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By David Welch
Nov. 24 — Amid the worst safety-defect crisis in its history, General Motors Co. executives and staff have taken to social media to find customer complaints and identify quality issues long before they become a crisis.
GM, which faces lawsuits for dragging its feet before recalling a faulty ignition switch that's connected to at least 35 deaths, is now mining every source of information to head off another crisis, President Dan Ammann told Bloomberg News.
The company has social media managers, customer service staff and even executives at the highest rank trying to find early warning signs from its vehicle owners, he said.
Ammann and Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra even call some customers to solicit their feedback.
That's a change for Detroit-based GM, whose engineers tried to avoid issuing a safety recall for the ignition switch even as evidence mounted over several years that its small cars had a problem, court and company documents show.
GM has encouraged employees to alert top management if they see possible recalls.
GM received numerous complaints about the switch during the past decade and didn't begin the recall, which has since expanded to 2.59 million cars, until February. Meanwhile, customers kept driving cars with an ignition that could slip out of the “run” position while in use.
“We have to identify issues before they become a problem,” Ammann said at Bloomberg's headquarters in New York. “We will get past this, but we can't forget the most important thing we've learned.”
The company is using more than just official complaints registered by consumers with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which handles defect investigations and recalls, to search for trouble
The biggest U.S. automaker has people monitoring social media 24 hours a day, looking at sites like Twitter and automotive chat rooms to find grievances. They also monitor complaints from dealers, Ammann said. GM will then investigate to try to locate a potential defect before it becomes widespread.
That same openness was at play in the company's quick response after people on social media started poking fun at a regional manager's awkward presentation of a pickup to World Series Most Valuable Player Madison Bumgarner, Ammann said.
The marketing team embraced the attention with tweets about the #ChevyGuy saying the truck has “technology and stuff,” turning a potential negative into a positive.
To encourage employees to identify problems, Barra set up the Speak Up For Safety program. It paid off in September when GM recalled 10,000 Cadillac CTS-V and STS-V models after an intern noticed an overheating fuel pump in his family's car. Barra had lunch with the intern to recognize his initiative.
“We have to take advantage of every data source that we have,” Ammann said.
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