Customer Experience

Changing Gears

With a shift toward social, GM uses new channels to talk with (not at) customers.

by Alan Joch

August 2015

Before dawn one day last February, an intriguing question popped up on Twitter: “Can a Suburban handle a family of six with two dogs and a dad that makes Vines in a Batman mask? The minivan isn’t cutting it ;).”


General Motors

    Headquarters: Detroit, Michigan

    Industry: Automotive

    Employees: 212,000

    Revenue: US$155.9 billion in 2014

    Oracle products: Oracle Social Relationship Management Cloud Service, Siebel Customer Relationship Management

Rebecca Harris

Global Head of the Social Center of Expertise

Length of tenure: 25 years

Education: BA, Saginaw Valley State University; MS in administration, Central Michigan University; PhD in organization communications, Wayne State University

Personal mantra: “It is important to stay curious and calm so you can hit the curveball when it is served up. If you continue to ask questions, listen, and be aware of what’s going on around you, your team can build an integrated foundation that gives them the opportunity to be creative and innovative to serve customers faster and more effectively. To do all this, you need the right team. You have to hire the right people, people who are willing to think differently, who can react to the curveball calmly, and who have can-do work ethics.”


Some companies might have ignored this inscrutable tweet, posted by someone posing in a Batman costume and using the Twitter name BatDad (@BatDadBlake). But General Motors’ social marketing team saw a chance to strike gold. Well before normal business hours that same day, team members responded with a 140-character summary of how a Chevrolet Suburban SUV might fit BatDad’s needs. That response fired up an ongoing social media conversation that eventually convinced PR and marketing staffs within GM’s Chevrolet division to locate a loaner vehicle for the Caped Consumer. And for the next week, BatDad posted short videos of himself in full costume, discussing his impressions of the SUV.

General Motors

Launch the Slideshow

“He loved the vehicle and bought a new ‘Batmobile’ two weeks later,” says Rebecca Harris, global head of GM’s Social Center of Expertise (CoE).

For Chevrolet, this wasn’t just a one-off sale. By marshaling a team of social media experts, the company had captured the kind of publicity that digitally minded enterprises crave but can’t buy at any price—positive reviews that real people broadcast across social media. “The benefit for us was not only selling the vehicle,” Harris says, “but also getting 2 million views of BatDad’s test drive and his impressions of the sales experience.”

In the Fast Lane

The promise of wins like these—whether to drive sales, enhance customer service, or improve product designs—is spurring industry leaders to bet big on social media for customer experience (CX). Recent data makes it hard to do otherwise: 52 percent of internet-connected adults now use two or more social media sites, a sharp jump from 42 percent just two years ago, according to Pew Research Center. Overall, Pew reports, 71 percent of internet users visit Facebook. A daily social habit is evident across all age groups and platforms, with about half of Instagram users, 36 percent of Twitter followers, and 17 percent of Pinterest visitors checking in every day.

Enterprises see the writing on the virtual wall. Dutch airline KLM not only staffs a 150-person social team to help locate lost luggage and address service complaints, according to VentureBeat, but it also generates US$25 million in annual revenue through social bookings. Early in 2015, Comcast announced a tripling of its social care team to keep pace with the rapid growth of outbound social communications.

But all the social numbers aren’t positive: More than 2 million negative mentions are posted from the United States on social media each day, according to VentureBeat. So waiting on the social CX sidelines is just too risky. “Social media is still a bit of the Wild West, but everyone knows they’ve got to do it,” says David Mingle, executive director of GM’s Global Connected Customer Experience Program. “The COI—cost of ignoring—is too high.”

Spreading Expertise

Nevertheless, social CX is a multifaceted challenge, says Meg Bear, group vice president of Oracle Social Cloud. Social teams need the tools and expertise to engage target audiences wherever they congregate in the social universe. And social teams in large enterprises must extend their activities globally. But before any company dives deeply into social, it must show that it’s solving a real CX problem or creating real business value. “If not, you’re probably not going to have sustained budget, and you’re definitely not going to see an actual business impact,” Bear says.

GM’s executives have understood social’s risks and rewards for years, which is why they have deployed an experienced team to quickly engage BatDad and others who regularly communicate about the company or its products on social media. GM’s Social CoE, now managed by Harris and Mingle, is the core of the company’s social strategy. Created in 2013, the center coordinates activities across business units and social platforms, and encourages social media best practices among GM’s employees worldwide. The CoE staff is multidisciplinary, with some, like Harris, coming from public relations, others from marketing and customer care. “Thanks to the rules of the road we’ve developed, each group understands its role and how to work with other teams to improve customer experience,” Harris says. “The CoE makes our social strategy much more a part of the fabric of what we do every day.”

One of the CoE’s main goals is to build relationships with current and potential customers. “It’s not about Likes. It’s all about engagement,” Mingle says. “We must provide enough value so people keep coming back and re-engaging with our content, because we believe that engaged customers are more-loyal customers.”

The CoE, based at GM headquarters in Detroit, includes a command center with a bank of monitors that team members scan during product introductions and other GM promotional initiatives. They also move into position to address any trending social media messages that threaten to cast a shadow on the GM brand.

One such risk arose during baseball’s 2014 World Series, when the unpredictability of a live presentation quickly turned into a master class in how to get ahead of potentially damaging social publicity. To promote the newly redesigned Colorado pickup truck, a Chevrolet regional manager awarded one of the vehicles to the Series’ Most Valuable Player. Unfortunately, the Chevy spokesperson struggled under the pressure of live television and used the phrase “technology and stuff” to describe the truck’s new features.

The hashtags #TechnologyAndStuff and #ChevyGuy quickly began trending on Twitter, and much of the buzz was negative from GM’s point of view. “We decided to get sassy with it,” says Jamie Barbour, manager of Chevrolet’s digital and social advertising, who oversees the Chevrolet social team. Team members gathered in the command center shortly after midnight the very next day and didn’t get to sleep until after midnight the following day. The group decided that humor was the best response and soon tweeted, “Truck yeah the 2015 #ChevyColorado has awesome #TechnologyAndStuff!”

Social media is still a bit of the Wild West, but everyone knows they’ve got to do it. The COI—cost of ignoring—is too
high.”–David Mingle, Executive Director of GM’s Global Connected Customer Experience Program

The strategy hit a chord with Twitter followers—the first tweet received 178,000 views, 1,530 retweets, and 1,486 favorites. Chevrolet executives estimate that all the social conversations resulting from what could have been perceived as a gaffe earned the company more than US$5 million worth of free media exposure. In addition, the Chevrolet staff worked with marketing and advertising departments to include #TechnologyAndStuff in promotions planned for the new Colorado truck line in the following days.

“The CoE enabled us to reach across our silos,” Harris says, “so within 24 hours we had a well-coordinated effort.”

It Takes a Social Village

If timely and highly targeted communications are the fuel of social engagement, the tight integration of people and technology is the engine of long-term success in social CX. GM’s social teams work closely with people in marketing, advertising, sales, and product development to coordinate social and more-traditional activities. Major sporting events and vehicle introductions, in particular, turn up the heat on those efforts.

“Social is an area that encourages two-way conversations instead of a platform for the brand to just push out information that we want consumers to know,” Barbour says. For example, GM organizes online chats for members of its social communities to speak with a product manager or an engineer to address questions about vehicles. “These community members ask challenging questions and tell us how we can make our vehicles even better,” Barbour says. “We take those insights seriously and incorporate many of them into new model designs.”

In a similar vein, GM is bringing its extensive dealer network under its social umbrella. “When customers come in contact with a dealer, they usually think they’re talking to the brand,” Mingle points out. “So the more we can integrate our efforts with our dealers, the more seamless everything looks and the better the experience is for customers.”

Integrated Tools

The underlying technology of GM’s social programs is similarly well integrated across social channels, business units, and related enterprise applications. That means having sophisticated tools for creating and distributing content, as well as for monitoring public social conversations and gathering and analyzing data. But GM executives also insist that the company’s social applications closely mesh with its core IT infrastructure.

“We have hundreds of employees worldwide that are on social, and they all must be able to access the same knowledgebases and related enterprise resources,” Mingle says. “Otherwise, we risk creating poor customer experiences if, for example, a call center agent comes up with a different answer than someone communicating via social.”

Facts for Thought
Number of employees from PR, sales, marketing, and customer service who represent GM or its individual brands on various social media sites each day
Number of customers who engage with GM’s service representatives via social media each month

With those criteria in mind, the CoE staff piloted four social marketing platforms in its evaluation two years ago before deciding on Oracle Social Relationship Management Cloud Service. “Our team relied heavily on feedback from the people who were going to actually use any system we finally chose,” Harris says. Since its implementation, the Oracle platform has let GM consolidate a hodgepodge of social tools from various vendors into a single, centralized environment. The cloud service helps the social team create timely content and improve response time by monitoring various social channels and automatically routing relevant messages to the proper person—according to brand and department.

“Our platform helps companies communicate on multiple social networks and get value out of that participation,” says Oracle’s Meg Bear. “First and foremost, that means helping users understand what their customers care about.” Oracle’s social listening tools derive meaning from the great mass of public discussion by taking in that unstructured data and identifying common themes, Bear explains. Many customers may just be interested in a topic related to their brand, and some percentage of discussion participants may be detractors of that brand. “You need to understand how to neutralize that threat by addressing any confusion or correcting any misinformation,” she says.

Oracle Social Relationship Management Cloud Service is also closely integrated with Oracle’s Siebel Customer Relationship Management (Siebel CRM), which GM uses to keep a record of ongoing interactions with each customer or sales lead. This integration enables, for example, a social customer-care agent for the Chevrolet brand to open a formal case file using Siebel CRM and use it to access any related call center communications or information in GM knowledgebases that are pertinent to the topic. In addition to helping customer advisers provide high levels of service, the Oracle solutions help GM comply with auto industry regulations, such as those spelled out in the US government’s Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability, and Documentation (TREAD) Act.

In addition, Oracle Social Relationship Management Cloud Service allows for sophisticated data collection and analysis to understand customer sentiment. The social team can monitor trends over time—by week, month, or quarter, for example—or in real time, as with audience reactions during a vehicle launch. “By constantly seeing what’s trending, we can adjust our social messages accordingly,” Harris says.

In the future, Harris plans to expand the use of the platform’s predictive modeling capabilities by linking its analyses to information in an enterprise data warehouse.

GM CEO Mary Barra and the entire executive team “are very committed to customer experience, and they have given us a lot of latitude in this space to do good work,” Harris says. “Having a social marketing platform that we’ve deployed on a global basis means we can provide all of our people with the right resources to be even more successful taking care of customers and providing world-class service.”

Action Items
  • The ROI of Social CX: Encouraging Signs Emerge
  • Modern Best Practice for the Social Business
  • Photography by Shutterstock