibility off to the tier ones anymore. They’re owning, architecting, writing, and debugging it. But software needs a lot of TLC to ensure a stellar CX, which is something that OEMS haven’t come to terms with yet. Car software is terribly complex and full of edge cases, yet the CX for configuring, learning, adapting, or troubleshooting this software is pretty shoddy. If a customer has any questions or problems at all, they’re bound to be left unsatisfied and disgruntled.
Traditional OEMs may not be able to change
That’s because for all of the OEM’s software knowledge, they still conceptualize system software as just one aspect of an engine control unit (ECU). An ECU module is another part they can replace like a shock absorber, and the software inside is just a “calibration”. Software may be a part of a box that makes it do stuff, but it’s not a calibration – it’s the entire product’s definition. Until OEMs stop this “hardwareization” of one of their most valuable assets, they’re not going to succeed. Yet, the ECU-centric view of the car is so deep in existing automaker engineering, procurement, design – even legal – it’s hard to imagine it’s going to be shaken free easily.
Another major hurdle is that software-centric thinking doesn’t fit well with existing dealership models. In most cases, software requires capabilities that dealers don’t have, they don’t know how to monetize, they see as draining their traditional revenue streams, and they have no interest in building up. As a result, most of the traditional dealers are going to fight tooth and nail against EVs and CAVs, in return sabotaging automaker efforts to update their fleet.
I know this message isn’t new. But living it first-hand after all this time was disconcerting. Let’s hope that the OEMs start paying a little more attention to the customer experience of their software defined vehicles, give their dealers enough support and encouragement (a good kick if necessary) to wake them up, and hire themselves some geeks who know how to diagnose and explain things to their customers.