Ford Reboots MyFord TouchBy Dale Buss September 13, 2011
When Ford was singled out for especially derogatory treatment in J.D. Powers annual initial-quality survey (IQS) over the summer, the harsh critique sent a jolt through the entire company. The downgrade from fifth to 23rd in the list was deep and fundamental: Power slashed Fords standing in a trusted gauge that has become highly influential with American consumers, and it did so mainly due to suddenly high customer dissatisfaction with an innovation that has been drawing new buyers to Ford by the thousands. Deployed in models such as Focus and Fiesta, Sync had powered Ford back onto the consideration lists of twenty-somethings for the first time in a generation -- and now this wonder of connectivity was being called a big red flag instead of the clinching reason to buy a new Ford.
So nowadays, there is no higher immediate priority at Ford than sorting out the fiasco with MyFord Touch, the Sync-interface overlay that has caused the problems. The company is working with dealers, salespeople, service technicians and others to make sure that Ford customers, recent and new, know how to use MyFord Touch without frustration. Theres a ton of people on it, said a highly placed Ford insider. Rectifying Sync is one of the most important things were doing right now. We were almost in first place [in the Power rankings] and now were below the average mark. Its got to get fixed. That will do more to hurt the momentum of Ford than a lot of things. Were all over it.
Ford executives acknowledge the importance of this challenge. MyFord Touch is the single No. 1 reason that people have bought the Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX in which the technology debuted, according to Michelle Moody, Fords cross-vehicle marketing manager. And she argued that Ford already has begun to turn the problem around. Were seeing improvement in our monthly consumer surveys, Moody said. Were actively out in the field; were talking with customers. Were constantly getting their feedback and assessing what we need to do next.
Not Losing Focus
Only a strong move upward again in Powers rankings could provide ultimate redemption to Ford. The company is dealing with several other factors in Fords disappointing showing. Some Ford customers reported compatibility problems between Sync and their particular smart phones, Moody said. Weve improved our compatibility testing so that we can move at the speed of the electronics industry, she said. In many cases, it hasnt been problems with Sync, but the customers have seen it that way. So, for instance, last spring Ford published troubleshooting videos aimed at the problem.
Perhaps more substantially, Power picked up multiple complaints stemming from Fords move to six-speed-and-higher gearboxes. It turns out customers were having a hard time adjusting to the automatic transmission in Fiesta and Focus, which is not a traditional hydraulic automatic and so works, feels and sounds differently, according to Richard Truett, a Ford spokesman. But while Ford is refining some software elements of the transmission and making a few other adjustments, he said, Ford was not singled out by J.D. Power in this regard. He said that, collectively, Ford and other automakers that have moved in this direction havent done a good job of explaining dual-clutch transmissions, and consumers bring a set of expectations with them that arent met. Again, Ford produced a troubleshooting video for dealers and owners.
But more than anything else, the company cant afford to allow car buyers to believe there are usability problems with MyFord Touch. So Ford has been scrambling to overhaul how MyFord Touch operates and to improve how purchasers are instructed to use it. Ford really pushed the envelope with Sync and MyFord Touch, said Mike Jackson, CEO of Auto Nation, which owns more Ford dealerships than any other retailer. Thats what happens when you innovate. You try to take a leadership position. And Ford has got a leadership position on this, but there are some teething problems with it, and theyre trying hard to address it. Theyre going about it in the right way.
Still, cleaning up the MyFord Touch fiasco would be an unusual exercise for any automotive company. Theres a lot of hardware and software in the modern automobile, but car makers are still more used to grappling with mechanically based problems and solutions. Instead of twisted wiring harnesses or creaky brakes, Fords difficulties with Sync are more akin to what Microsoft endures when it puts out a subpar version of Windows that requires a lot of software patches. The problem also is a different and challenging one for Ford in one other way: The company is almost entirely dependent to solve it on getting the buy-in of Ford dealers, a group of sometimes-tenuous loyalty with whom Ford has endured ambivalent relationships over the years.
In the auto industry with a product life cycle that can last 15 years, where it has to work at 30 degrees below zero and 110-plus degrees above integration with consumer electronics is tough, Jackson said. So is dealing with what the consumer is anticipating when they get into the car. Its very tough to do. It needs to be seamless and intuitive, and sometimes manufacturers get it just right. And other times its a bit more complicated than that, and the consumer is not going to be happy. So they have to find solutions.
Fords experience this year is reminiscent of what happened to BMW five years ago. After Power redesigned its Initial Quality Survey to add more questions about design and features, BMWs grade dropped because its iDrive interface system confused consumers, so they raked it. But Syncs travails have the potential to prove much more damaging to Ford, because while the iDrive wasnt a huge part of BMWs performance-based identity, Sync already has become integral to whats appealing about Ford vehicles these days.
Sync got the telematics jump on the rest of the industry by smashing the idea that onboard connectivity with the outside world had to be hard-wired into the vehicle. Co-developed with Microsoft and using Nuance Communications voice-recognition technology, Sync allows customers to bring digital media players and Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones into their vehicles and operate the devices via voice commands or with the steering wheels redundant audio controls. The genius of Sync, which was introduced first in 2007 on the 2008 Ford Focus, is that it is an agnostic software platform that works with the vast majority of mobile phones, enabling owners to move seamlessly from the helpful Sync hands-free system in their car back to the phone they already own, and vice versa.
Customer take rates for Sync have risen to two-thirds and three-quarters for some of the growing number of Ford and Lincoln models that include it, and more than anything else, the technology distinguishes Ford vehicles from the competition which essentially is still trying to catch up with it. Introduced last year as the second generation of Sync, MyFord Touch was intended to take Sync to the next level of driver assistance. It replaces many of the traditional vehicle buttons, knobs and gauges with clear, colorful LCD screens and intuitive 5-way buttons on the steering wheel. In MyFord Touch-equipped vehicles, Sync now controls the functions of phone communications, entertainment and audio, navigation and climate. The problem with MyFord Touch is that, for many Ford buyers, it gave them too much capability without the matching ability to use it. First, the influential Consumer Reports blamed the aggravating design of MyFord Touch for not giving the 2012 Ford Edge, where the technology first was featured, its coveted Recommended designation.
And in the Power survey, legions of respondents complained that MyFord Touch wasnt intuitive enough to operate and that some of the hands-free, voice-activated operations were difficult. Moody acknowledged that theres a lot more potential for customization with MyFord Touch than when Sync was unadorned. You can select how you want some features to operate, and theres a lot more control for the driver. If you get it organized in a way that meets your needs, theres a lot more useful information. And a lot more navigation options. With Sync, you navigate primarily with your voice. But [MyFord Touch] added layers of steering-wheel controls and touch controls that were really new in the category.
Throwing all that touching and technology at Millennial buyers who popularized Sync in Focus and Fiesta might have made the transition to MyFord Touch and MyLincoln Touch go more easily. But instead the first vehicles containing the new overlay system, Edge and MKX, decidedly are aimed at older and more affluent consumers, and generationally they simply werent as ready to take on the new technology as younger consumers might have been. Also, Moody asserted that some car buyers essentially have been talked into a disdain for digital controls by Consumer Reports. They have a bias, and not just with Ford vehicles, for hard controls for climate and radio, she explained. Many manufacturers have implemented more modern and contemporary controls, and Consumer Reports is more skeptical about them.
More Is Less
But some at Ford acknowledge the point. With the original Sync, basically all you had to do was press one button, and thats all you really should have to do, the Ford insider said. Its all about ease of use. MyFord Touch effectively is version 4 of the whole system, and weve made it too redundant, too difficult for the average consumer to use. Specifically, a number of consumers also complained about the placement of the hazard button in Edge right below the touch screen. Depending on how you do things, you might inadvertently hit that, Moody said. So were taking steps to get that [corrected].
Ford executives realized that not only were the hardware and software in MyFord Touch problematic: There was a poor handoff from the factory to the dealer and then to the consumer about how to actually operate the system. In the fourth quarter, we began hearing feedback from customers who had not only product concerns but also concerns about their dealership experience that the dealer wasnt providing as much support as they would like in terms of how to learn to use the new system, Moody said. Its a very new paradigm to have this much technology in a new vehicle. While certainly it has been a purchase driver and something consumers were very keen to get, it involved a learning experience that they werent used to from past purchases.
By last spring, Ford executives realized that the MyFord Touch problem might result in a lower Power ranking and attempted to get out in front of it by assuring their constituencies customers, shareholders, employees -- that they were dealing with a problem they had identified with the software. We dramatically increased dealership training beginning early this year, and we started a new support site for owners where they could get [instructional] videos sent to their phones and view them in the car, Moody said. But Ford had to take a lot of other corrective actions as well and wasnt able to turn the ship around in time to avoid the slam by Power.
Filling The Gap
What we learned is that people wanted real one-on-one experience with an expert, and we didnt have in place an infrastructure for dealers to do that, she said. So Ford began awarding dealers a technology-delivery allowance to cover the cost of establishing and paying for dealership personnel and customers to learn all they needed to about MyFord Touch. Were encouraging them and supporting them in a way that allows them to offer classes, or one-on-one sessions, or even going to peoples homes to give them the one-on-one attention, Moody said.
Ford isnt being too prescriptive in how it wants dealers to respond. Were looking for best practices to emerge as dealers take various approaches, she said. Were seeing lots of [approaches] develop and sharing the information with dealers. Ford also beefed up its call center and layered more instructional videos onto its owner web site. But rather than centralizing all of its assistance in telephone or online tech support, she explained, Ford understood that customers really appreciate that one-on-one experience. And once they get over the learning curve, its not hard to use and people really enjoy the system. The company also cut the price of Sync to $295 from $395 and has begun offering customers the option of MyFord Touch or a lower-priced hybrid of MyFord Touch and a more knob-intensive dashboard design.
Ford certainly hasnt come up with the magic formula quite yet to salve all its problems with MyFord Touch. CMO Jim Farley told an industry gathering in August that the franchised dealer system and how they deliver technology is just not enough to bring owners up to speed on the systems operations and features. But the Ford insider said that, While were educating the hell out of dealers and doing the best we can, there are challenges. Its really no different than going to Home Depot and asking the orange-jacketed guys how to do something with something they sell. Half the time, they dont know. Ultimately its not just about education but also about building a product thats easy to use.
Nevertheless, Moody said dealers, are really positive about meeting the new demands because they recognize that this technology is selling a lot of cars, that its the key purchase driver: 50 percent of customers who buy [MyFord Touch-equipped] vehicles say its critical to their purchase decision. Dealers recognize the value in investing and creating a great experience for the customer around this technology.