Tesla, the Tornado … and CX, a Tale From the Chargeless Road

CX, particularly for a brand such as Tesla, needs to catch up with the user experience of operating these art-and-science vehicles.

CX lesson for Chet Dalzell
Photo: Chet Dalzell Gets a CX Lesson in Tesla Power Infrastructure, 2018. | Credit: Chet Dalzell

This is a CX tale. Summer goings-on took me to the highway this past week; and with it, concerns from a friend who is planning to drive her Tesla from Denver to Chicago over the coming weekend.

Tesla is an electronic vehicle, and its cars’ “fuel stations” are charging stations, spaced along the highways of America. Without a charge in a car’s battery, the vehicle cannot be operated. Tesla supercharging stations enable a battery to be fully powered in a matter of many minutes, rather than several hours via a conventional plug.

I love all things sustainable, And with it, the beautiful, sleek and very tech-savvy Tesla Model S she owns, with a desktop-size flat screen navigator, spacious sky roof and plentiful horsepower, among many other attributes, satisfies that love. She also owns a Ford 350 pick-up and a Toyota Prius hybrid. We happened to be driving in her pickup truck from western Nebraska (where we had attended a high school reunion in Ogallala) back to her home in metro Denver.

We’re racing along Interstate 76 at an undisclosed speed, when suddenly we see evidence of what had transpired merely hours before. We slow down.

As we approached Brush, Colo. — about 90 miles northeast of Denver — the uncharacteristic late July landscape of green suddenly turned brown, as if every scrub of grass had just been torn from the earth. The sage reduced to lonely stalks. Then, we see the power line poles snapped in two in the field alongside the highway. Even an exit sign is bent over and mangled. We were driving inside the aftermath of a tornado. (Thankfully, this storm injured no one.)

Then we arrived at the Brush exit ramp. A growing army of power vehicles were parked at the Shell station at the foot of the ramp, a sort of power restoration staging area. The gas station itself was damaged heavily — its roof ripped off the main building or caved in (or both), and the gas pumps stripped of their casing. It was surreal. Police tape and pylons restricted access to the one reason we took this very exit: to see if the Tesla supercharge station adjacent to the Shell station was online. Clearly, it was not.

Thankfully, we were in a pickup truck — and not the Tesla, which would have been in need of an immediate charge. My friend was planning her drive two days later to Chicago — and Brush, Colo., is the “first” supercharging station outside of Denver — a full two hours from the next charging station in Ogallala, across Colorado’s northeast border. She told me, with the downhill elevation from Denver to Ogallala, and all non-essentials (air conditioning, et al) turned off — she should be able to make it all of the way to Ogallala, without a charging stop in Brush. For her sake, I hope she’s right.

When ‘Real-Time’ Is Not Real-Time

With Tesla ownership comes a “community” of support for both the brand and electric automotive, in general. This was an introduction to me. All I own for transport is a Citibike key and a New York City MetroCard. Tesla has a branded app, and the e-car community has a non-branded app and site called PlugShare. The Tesla app is supposed to have real-time information on the online status of all stations — and if plugs are available within each station. PlugShare seeks to provide much the same.

At the time of our tornado discovery and aftermath, both apps still showed current power availability in Brush. But a look at the comments section from helpful Tesla and other electric car owners regarding Brush told the real, other story. There’s no power, and no indication of when it may be restored. Tesla owners also commented that they had reported the outage to Tesla by telephone, as early as 90 minutes after the storm. We attempted to call Tesla (some 20 hours after the storm) to inquire about expected restoration, but our call was put on a call-in-queue cycle, and after 15 minutes – with no hold notice on expected wait time — we gave up and hung up.

It wasn’t until the next day when we checked did we find that the Tesla in-car navigation, with charging station status information, had caught up to the Brush station’s still-offline status. Unfortunately, no further information on when the station may be restored was made available there.

In This Case: Why CX Needs to Be State-of-the-Art

Customer experience — particularly for a status brand, such as Tesla — needs to catch up to the user experience of operating these art-and-science vehicles. Especially for a network infrastructure so vital to electronic vehicle operation across distances. In this case, CX is also important to the entire user category. Plugshare helped augment these shortcomings, but Tesla’s CX might be a lot more urgent.

If Citibike can tell me via its app in real-time that docking stations have available bicycles or not, or which docking stations are offline, then why shouldn’t Tesla’s app at least be able to do the same regarding its network of charging stations, in real time? Even if a widespread or localized power outage might interfere with a real-time signal of status, why couldn’t Tesla at least post an in-app notice on its awareness of the incident, or respond to posted comments elsewhere? It might even offer a link to the local utility’s power restoration status, so Tesla drivers can plan their journeys safely and accordingly.

In this outage, it was Tesla owners themselves giving the status updates — via user-facilitated, third-party in-app content.

PlugShare, a third-party app with many more users, seemed to have more user comments about the Brush station status, with myriad reports from Tesla owners regarding the situation. It’s not unusual for non-branded community apps in any given category to be filled with such user information, typically reliable. In this case, brands and their apps should make a point to monitor these go-to third-party communities to react to comments and to keep their own customers informed and engaged there.

There may be extenuating circumstances in play here. Perhaps Tesla does all of the right things — but seeks to verify and validate before posting such information, I’m not sure. But gee, what a beautiful car, with beautiful performance. As an extension of the brand, the customer service experience needs to be equally on-point. For Tesla owners, it’s also a matter of not finding themselves powerless in Brush, Colo.

The LTV of My GTI Is Tied to My NPS

Buying a new car is a big deal for most of us. Once we get the notion in our heads, we actually start watching car commercials, notice what other people are driving, think about what we hate in our current vehicle that can be “fixed” in our new one, read online reviews, seek out the advice of others, etc. Bottom line is, it’s probably the second biggest purchase you’ll make (next to a house), so you’re a little more thoughtful about the process.

Source: Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

Buying a new car is a big deal for most of us. Once we get the notion in our heads, we actually start watching car commercials, notice what other people are driving, think about what we hate in our current vehicle that can be “fixed” in our new one, read online reviews, seek out the advice of others, etc., etc. Bottom line is, it’s probably the second biggest purchase you’ll make in a while (next to a house), so you’re a little more thoughtful about the process.

And while the fun of shopping for something new is always fabulous, the real proof-of-concept comes when you take that baby in for its first service check-up. Now that they’ve made the sale, how well does the brand treat you to ensure you’ll keep buying from them again and again? As a marketer, this is where the rubber hits the road … forget all the carefully crafted content, emails with offers, and direct mail packages about recalls or tune-up reminders. It’s the visit itself that makes or breaks your relationship with the brand.

Two years ago, when the last of my kids was headed to college, he needed his own set of wheels. But instead of buying him something used by a stranger, I decided to give him my 10-year old Acura and get Mama a little somethin’ new to spin around town. I wanted something sporty and fun to drive and considered a MINI, but after a test drive, found it a little too low to the ground for all the potholes in my area.

After getting a ride home from a friend one night, I fell in love with her Volkswagen GTI. It was good looking, roomy on the inside and gas efficient. So I headed to the VW dealer with my list of demands.

Tony probably couldn’t believe his luck when I rolled into his showroom on that fateful Saturday: I wanted a white VW GTI, 6-speed stick on the floor, black leather interior, sunroof. He made a quick call and my dream car was driven up to the door outside his office, 2 miles on the speedometer.

If I said I peeled rubber out of that parking lot, would that sound too braggartly? I love driving a stick shift, and Tony clung to the hand rail as I zoomed around a few tight corners and headed out to the open road.

SOLD! I negotiated a few extras (including a 3-year service package) and was out the door in two hours with my new toy.

At 5,000 miles I sauntered back in for a tune-up. Everything was good and I was back to terrorizing the roads.

I got a recall notice about some part around 9,000 miles. Booked an appointment, but received a call that the part wasn’t in yet, and they’d call me back. Never heard from them again.

At 15,000 miles, I was due for another tune-up, so I booked an appointment and watched as my “check engine” light came on two days before my scheduled day.

The problem really started when I got a call around noon telling me my car was being washed and would be ready to be picked up after 2 p.m. At 3 p.m., they called to say another warning light had come on, and they were checking it out. At 4 p.m., they called to say they couldn’t figure out what was wrong and needed to keep the car overnight. That’s always a big hassle, but I quickly made other arrangements. I called in the morning to check-in. Sorry, the car still wasn’t ready. I called at noon … sorry, still not quite ready. They called me at  2 p.m. to tell me it was ready, but I was busy, so my husband volunteered to pick it up.

The next morning I climb back into my baby, but in the middle of a 30-mile drive away from the dealership in a blinding rainstorm, an emergency message flashes at me on my dash telling me my tires were underinflated. Wha–?!?

I start to sweat. I call the service guy on the phone, tell him my issue and he, of course, says, “Why don’t you just stop by?” Um … because it’s INCONVENIENT.

I finally get back to the dealership by 4 p.m. and after a 30-minute wait, I’m told the tires were okay after all … somebody in the service department hadn’t reset the computer in my car after they were rotated. Grrr …

24 hours later I get an email from “Sandy,” the woman at the dealership in charge of customer care. She advised me that I would be getting an email from VW Corporate, and wanted to make I would be rating my experience as “extraordinary.” Since you and I both know that the dealership probably has a target Net Promoter Score (NPS) and my service rating would not be “10” I decided to email her back. I carefully recounted my experience, step-by-painful-step, and told her my experience would rate far less than “extraordinary.” I had barely hit “Send” when my phone rang.

Sandy was extremely apologetic and dismayed over my experience. Not only did she thank me for taking the time to respond, but she claims she ran it “upstairs” and was authorized to give me $500 off on my next service appointment. That’s all well and good, but since I have a service plan, that doesn’t help me at all … “No problem!” she exclaimed. Use the $500 towards new tires, or floor mats, or whatever my little heart desired.

Is this “gaming” the system? Is her interference between my experience and the corporate research team changing the way this dealership is ranked and scored on customer service? Probably.

Will I give them an “extraordinary” rating? I’m still not sure. I’m worried that if they found out I gave them 8 out of 10, they might take my $500 away from me. For now, I’m just idling …