After years of travel and computing remotely while on the road I have found that there are two magical experiences for the business traveler. One of those experiences is the hotline support I get from my preferred airline – United. The other is the live remote assistance I periodically receive from my company’s in-house IT department – you know, those moments when your colleague in IT takes over your computer and fixes everything you’ve managed to bollix up.
I am taking a bit of a risk in describing both of these propositions – as they are quite different. But the implications for the automotive industry are significant and significantly underappreciated, misunderstood, and, in the end, will profoundly impact the future of the connected car.
General Motors introduced the concept of the connected car in 1996 with OnStar, a system capable of connecting drivers with emergency services in the event of a crash. The service introduced the concepts of connectivity and access to live assistance to the driving public.
In the process of doing so, GM learned about the high cost of delivering these value propositions and wisely chose to limit their application in the car. The reality, for GM or any car company, was and is that providing live assistance is as or more expensive than building in wireless connectivity.
This had two impacts on the marketing and promotion of OnStar. First of all, most advertising made clear that OnStar was only for use in emergency circumstances and second of all, owners of OnStar-equipped cars would not be encouraged to use OnStar for other purposes.
To be sure, other applications – such as concierge services – emerged over the years, but these were only available at a considerable cost. Meanwhile, even limiting OnStar’s applications did not prevent unanticipated and asymmetrical demand on GM’s in-house call center which forced GM to line up outsourced partners to manage demand – giving rise to a broader connected car live assistance industry pulling in companies such as Convergys and ATX, which is now owned by SiriusXM.
Other companies have since joined the business including Intrado, Allstate, MyAssist (a travel industry-centric company now owned by Berkshire Hathaway), Agero, Bosch, and others. All of these companies recognized the power of connecting to consumers at a moment of need – particularly when those consumers are driving a moving vehicle.
I mentioned earlier the magical experience of remote assistance, whether delivered by United Airlines or the IT department. The importance of this direct engagement is hard to overstate.
Consider United Airlines. United came in last in J.D. Powers’ customer satisfaction survey in 2019. This finding only validates what fellow flyers have been telling me about their experiences on American and Delta vis-à-vis United. The overwhelming message to me, as a United flyer, in 2019 was: “United sucks!”
These people weren’t talking about lost dogs, broken or lost guitars, or passengers dragged off United’s airplanes. They were talking about the overall experience.
I know precisely what they were talking about in 2019. I flew 230,000 miles on United in 2019 as a Global Services top tier customer. When it comes to a pleasing flying experience there isn’t much that United can do for me – unless they want to pick me up at my house and drive me directly onto the tarmack at the airport – something which United very nearly did this year for a neighbor of mine, another Global Services flyer.
What United can do is provide live assistance to troubleshoot my travel troubles. This is where delight enters the equation for me at United. My loyalty to United is directly derived not only from my proximity to a United hub in Northern Virginia, but also to its dedicated customer service representatives.
Sad to say, all the Polaris and (regular) United clubs, gate agents, flight attendants, pilots, various ground staff, and even the affable and outgoing CEO Oscar Munoz are worthless to me when it comes to defining my level of satisfaction with the airline. My experience is defined by my frequent interactions, over the phone, with United support.
It is unlikely that American or Delta flyers using United would have the same experience I have when I fly the airline – because of my access to this dedicated network of call center personnel. But the real secret behind this United Airlines secret sauce is that the majority of these operators are working remotely from their homes.
Ironically enough, United used to operate a large call center in Dearborn, Michigan, across the street from Ford Motor Company’s headquarters. But now, for the most part, the service is supported remotely.
This is nothing new. McDonald’s experimented with remote drive-thru order takers back in 2005. More recently, in 2019, McDonald’s acquired Apprente, a startup developing voice recognition technology for the restaurant industry, with the goal of automating order taking.
As call centers for connected cars evolved, GM continued to offer subscription-based concierge services while more or less discouraging customers from calling OnStar. The OnStar brand virtually disappeared from GM’s advertising and when the company launched its Maven service missed the chance to redefine OnStar’s market position into a broader transportation-centric customer engagement platform.
GM is not alone in this auto industry struggle with call centers. Ford experimented with a MyAssist smartphone-based concierge service, ultimately terminating it as an expensive distraction that was not core to Ford’s business of selling cars.
For a brief period of time, though, Ford had a MyAssist-enabled window into real-time driver assistance requirements focused mainly around different destinations. Google and Microsoft could have explained to senior Ford executives what the real long-term value of this information might represent – but Ford was not interested. (That’s right, your car is a browser!)
As 2020 dawns the automotive industry has yet failed to grasp the value of direct customer engagement and live call center assistance – whether in-house or remotely supported. Tesla Motors has so far failed to introduce an automatic crash notification capability equivalent to OnStar, but Tesla does offer 24/7 roadside assistance.
The customer accounts of Tesla roadside assistance reflect the same kind of magical experience I have had repeatedly with United Airlines. Just as United’s call center operators have kept me a dedicated United flyer, Tesla’s roadside assistance has created rabid devotion to the Tesla brand one customer at a time – whether it be helping drivers extend the range of their EVs in real-time by adjusting vehicle settings or getting a flat fixed.
We haven’t seen the same level of customer engagement from competing car companies leveraging their call center solutions. There is massive room for improvement here and I expect to see advancements in 2020 – especially as more car companies integrate digital assistants.
But a real game changer – for Tesla or any car maker – will be the integration of IT department-style support derived from remote vehicle access. The technology exists today to remotely access and correct in-vehicle systems and assist drivers – much like the IT department remotely takes control of your notebook computer.
Companies like VNC Automotive and Microsoft (with Skype), possess this capability. I expect more than one car company to step up their connected car customer support offerings in 2020 to create a truly delightful experience for drivers and alter our relationship with cars.
This is fertile ground for innovation and differentiation. United’s call center operators are transforming my experience with the brand and with the company nearly every week. Imagine what a properly deployed call center/live assistance solution could do for legacy auto makers. It’s not too late.