Using social media to drive change at General Motors

Profile picture for user jtwentyman By Jessica Twentyman October 16, 2014
Automaker GM is finally listening to its customers. Will findings from its new Social Command Center help it navigate a new course?

General Motors CEO Mary Barra has promised America a “new GM”. Five years since the company emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy, however, there is

2015 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray
still much work to be done on the rehabilitation of GM’s image.

In particular, this year’s controversy over the company’s botched recall of 2.6 million vehicles with a potentially lethal ignition-switch fault continues to weigh heavily on customer minds.

Social media could play a major role in helping GM to regain their trust and confidence. As Barra herself pointed out, in an early October briefing to financial analysts and investors:

Every chance to connect with customers is an opportunity to build a stronger relationship.

It’s a huge task, though: the company manufactures vehicles in 37 countries worldwide, across 13 different brands, including Chevrolet, Cadillac, Vauxhall and Opel.

In its favour, GM has plenty of social muscle to flex when it comes to building those connections online. According to Rebecca Harris, the company’s senior manager for global social media strategy, there are 500 employees whose job it is to engage with customers across 400 social media channels, from Twitter and Facebook to specialist forums for motoring enthusiasts. In the US alone, GM operates 20 different Facebook pages. Harris says:

From an engagement and sentiment perspective, we [in social media] can absolutely help with corporate reputation.

The killer punch in GM’s social media strategy, meanwhile, may well be its opening of a Social Command Center at its Detroit, Michigan headquarters in April 2013. Here, team members now monitor social media streams, seated at desks facing a bank of 16 separate monitors, and respond to the customer queries, complaints and suggestions they see posted there.

They’re using tools from Oracle’s Social Cloud product line, including the recently launched Social Station. This is a new workspace for the Oracle Social Relationship Management (SRM) module, designed to give agents working in social media monitoring environments - like the GM Social Command Center - more customised control over the streams they view and the reports and metrics they receive about social-media activities.

GM CEO Mary Barra Outlines Company's Strategic Plan
CEO Mary Barra has promised America a

Deciding how issues should be allocated to individual team members initially raised some challenges for managers at GM’s Social Command Center, according to Whitney Drake, manager of social strategy and care for GM North America. They are, after all, drawn from three operational areas within GM: Marketing, Public Relations and Customer Care. That mix is essential, Drake says, in order to address the range of GM-related issues that show up on social media,

One of the things we found early on is that we were constantly stepping on each other’s toes. In order to be successful, we needed to define what we now call ‘swim lanes’ of clearly defined responsibilities.

These swim lines have been formally documented, she adds. Team members from PR are responsible for engaging with media and other influencers and handling crisis management in the social space. Those from marketing make strategic decisions for their brands around content development, for example, and “engage with customers around their passion for a brand”. Customer care staff, meanwhile take charge of customer issues and sales opportunities. Drake says:

I won’t sit here and say it’s simple. Just this morning, I had someone cross a swim lane and we had to go back and correct the situation. But it has made things simpler, because at the end of the day, a customer doesn’t care if you’re in marketing, PR or customer care. They only care that the person that responds to them is the one who can help them, the one that can solve their problem.

The GM Social Command Center has also proved itself to be a faster way of identifying product issues than more established feedback channels at the company, according to Harris.

Take, for example, GM’s launch last year of two pickup trucks based on its K2XX vehicle platform, the Chevrolet Silverado and the GMC Sierra: it wasn’t long before some new owners, mostly those based in the warmer southern states of the US, were complaining that aluminium steering wheels became unduly hot. Others, meanwhile, were unhappy that the system responsible for air-cooling driver and front-passenger seats was also blowing hot air into the rear seats. Says Harris:

We were able to take that information back into the organisation quickly and talk to the quality team, the engineering team and the manufacturing team.

The response was fast and effective, she says: aluminium steering wheels were replaced as an option for these models and engineers worked with manufacturing teams to divert seat-cooling air vents.

At just eighteen months old, the Social Command Center is already attracting a great deal of senior management attention. Recent high-level visitors have included GM Chairman Tim Solso and Julian Blissett, the recently appointed executive vice president of Shanghai GM.

Solso was so enthralled by what he saw, seated alongside command center agents, that he delayed his departure by some ten minutes. Blissett, meanwhile, made it “very clear” that social care was something he hopes to introduce in China. It’s rumoured that Mary Barra herself is regularly provided with reports

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that keep her updated on social media responses to her public pronouncements. Says Harris:

From a leadership perspective, this is a huge, huge thing for GM. For us [in social media strategy], to establish this level of understanding and enthusiasm at the very top of the organisation is a huge help towards [our] cause and the support we can expect to receive in future.

It also suggests that, finally, after a decade of missteps, GM’s leadership is ready to listen. During her difficult first year, Mary Barra has constantly repeated the mantra that “customers are our compass”. If that’s the case, then social media will be one of the ways customers will provide driving directions so that GM can navigate the road to recovery.

Disclosure: Rebecca Harris and Whitney Drake of General Motors Company were presenting at Oracle OpenWorld. Oracle paid most of my travel costs to attend OpenWorld and is a premier partner at the time of writing