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Stellantis is killing it in customer satisfaction: How it shocked everyone



  • Sep 3, 2021
Everyone thought it was a fluke.

But one Detroit Three automaker proved critics wrong.
It's the company that old-timers still call Chrysler.


These days, the former Fiat Chrysler Automobiles — known as Stellantis since a merger earlier this year — is making headlines for its surprise domination on quality reviews.

Competitors have been left in the dust in the prestigious 2021 J.D. Power Initial Quality Study released Tuesday. No other company, foreign or domestic, had such an impressive showing of customer satisfaction with their 2021 vehicles within the first 90 days of ownership than the company based in Auburn Hills.
Stellantis snagged the top spots with Ram Trucks and Dodge.

Plus, Jeep tied with Hyundai to rank seventh best, topping everything built by General Motors and Ford Motor Co. The automakers sandwiched between Stellantis products are all based in Japan and South Korea.

This is the story of how Stellantis delivered back-to-back wins in customer experience under the direction of a veteran executive from metro Detroit and why customers are buying Ram trucks, Dodge muscle cars and Jeeps.
"If you start with strong design, and follow that up with discipline on the plant floor, you get the kind of results we're seeing today," metro Detroit native Mark Champine, head of North America customer experience at Stellantis, said in a news release.

The numbers


An estimated 110,000 people who acquired new vehicles between November 2020 and February 2021 shared their customer experiences in randomly selected, statistically representative surveys. An average of 500 customers for each model provided feedback, David Sargent, vice president of automotive quality at J.D. Power, told the Free Press.

Stellantis vehicles have gone from "well below average" two decades ago to "below average" a decade ago to becoming one of the best within the past five years, Sargent said. "They've done a particularly good job of preventing problems from occurring. The key is design quality."

The study is highly valued by automakers because it helps them identify problems and needed improvement. At many companies, executive bonuses are tied to J.D. Power results. This year, survey questions focused on climate control, driving assistance, driving experience, exterior, features/controls/displays, infotainment, interior, powertrain and seats.
Winning quality awards today requires laying the foundation years ago, Sargent said. "Most of the problems people report are not because vehicles aren't built properly. The majority of problems are because vehicles aren't designed properly or with the customer in mind. Often, the factories get the rough end of this. There is a problem with the navigation system, for instance. The assembly plants are responsible just for installing it into the vehicle. It's not their fault the navigation system doesn't work."

Technology glitches are among the biggest complaints with new consumers. Yet all problems must be fixed as quickly as possible or reputations get stained.
"It's sort of a ferocious competition going on," Sargent said. "No one can afford to be left behind."
In ranking problems per 100 vehicles, Ram came out with the fewest. Dodge followed, then Lexus and Mitsubishi (tying for third), Nissan, Kia, Genesis, Hyundai and Jeep (tying for seventh), Chevrolet and MINI (tying for eighth). Next came Buick, Toyota and Ford — at the industry average. Everyone else fell below average. (All-electric automaker Tesla is not officially ranked because it refuses to give J.D. Power permission to survey its owners in more than a dozen states.)

Stellantis, meanwhile, is eager to have its customers selected to share experiences.
"I just couldn't be more proud and optimistic about the future," said Thad Szott, who pointed to the latest data as a reason his family is investing more than $10 million in a new Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ram dealership in Lyon Township, Mich., in mid-October.

Ram ranked 21st just two years ago. It then vaulted to No. 3 in 2020 and continued that momentum to the top in the 2021 study. Dodge in 2019 jumped to the top 10 for the first time before its first-place tie with Kia last year.
"I remember when all those brands used to be at the bottom of that survey. It's a big deal," said Karl Brauer, executive analyst at iseecars.com, a car listing and data site.
"When you have that kind of momentum in a relatively short period of time, like five years, it's a real statement about where the brand's been and where it's going. Dodge being No. 1 last year was a real feather in the cap but it wasn't going to change a lot of doubting Thomases."
While the company stunned industry observers overall, Chrysler is still a work in progress as the brand finished last in the survey.

"A single issue can really hold you back," Stellantis spokesman Eric Mayne told the Free Press on Wednesday. "That's what happened with Chrysler. Survey respondents complained about a latch. That issue has since been resolved with a field action."
Yet the overall company pivot is notable and analysts look to Champine, who has been in the top quality role since 2018 and assumed his new title this year after years working in electrified powertrain programs and transmission and driveline quality.

Gone are glitches and defects common to many automakers during launch execution, as illustrated by the relatively new Gladiator pickup, which won its segment in just the second year of the truck's existence.
"Jeep has created a passion for the vehicles over the years, but now that passion is not being watered down by post-ownership experiences. They've had challenges in terms of quality and now those are being fixed," Brauer said. "Ram has never had serious quality problems and it has become more innovative."
Internal memo

The Free Press obtained an internal email sent Tuesday by Mark Stewart, chief operating officer for Stellantis North America, that included the following:
"Ram is the first truck-only brand ever to capture the top spot in the important benchmark. Ram's first-place finish was fueled by positive feedback from owners of new 2500/3500 trucks, which were named top large heavy-duty pickups, and feedback from owners of new Ram 1500 trucks, which ranked second among large light-duty pickups.
"These ground-breaking results complement Dodge brand's second-place finish in the study with Charger earning a place among the best performers in the large-car segment.
"And against this backdrop, Jeep broke into the Top 10 in the study, its best-ever finish, jumping up three spots from the previous year. Gladiator led the best midsize truck category and Grand Cherokee ... was among the best SUVs in its segment.

"This level of consistency and execution are truly outstanding and indicative of a team sharply focused ...
"While Mark Champine and his Customer Experience team have earned our congratulations for these achievements, this is very much a team win to which we have all contributed, particularly our colleagues in Design, Product Development, Powertrain, Supplier Quality and Manufacturing, to highlight just a few."

The man behind the scenes

Champine, 54, who now lives in Oakland Township, Mich., has played a key role in the turnaround with a humble style that reflects discipline but is not disciplinarian, colleagues say.
He told the Free Press that the company made a commitment to improve quality, and "that commitment doesn't happen overnight. This is the culmination of a journey we've been on for a long time."
The strategy began with previous top executives Sergio Marchionne and Mike Manley and now is led by Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares, Champine said.

While the priority has always been clear, the scope of his role has definitely expanded to go beyond products to focus on people, Champine said. "We are looking at every single touch point. Are you treated the way you expect to be treated? Are you approached immediately? Do we value the time of our customers? If we make a commitment, do we follow through? Our goal is to minimize issues that need you to come in for repair. This shows we're doing the right things on quality."
He describes himself in three words: Effort. Rigor. Relationships. "So the discipline is built into effort and rigor."
'Our aspirations changed'

"I've been fortunate to be with the company a long time. I've tried to extract the best of our leaders' best qualities. Communication and transparency, items like that, are important in relationships," Champine said.
"From 2016 to 2019, we were in a position where we were in the center of the pack. When you're in the center of the pack on announcements like (J.D. Power), there's very little recognition or awareness of your position. You're not newsworthy good or bad. The history of where we came from — the center of the pack to the last couple of years, is a reflection of the commitment that we wanted to be among the best. For a long time, our journey was to be in the top quartile and we achieved that last year," he said.
"Quite frankly, when we arrived in the top quartile, our aspirations changed. We no longer talked about being among the best. We wanted to be the best. This year's effort ... kind of speaks to our goal. Our goal is to be the best."

Trained as a mechanical engineer at Kettering University and having earned an MBA at the University of Detroit Mercy, he has seen many changes since his start with the company in 1996.
"I was born in Grosse Pointe, grew up in St. Clair Shores. I am an east-sider and I've been around this industry. My father worked for the company for 37 years. Despite our evolution as a company and our history, whether it be Daimler, Fiat and now Stellantis, the heart of our manufacturing and our product development is still here in the Detroit area."

He highlighted the big investments in the city for new products, saying, "There's a strong connection between the city of Detroit and our company that kind of speaks for itself. We're just extremely proud of our progress. ... It only happens when you're committed and you've got a coordinated team effort."

The competition

During the same time period, Chevrolet tumbled to ninth in 2021 from second in 2020. GM, overall, saw its products perform below expectations with below average reviews for GMC and Cadillac.
"General Motors will continue to evaluate the results provided by J.D. Power, compare the information with our own data and use it to help identify opportunities to improve our future products," spokesman Chris Bonelli told the Free Press. "We are focused on delivering vehicle quality at launch and beyond and remain committed to achieving our goal of a defect-free experience for every customer that purchases a GM product."
Industywide, consumers report nonworking smartphone technology and ongoing connectivity problems with wireless features bring endless frustration.

While Ford ranked lower than its Detroit counterparts at No. 14, the company noted that its quality performance continues to improve as it launches new technologies and new products. Sargent said the J.D. Power surveys reflecting all-new product design often dovetails with lower customer quality reviews.
"Our goal is to deliver best-in-class quality and we will continue working relentlessly toward that standard," spokesman Said Deep told the Free Press. "We're committed to delivering the best quality for our customers by responding to their feedback quickly with solutions that will enhance their experiences with our vehicles."
Elena Ford, the great-great granddaughter of company founder Henry Ford, took on the role of chief customer experience officer at Ford Motor Co. in 2018. Customer experience has been named a key priority by CEO Jim Farley since he took the helm on Oct. 1, 2020, and he continues to cite the importance in every earnings call.
The importance of customer experience for all automakers cannot be overstated.

A Detroit Piston weighs in


Isaiah Stewart of Detroit can afford to buy pretty much any vehicle he wants as a professional athlete who plays basketball for the Detroit Pistons. He drives a 2021 Ram 1500 pickup year-round and a 2021 Dodge Charger in the summer.
"I went with the Charger just because I play for the Detroit Pistons," he told the Free Press on Tuesday. "It's a Detroit-brand car. American-made. American muscle. I've always wanted a muscle car. I feel like that was perfect for me, fitting who I am."
The 20-year-old Rochester, New York, native said, "A pickup truck, for me, is like a grown man's classic. I've always wanted a pickup truck."

Jeep solved 'all my problems'

Liz and Scott Urquhart of Highland, Mich., purchased a 2021 Jeep Wrangler 4xe plug-in hybrid for daughter Shelby, a high school senior who has wanted a Jeep since age 6.
"We got a Jeep that she loved but the problem was, taking the top off, it's hard to do and hard to store. They came out with this hybrid and you press the button and the top automatically goes off. It is fantastic. It solved all my problems," said Liz Urquhart, an insurance company owner.

"This hybrid, you just literally plug it in overnight in a regular outlet. We thought you'd need something fancy. The Jeep goes on the charge and then when the charge goes out, it uses gas. My daughter pays attention to how much gas she uses," Urquhart said.

After being a Ford family for years, with her father and her father-in-law having worked for the Dearborn automaker, they switched to BMW for awhile and now Jeep. An older daughter is looking at the Jeep Compass. Urquhart is considering a Grand Cherokee.

Married, with trucks


Up in Clarkston, Mich., Mara and Brian Fitzgerald have two 2021 Ram 1500 pickups.
"My favorite thing to sit in is my La-Z-Boy. My second favorite thing to sit in is my Ram," said Brian Fitzgerald, an educator. "The ride is smooth. It's big, comfy. It handles really well. The tech is really easy. It feels like they've perfected what they've done with the engine."
He said he took 30 minutes to make the purchase at the dealership, and now it's like having an extra sofa. "I'll intentionally leave my house to sit in my car to make a call to my parents. I'll say, 'honey, going to call my mom and dad. I'll sit in the truck.' "

Having driven Ford, Honda and Chevrolet, Fitzgerald doesn't see changing back from what has now landed in the top quality spot, according to J.D. Power.

 
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