Thursday, November 1, 2012

Are Those Reliability Surveys Reliable?

David P. Carlisle

Consumer Reports (CR) blasted Ford’s reliability recently. They said Ford continues to fall … even though they were “Detroit’s poster child for reliability” a few years ago. CR certainly does not have a problem with sample sizes – tens of thousands of zealous subscribers fill out those reliability survey forms with a lot of care and attention. J.D. Power pays you a dollar for their version – but, they do not employ zealots for their dollar-an-hour pay grade work.

Let’s assume that CR’s sample size was fine, and that their sample population was OK, too. Does this mean that Ford’s aren’t “reliable?Maybe not.

The problem might lie with the survey instrument and the binary summation of the survey’s “gestalt.” Let me make a point.

Ford is not the only one pushing the limits of infotainment systems in their products. In the 1960s, seatbelts were revolutionary and, yes, there were early and late adopters. Same with air bags. It’s all about technology that takes your vehicle to a new level of safety and security. Chrysler used air bags to differentiate itself and separate itself from the pack. It worked. Same goes for infotainment.

Same, but very different. I went to Google and typed in “ford my touch.” The top hit was for SYNC, the next was for a GPS software update for SYNC, and the third was for a lemon law firm that headlined “Does Your Sync Stink?” Hmm.

The difference comes from the sheer complexity of the infotainment systems, and the change (and complexity) of human interaction with these systems. Seat belt? Easy, snap it on until it clicks. No buttons to push or voice commands to master. Airbags? Hey, they’re invisible! No problem.

Windshield is fogging up fast and you want to clear it quickly? Well …… you have to depress a button on your steering wheel to get the robot lady to ask what you want. You have to prompt the system with the correct initial command. You have to remember what to say. You have to remember how to say it. You must pray to your god(s) and hope you got the sequence right before you lose all visibility. Actually, it is worse than this. In the old days you bought a car from a car dealer and the salesman pointed to a knob labeled “defroster.” If you’ve bought more than one car in your life, you ask the salesman to skip this step because you want to drive, and smell, your brand new car. Hey, the button says “defrost” on it. Dealer salesmen got lazy, asked you for “all 5s” on the survey (or filled it out for you) and life was good.

Not any more. You might need hours of education, coaching, and counseling (“ECC”). If you are a woman, you might need even more of this – many cars are “tone deaf” to women (I find this strange since women constitute a significant customer segment … like more than 50%). Who gives you this ECC? The dealer salesman who has been conditioned for about a half century to take their money and run. So, what ECC you do get is icky.

Well, this is a problem. It will certainly get worse when the vehicle enters the used car market, where there are no ECC resources to be found. Who cares much about that – it is 5.5 years away.

You get a survey in the mail on IQS, or vehicle reliability, on your brand new car. You might hate the infotainment system … especially if you are a woman and it can’t understand you. So, you nail them by black balling everything in your cockpit … it’s all connected and it is frustrating to use. The car is a brilliant execution of machine and technology, but you can’t figure out how to turn on the defroster when the windshield fogs up.

CR processes all this survey data and might not segregate the cockpit data. Their gestalt is that the model, the brand, the company is unreliable. They say you continue to fall … even though you were “Detroit’s poster child for reliability” a few years ago.

The simple chart to the right was posted on the Internet by a lemon law legal firm. It represents another way of looking at reliability. Of the top 20 cars listed, Ford only has one model. Hmm. Well this certainly doesn’t foot to CR. (The chart represents vehicle complaints on file with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Each year, thousands of customers call to register complaints about their vehicles. The complaint index is based on a ratio of the number of complaints for each vehicle to the sales of that vehicle. The numbers represent relative index scores, not the number of complaints received. The complaint index score considers sales volume and years on the road.)

Bottom line: Ford doesn’t have a problem with “reliability.” It has a problem with customer education, coaching, and counseling – ECC – of its infotainment technology. CR and J.D. Power do have a problem with reliability. Customers think reliability means that things don’t work – it sputters and stops and needs thousands of dollars of repair before its time. It certainly does not mean that they can’t figure out how turn on the defroster or turn off the radio. And, if Ford is infected with this “reliability” plague virus, everybody else is not very far behind.

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