TRAVERSE CITY, MI – A former plant manager now heads General Motors’ effort to become the most customer-centered auto maker in the industry.

“It’s not enough to have great quality at the plant level,” says Alicia Boler-Davis, named this year to the newly created post of GM’s vice president-customer experience and global quality. “You have to have it everywhere.”

Her work centers on moving the auto maker “from good to great,” she says at the Center for Automotive Research’s Management Briefing Seminars here. “We’ve linked quality and the customer experience. We’re the only OEM to do that. But it is much more than redrawing the company’s organization chart.”

Traditionally, GM thought of the customer experience as occurring at the dealership, Boler-Davis says. “But we now are applying it to presale, during the sale and after the sale. We are not thinking of the sale as a singular event.”

In developing new products, the auto maker is relying more than ever on customer feedback.

“We start with the customer and work our way back,” she says. “Everything learned in the field is fed back to the engineers. We are designing and engineering vehicles the way customers expect.”

At the retail level, GM has brought in consultants from the Ritz-Carlton hotel chain and Disney to train dealership personnel on the finer points of great customer service.

“We are working with dealers to improve the overall customer experience,” Boler-Davis says. “Our dealers want to do that as much as we want them to.”

Post-sale programs include reinventing GM’s call centers. Before, the auto maker considered those primarily as complaint departments.

“Now, they are customer-engagement centers,” she says. “It no longer is how fast we can move the customer through, but rather the quality of the calls. These are opportunities to build relationships.”

GM call-center personnel include staffers trained to field calls from customers with questions about how to use their cars’ infotainment systems.

The auto maker also has hired 25 technical specialists to provide one-on-one training to dealership salespeople so they can better explain infotainment features on the showroom floor.

Boler-Davis is an engineer and the first African-American woman to serve as a GM plant manager. She has held that position in Orion Township, MI, Lansing, MI, and Arlington, TX.

Of her new assignment, she says, “It’s not rocket science. You build high-quality product and treat the customer (right), and they’ll come back for more.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com