Executive Q&A: Ford Pushes the Innovation Accelerator

Customer Experience
Customer Experience
The automaker is leveraging technology to deliver outstanding experiences to its customers. Here, Chief Technical Officer Paul Mascarenas says the first step is to listen to customers.

Innovation is essential for organizations to remain relevant and appeal to their customers. Companies that strive to be innovative tend to be more successful because they offer their customers and prospects products and services that are ahead of the time. Manufacturers need to think ahead and anticipate future customers' needs, even before customers themselves recognize these needs.

Ford is one company that has always strived to be innovative, an ambition that was conceived with the company's founder Henry Ford. Paul Mascarenas, the automaker's Chief Technical Officer, explains how innovation has enabled Ford to offer its customers the latest technological advances for their vehicles without having to go to a dealership to upgrade. "Our goal is to add value through the smart application of technology and it starts with listening to the customer," he says.

In this interview with 1to1 Magazine, Mascarenas talks about the ways that Ford listens to customers to determine their needs and get new product ideas, how the organization puts the power of choice in the hands of customers, and how the company remains innovative through investments in research.

1to1 Magazine: Ford is synonymous with the car industry. However, every organization-even pioneers like Ford-needs to change according to the times. What makes Ford an innovative company?

Paul Mascarenas: Ford is an automotive company, but we're also atechnology company, and have put practices in place to foster innovation and technological advances. Integral to this shift towards technology was the launch of Ford SYNC in 2007 and our partnership with Microsoft. We saw the consumer trends in technology, including the proliferation of smartphones and connected devices, and recognized our customers' need to stay connected safely and smartly while behind the wheel. The introduction of SYNC has since enabled us to leverage the idea of the car as a platform, which allows us to update automotive technology at the same pace as consumer electronics companies.

1to1: How does Ford use technology to be more customer focused?

PM: Ford listens and responds to customer feedback on a regular basis to provide continuous improvement of our products and technology. A key example of how Ford is changing is that we can now offer software upgrades to customers that they can install themselves, eliminating the need to visit a dealership. Cars are big, infrequent purchases, and often the technology that the customer brings into the car, such as a mobile phone, evolves [while the car's capabilities remains the same], making it difficult for us to plan for future compatibility with the car.The SYNC connectivity system allows us to deliver on the concept of the "upgradable car" so we can simply upgrade the system with a software update, no different than your smartphone or laptop.

In March of last year, we mailed USB flash drives to existing customers with SYNC-equipped vehicles-at no additional cost-so drivers could install the software themselves, or they could choose to go to the dealer if this was more convenient for them. The update was the result of customer feedback about the SYNC system and it significantly improved the driving experience, incorporating new, more visually impactful, and clear graphics, faster performance and responsiveness, improved voice command recognition, and an overall simpler interface.We also added new features including better phone compatibility, support for tablet computers, and improved navigation maps.

The ability to directly receive customer feedback-whether through market research, our customer assistance call center or in online chat forums-and act on it in a timely matter with software updates will change vehicle ownership expectations going forward.

1to1: Today's customers want life to be as easy as possible and look for products that simplify their lives. Ford is advertising the keyless car. How else is the organization striving to make customers' lives simpler?

PM: Ford is dedicated to introducing technology and products that make drivers' lives simpler. For instance, our new 2013 Escape has a great feature called the "hands-free lift gate," a gesture-based control that automatically opens the lift gate with a simple swipe of your foot underneath the rear bumper when your hands are full. We now look at the experiences that technology can enable, versus just the technology itself. Our goal is to add value through the smart application of technology and it starts with listening to the customer.

1to1: Organizations gather a huge amount of customer data, which they use to make improvements to both their products and service. How does Ford leverage customer data to become more customer centric and embark on innovations that would go down well with its client base?

PM: Ford is a very data-driven company, and we use data in a variety of ways.For instance,we use internal and external social media channels to help us gather and evaluate potential new feature ideas and technologies for our cars. We also use transactional information to help us better serve our dealers so they order and stock the vehicles that customers are most interested in. We use Google Trends, which measures the popularity of search terms, to help inform our own internal sales forecasts. Along with other internal data we have, we use that to build a better forecast. It's one of the inputs for our sales forecast. In the past, it would just be what we sold last week. Now it's what we sold last week plus the popularity of the search terms.... I think we're just scratching the surface. There's a lot more I think we'll be doing in the future.

1to1: Ford is working with other automakers to test vehicle-to-vehicle communication technology. How would this impact the customer experience?

PM: Vehicle-to-vehicle communication would greatly impact the customers' experience by delivering the next level of active safety. This technology would enable cars to talk to each other, allowing the car to see beyond the visual limitations of the driver. The result could be early warning and preventative measures that would greatly reduce accidents. We are testing this technology here in the U.S. as well as in Europe and see tremendous potential for it.

1to1: Ford has been partnering with technology companies and has even opened up a Silicon Valley Lab. How have these partnerships helped Ford become a more innovative company?

PM: Silicon Valley is the heart of the technology industry, and in opening a Lab there we have been able to work with startups, technology influencers, and universities to help continue fostering a culture of innovation within Ford. But, the most important part is that these partnerships have helped bring new ideas, concepts, and thought processes to us because we know that the best ideas often come from someone else. The team in Palo Alto is focused on scouting for new technologies, implementing open innovation programs to engage developers, and seeking solutions to ensure the future of mobility.

1to1: From an executive standpoint, what is the biggest challenge to being an innovative company?

PM: The biggest challenge is maintaining the pace of innovation. At Ford, we have a culture of innovation that was established by Henry Ford. Our challenge is to keep that spirit alive amongst our employees by providing them motivation and tools that foster innovative thinking. It also means acknowledging that innovation doesn't just come from inside the company, and therefore requires setting up the appropriate ways to engage 'outsiders' to innovate on the behalf of our customers.