Saturday, January 03, 2009

An Open Letter to Bob Nardelli, CEO of Chrysler LLC

Dear Mr. Nardelli:

The Associated Press is reporting that on Friday, your company received a $4 billion bridge loan from the U.S. Treasury Dept.

This loan was hardly a surprise, given all the press that has been devoted to the worsening situation of the three big domestic car manufacturers. And I know that your company was especially thrilled about the coming bailout because earlier this week, your company spent money on web ads, like the one I saw in my Gmail account earlier this week (click image for full size):

The ad linked to a page at Chrysler's website, which contained a personal message from you thanking us, the American taxpayers, for investing in your company, and supposedly by extension, the U.S. in general.

Despite this expression of gratitude on behalf of your company, I cannot, based on my experiences as a Dodge owner, believe that this money is being well spent. Moreover, I have decided to actively oppose any efforts for your organization to secure additional funding at taxpayers expense.

Allow me to share my story with you...

My Introduction to Dodge

I am a 39 year-old software engineer, currenly separated, with my estranged spouse in possession of a currently non-operational 2003 Dodge Caravan. She is currently unemployed, having lost her job in the middle of December.

Back in early 2005, my wife and I were expecting our second child. At the time, we had a 2000 Saturn L Series 4-door sedan and a 1991 Chevrolet Cavalier, which was on its last legs. She wanted a minivan badly, but we were in no financial situation to buy a new vehicle because we had already taken on a large amount of debt for an adoption two and a half years prior.

Around that time she noticed that someone down the street was selling a Caravan for a little over $7,000. Because the minivan had been a leased vehicle, it had racked up a lot of miles, close to 70,000, if I recall correctly.

I was suspicious that that the seller might be engaging in a curbstoning scam, so I purchased a CARFAX report to do some due diligence. The history of the vehicle matched the seller's account, and it had not incurred any adverse events. We also had a mechanic take a look at, who said the one of the tires questionable, so the seller had them replaced. After that, we bit the bullet but hedged our bet by purchasing an extended warranty from the credit union where we got the loan.

A History of Issues

Over the past four years, the car has racked up around 30,000 miles. Over that time the following adverse events have happened:

  • The blower for the heating and air conditioning failed at an expense of $400.

  • The transmission failed, requiring a rebuild. Fortunately it was covered by the warranty, but the dealership took over two weeks to get it fixed.

  • The hood release lever broke, twice, over the last two years. The plastic latch failed in the same location each time.

  • A resistor for the blower failed, at an another expense of $400.

  • Repair of a broken wire in the ignition.

  • A power steering pump failed, costing about $400 to fix.

Over the past year, we also got new brakes and tires for the vehicle, which was to be expected.

However, the cumulative experience itemized above pales in comparison to the experiences I have been through in the last week and a half.

The Big Breakdown

On Christmas Eve, I took the minivan to have lunch with my mother and my kids. After finishing lunch, about 3 in the afternoon, I attempted to start the minivan, only to find that the dashboard lights would come on and nothing else. A jumpstart did no good.

I had the vehicle towed to a mechanic, who looked at it on the 26th. They said that there was a short in the ignition circuit, but they couldn't be certain where the problem was because their wiring schematics didn't have enough detail. They also noted that the fuse for the circuit was rated for a larger current than what it should have been. They recommended that I take it to the nearest Dodge dealership, which was about 4 miles away.

Taking it to a Dealership: Customer Relationship Mismanagement

On the 28th, I visited the dealership's website to find contact information for service. The dealership is owned by a company which has three such dealerships in the metro area. All three share a common entry webpage, but you select which dealership's website will be displayed from a row of icons on the page. I clicked on the link for the dealership in question, and then used a link on the site's navigation bar to complete a web form that would file a service request.

The next day, Monday, I got a call from one of the other two dealerships, which informed me that they had received my service request, and judging from the location information on the form, I probably wanted to get in touch with one of the other dealerships.

I acknowledged that he was correct, but rather than offering to forward my request to the other dealership or even transfer the call, he instead asked me to take down a number to call and which menu option to select when I got there. Rather than taking ownership of the problem, he simply offloaded it back on me. This is not good customer relationship management, in my opinion.

So I got in touch with the dealer and asked if they could make arrangements to have the vehicle towed from the mechanic to their dealership, assuming they had a towing service they preferred to work with. Instead he off-rolled the issue back to me, giving the phone number of a towing service so that I could make arrangements.

To the best of my knowledge, the vehicle was on the dealership's premises by early afternoon of the 29th. By late next morning, I got a call from the dealership's service representative, indicating that they had taken a look at the van, and they weren't sure what was causing the problem because they couldn't communicate with the Powertrain Control Module (PCM). They said they thought that component was fried and needed replacing. Moreover, it was going to take at least a week to get the part, and they estimated that this would cost $810.57.

This was communicated to me very matter-of-factly, with no apologies with regards to the expense, the delay in getting the part, or the uncertainty over what was needed to fix the problem. What's worse, the service representative tried to apply pressure on me to make an immediate decision because they needed to get the order for the part in by 3 pm.

Recalling that we had earlier problems about a year ago with the broken wire in the ignition, and that repair work was done at another Dodge dealer within the past year, I brought up the possibility that area they needed to work on may still be under warranty.

I gave him the name and the number of the other Dodge dealership. He expressed an unwillingness to talk to them, so I said I call them and try to put them in touch with him. He then told me that if I was going to try to invoke the warranty, it was a better idea for me to have the car towed to the other dealership, which didn't make much sense since it would be the third time I would be towing the vehicle, and it would have been a 31.6-mile haul.

Talking to Another Dealership: a Pattern Emerges

I called the other dealership to see if they could dig up the service record of what had been done and whether there was any warranty coverage relevant to my present situation. The representative was uncooperative, and only on my repeated insistence did he retrieve the records.

He said that provided that no more than a certain number of miles had been accumulated on the car since the work was done, the warranty should still be in effect. I asked him what the record showed for work performed. Only a vague reference to a fix of a wire, he said.

I explained to him the current situation with the ignition and asked if that might be any chance that it would pertain to the work they did. He said he doubted it, because if it were, it would have surely failed by now.

I asked him whether that meant that the dealership's warranties weren't really for the full duration that they said on paper. He hemmed and hawed, but I eventually got him to call the other dealership. About an hour later, I got a voice mail from the dealership which had the minivan, saying that the work they did had nothing to do with the problem I was currently having.

I called my mom, who had worked a decade and a half with the service departments of many dealerships and knew how things worked. She said to try to make them cover some of the costs if the diagnosis proved to be wrong, and if all else failed, escalate the case with the car manufacturer itself because dealerships were very conscientious about remaining in good standing with the brands they represent. She also said to make sure they ran a check on any service bulletins issued for my vehicle to find out whether this was a known issue. I did some searching on the net myself and found that there are plenty of others who have run into this issue.

Biting the Bullet

I called the dealer who had the minivan and told them that I was dissatisfied with the situation. The delay in getting a part and the expense of replacing it required a substantial commitment in time, money, and hardship on my end. Yet, they were up to this point unwilling to make any commitments on their end. I enumerated all the things that had needed repair over the past few years and that the failure of a computer component with so many of these models over a period of five or six years reflected badly on the workmanship of their products.

I asked him why I should do business with them at all. He kept telling me that there was nothing else they could do but say that this "was a start" toward getting the van fixed. Realizing that we needed to do something about the van, I gave him the authorization to order the part and get the work done, but in addition I was going to file a complaint with Chrysler regarding the way that both his dealership and the other had treated me.

What Chrysler Thinks of Its Customers

Later that afternoon, I visited your website to find a number to call so that I could lodge a complaint. Using the number listed on the U.S. contact information page, I placed a call. After listening to the options provided by the auto attendant, none of which applied to my situation, I hit zero and was put on hold.

The line was answered by someone with an accent which sounded Indian. I told the agent that I wanted to file a complaint about my interactions with a Dodge dealership. I gave him a brief synopsis of the problem, to which he could provide only the following solutions:

  • A list of other "Five Star" Dodge dealerships in the metro area.

  • A mailing address to which I could file a report for possible reimbursement from Chrysler, should this component be the subject of a manufacturer recall.

At the end of my conversation, I verified that the agent's call center was indeed located in India.

In your thank-you note, you mention how the U.S. is home to 74 % of its employees. What you don't mention is that some of the 26 % who aren't are tasked with giving customers unsatisfactory service.

Where I Stand

I am extremely dissatisfied with the quality of Chrysler and Dodge as a brand for two main reasons:

  • Several critical components of the Dodge Caravan have shown to have poor durability, at much expense to us.

  • Your dealerships have been at times indifferent and downright unhelpful in dealing with our problems.

Regarding each of these points:

In your thank you note, you say that Chrysler is committed to "Providing cars and trucks you want to buy, enjoy driving, and will want to buy again." Implicit in that statement is that in the past, your company fell short of this goal, and that getting a taxpayer financed lifeline will help you mend your ways.

Personally, I don't think that simply saying, "OK, we'll promise to do better from now on is enough." I think it's also important for Chrysler as a company to own up to its past history of making inferior products and lessen the burden of the true costs of ownership of its products.

Think about it this way... there are a lot of people out there who, like myself, have been burned by purchasing your products, and will never consider Chrysler in the future automobile purchases. They paid once at the dealership, twice at the service department, and now a third time by backing loans to you. By reaching out to correct past mistakes, you are dealing with the well your company poisoned in the past.

Now onto the issue of customer/dealer relations. The dealership that currently is working on my car boasts on its website a "Five Star Dealership" status. On that page, I read:
Five Star dealerships are required to follow a strict set of training, facility and process requirements - all designed to put you, the customer, first. In fact, Chrysler LLC only grants this status to dealerships that consistently meet Five Star score standards on Customer Surveys. And these standards are rigorously monitored and maintained. Chrysler LLC personnel validate dealership compliance annually. Maintaining Five Star status is a continual process that requires self-evaluation and ongoing reviews by Chrysler LLC. If a dealership is not compliant, the de-certification process begins and status is revoked.

At no point in my interaction with the either Dodge dealership have I felt that they take the the credo of "putting the customer first" seriously. And the fact that you entrusted an offshore call center to handle customer complaints reinforces the idea that Chrysler really doesn't care.

Unlike your employees, who will keep their jobs because of tax dollars, my estranged spouse lost her job with no taxpayer financed bailout. Also given that most of your stock is held by a wealthy private equity firm looking to avoid losses, it's really hard for me to be sympathetic to your plight.

Why this Letter Appears in a Blog

The rise of the net has changed the way businesses relate to the public. At one time, a slick ad campaign and a resourceful public relations firm were all that a large corporation needed to help protect its brand. Word of mouth could hurt, but an individual's complaints were limited to just friends and neighbors. A company could stand to ignore its disgruntled customers.

Now there are websites that aggregate customer complaints so that one can get a glimpse of the frequency of product defects. Bloggers, like me, can detail their experiences in posts. Those posts get picked up by search engines, which tend to be fonder of blogs than corporate press releases. The net gives a platform for others to file a rebuttal against the public relations narratives.

Given that I have all but exhausted my options for dealing with Chrysler, I have decided to make my case with this open letter, so that others may know my story. To those who have encountered similar problems, they will know that they are not alone. And I will encourage the readers of this post to write their legislators to let them know that they don't want one more dime spent bailing out your company.


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