Ford: Life threatening failures, lessons learned and lemonade

My family has been a Ford car family for over four decades, indeed, well beyond the time I can remember and some of my earliest memories are about our family's Ford vehicles.

Back in July 2015, I received a letter telling me that my vehicle has a significant defect that may cause "serious injury or death" in the event of the airbags being deployed.

I appreciated the letter, though it did concern me. Anyone who buys a product and is then told that it might seriously injure or kill them/other occupants of the vehicle is going to be concerned, especially when it's an expensive purchase like a car and it's so tightly integrated into daily life. I didn't, after all, just buy it to leave it out the front of my house so it could look good; it fulfils a critical purpose.

So, I called the number on the letter to get more information from Ford. And that's when the experience started to fall apart.

We began well with the customer services agent telling me about the recall and letting me know that there isn't a resolution for the issue yet but Ford would let me know when it was available. 

Then I asked the killer (no pun intended) question; "Is my car safe to drive?". On the recorded line, the advisor told me that the FAQs she was looking at said that it was safe to drive but that she wouldn't drive it if it was her car. That told me a lot about the situation.

Click here for video of the dangerous airbag inflator flying through a vehicle after deployment

I asked if there was a temporary vehicle/loaner that I could use in the meantime, but the answer was a solid no.

I then made what I thought was a valid point; if there was no resolution, Ford didn't know when the resolution would be forthcoming and they weren't telling me not to drive the car (even though the agent wouldn't drive it), what was the point of the communication? Did it provide any benefit to me, the customer? None that I could see, unless I was willing to just give up on my car until the resolution was forthcoming.

Now, I get it; if there are a lot of people in the recall program, then it's important that everyone is aware of the real issue and the consequences of the risk but this shouldn't be about reducing corporate risk, it should be about helping customers and providing them with the value they had paid for - safe transportation.

I asked to speak to a manager after about 40 minutes on the call, but there wasn't one available. I was promised a call back the following week.

When I spoke to the manager, I was told again that my car is safe to drive. Now, my understanding of the word 'safe' does not involve any aspect of "serious injury or death". Does yours? When I pointed this out, I was met with a cold silence and I could feel my Ford loyalty draining out of my body.

A Takata airbag victim after the minor road accident that triggered the deployment of the airbag. See end of entry for copyright information.

A Takata airbag victim after the minor road accident that triggered the deployment of the airbag. See end of entry for copyright information.

Over the course of the next month, I waited for more calls from agents that weren't forthcoming. I got the occasional voicemail but when I called back, no-one was available to speak to me. On and on this went until I took to social media to see if that would get someone at Ford thinking differently about it. I even offered my services to see whether they were short staffed or lacked the capabilities to communicate effectively and see this from a customer's point of view. No-one bit.

All of the responses from Ford on social media were very pleasant and very positive; of course they were, they were public. Anyone looking at the situation cold would think Ford is doing a great job in looking after me and coordinating resources to help. Phrases like "We greatly appreciate your @Ford loyalty! Please DM your VIN: I'll check things out on my end", "We hear your concern! Your DM was received, and we will reply shortly" and more recently and "I understand this has been an unnerving ordeal".

Then we moved to messages telling me that once parts are available, I'll be notified. Try as I might, I could not get Ford to see that this doesn't help me right now. I don't want to drive a car with, ironically, a safety feature that might kill me. That's crazy.

Weeks pass and the Customer Services Manager was going to call me, but didn't. This went on day after day. By Twitter, I offered an email address instead. Then I got a phone call and I was told that the recall notice was wrong. The CSM told me that although the issue applies to all of the cars that were identified, the issue will only occur when the car is in a high humidity and high temperature area. Being in California, she said, I should be fine and my car is safe to drive. That to me was a comfort. I asked her to put that in writing to me, because, after all, I had a piece of paper in my hand that told me I could be seriously injured or killed so I wanted an update to that with this critical information. Her email came through and it simply read, "As per our conversation, the recall notice you received for 15S21 indicates the parts are not available at this time. Ford Motor Company is diligently working with suppliers to get the parts. Upon availability you will be contacted to bring the vehicle in for repair.  If your airbag light comes on please get to the dealer as soon as possible." I got hold of her again and asked her to explain why our conversation and the new information she had provided hadn't made it into her email. On the recorded line, she point blank refused to email me the information she had told me in relation to my car being safe to drive. So, another avenue that turned into a no through road.

Faulty Takata airbag after deployment. See end of entry for copyright information.

I escalated to the CSM's manager who is the Customer Operations Manager and was told that I would get a call back the following week, which you may have guessed, didn't come when it was due. I turned again to social media and was given an alternative time and date, which also passed.

When I did speak to Len, I was told that it was a precautionary recall. What on earth is a precautionary recall? Either there's a risk and we shouldn't be driving these cars or they are fine. Len mentioned the high humidity area point again, but when asked, wouldn't put that in writing. Len didn't know when the replacement parts would be available but he did say it could take "weeks or months" for parts to be available. Imagine being without a car for months! Well, I don't need to imagine it because I'm already at two months. And counting.

I asked Len if Ford could buy my car back from me. He told me that it didn't qualify under California's Lemon Law. I look at my car now, parked outside my house, and instead of seeing a Ford, I can only see a lemon.

My own research shows that Ford has been aware of the issue for over a year, indeed, Ford knew about this back in 2014 for a smaller subset of their cars and in May 2015 for my car but didn't tell me about it for a further two months. Combined, the airbag manufacturer's exposure (Takata) covers over 34 million vehicles across 10 manufacturers. Although this means that Ford is not alone, it hasn't got the largest exposure and it doesn't give them the right to treat customers this way.

Being in professional services, I wondered what an appropriate response is to such a situation. What would I do if I were Ford and had their resources. And just to be clear, Ford's profit in 2014 was $6.3billion.

Here are a few examples to get us started;

  1. Engage a professional project or program manager to run the recall program
  2. Engage a change management or communications manager to define and run the internal and customer-facing communications plan
  3. Clearly identify the exact nature of the issue; when and under which circumstances does the issue take place? Are there other circumstances under which the issue does not take place? Fully scope out the problem and appropriate customer scenarios
  4. Investigate the required replacement parts and determine a timeline for creation, shipping and delivery
  5. Prepare the front line service teams so they are aware of how to replace the parts
  6. Clearly communicate the issue, the plan for resolution and if a full resolution is not known, communicate when you'll communicate next so customers have something to hang their hats on
  7. Give everyone in your organization the same information so everyone is saying the same thing and there isn't a disparity of information between people, teams and departments, the FAQs and so on
  8. Give all of the front line staff effective training in relation to how to deal with recall notices and, specifically, helping customers understand the issue and how Ford would help them out
  9. Put yourself in your customers' position and see how you'd feel if you were told your car could kill you; would you want to drive it before the replacement parts were fitted?
  10. Using the empathy you'd experienced in the prior step, build some options for the affected customer base. Help them get back on their (four wheeled) feet. Sure, it might cost you something, but the cost will be repaid in dividends through customer loyalty because you did the right thing rather than what you legally had to do. You showed empathy with your customers and then used that to provide workarounds
  11. Get everyone to understand what a commitment to a customer means to the customer, especially when there's a problem. You may only work 9-5 Monday to Friday, but this is impacting my life 24/7 and, thus far, for weeks and weeks on end
  12. Apologize along the way. Your supplier may have let you down in providing faulty parts, but the ultimate consumer of your product is having a shocking time as a result

It would appear that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) determined in or before June 2014 that a Safety Recall was necessary and Ford's response was to state in a letter from Steven. M. Kenner, Global Director of Automotive Safety Office, that "Ford has not approved a safety recall". The letter goes on to say that "service parts may not be available for many months and we may be unable to address customer concerns during that time". 

A sample of the Takata airbag shrapnel that hits the driver/passengers during airbag deployment. See end of entry for copyright information.

Almost three months later, Steve Kenner spoke at the Governer's Highway Safety Association meeting in Michigan. He's a perfect role model for corporate responsibility and championing customer safety, right?

Further research showed that there have been eight fatalities and more than 100 injuries linked to the Takata airbag issue, and in some cases the incidents were horrific, with metal shards penetrating a driver’s face and neck. The eighth Takata airbag fatality was in Los Angeles, which is where I live and where I was told on a recorded Ford line that I would be safe because it is not a high humidity area. This just proves that Ford is not taking this situation seriously and is putting customers' lives at risk in the process. Profit over customer safety is a strategy that will not lead to customer loyalty, customer retention and Ford's profitability in the long run.

During my subsequent conversation with Len, who you'll remember is the Customer Operations Manager, I asked if it would be possible to have my airbags disabled. I was told after Len checked with a colleague that I could do it myself but that Ford wouldn't do it for me. Len went on to say that his colleague had informed him that I had better odds of winning the lottery than worrying about the issue. Frankly, that is of little comfort to me and with my life at risk, these are not odds I'm willing to accept.

I asked Len whether any airbags had been replaced in the recall program. He answered that no, none of them had to his knowledge because the replacement parts were not available [more than a year on] and that there is currently no timescale for the delivery of said parts. My research has found that Takata's production capacity of just 450,000 units a month was recently doubled to 900,000 units a month and they've produced 3.8 million since the issue was first identified. This is just over 10% of the production required across the global recall program for all manufacturers. It looks like it's going to be a long, long time and, if we're honest, it's already passed a reasonable amount of time for replacement parts to have been made available and fitted to affected vehicles. Via a private message with Ford on Twitter following my exchange with Len, I was told "As Lenny said, they are expected to be available soon, and your dealer will reach out to schedule the repair". To be clear, Ford, Len didn't tell me that and so it's another case of misinformation, presumably in an attempt to placate me. When I went back to Twitter via private message pointing out that there have been no resolutions and no offers for interim solutions, I was told "For optimal resolution pls continue to work with Lenny & ur dealer; they're in the best position to assist". Words are easy to come by, apparently, but solutions, well, they are impossible to find.

I was told again by Len that Los Angeles was not considered a high risk area because it wasn't both hot and humid and so I told Len about the eighth death from a Takata airbag which took place in Los Angeles and also mentioned that we had had a surprisingly humid summer this year. Silence descended on the other end of the phone. 

The news of the lack of replacement parts means that I could well be in for more than a year without my car but, I'm reliably informed by Ford, that I should take solace in the fact that I don't have a Ford lemon. I had previously called my car Sally, for reasons I'm sure you can work out for yourself, however, I now call it Lemon.

To Len's credit (and actually, all representatives I've been in touch with at Ford), I don't believe he/they have been empowered to provide any further assistance to customers like me. That is part of the issue that Ford should own and rectify.

Len did offer a Z plan option, whereby I could buy a new Ford at just over the dealer price, thereby avoiding the retail markup. All of my friends think it's quite ironic that I went out and purchased a Ford and have maintained it regularly since purchase but when an issue arises, Ford won't look after me by providing a loaner (sure, it's expensive when multiplied by the number of impacted cars, but remember that 2014 profit of over six billion dollars?) and then instead of providing appropriate support gives me only one option other than driving a deathtrap; buy a new Ford. Hmm, let me think about that for a, oh, wait, I don't think so. (Update: I did call Santa Monica Ford to get more details just in case it was a great deal but after speaking with a sales person there, the promised return call never materialized. Perhaps they are out of lemons.)

I went from thinking that Ford cared about me to believing now that they don't care about me, nor the million customers who paid for a Ford car and are affected by this critical issue. It turns out that Ford doesn't care at all.

A few days ago I had to laugh when my local dealer sent me a reminder that my service is due. I wonder if they can bring the dealership to me as I'm certainly not taking my deathtrap of a car to them. And to top it off, I found out that my email address had been added to the Ford promotional database without my consent. If I enter the competition and win a new Ford, will that have reliable airbags?

So, Ford, here's my challenge to you. Sure, it's a complex situation but there are easy ways to help your customers out. And yes, it might cost you some of that profit, but you could - in theory - claim that back from your supplier or use your hundreds of millions of dollars in your "warranty reserve" that are specifically for this very purpose. Regardless, why not use this critical incident as a way of building customer loyalty rather than seeing it exclusively as a drain on your resources? After all, when life gives you lemons, aren't you supposed to make lemonade?

Rob Whitfield is the CEO and Founder of One Brit, No Bull, a coaching and corporate training company based in Los Angeles and operating worldwide. Rob can be contacted here or on (+1) 518 9NO BULL.

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As well as being an experienced management consultant and energetic public speaker, Rob Whitfield is a certified Trainer of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, a certified Master Coach and a certified Master Practitioner of Hypnotherapy and Time Line Therapy. No Bull.

Note: I'm editing this blog entry for updates as new information comes available. It was first published on September 25, 2015 and last updated October 11, 2015. All images and video content remain property of the publisher and/or owner. They are used here to illustrate the points made in the article with the intent of getting car manufacturers to be proactive about dealing with the issue rather than simply issuing (passive) recall notices and not providing alternative means of transport to customers, putting customers at risk of serious injury or death.