Volkswagen: Good Customer Service Requires PaperBy John W. Verity | Posted 2005-08-04 Print
Who cares about owner's manuals? The German automaker does. It sees that book in the glove compartment as a means of improving its relationships with customers.
The automotive business is filled with unending, almost epic struggles: taming global supply chains, choreographing factories full of robots, matching supply to fickle customer demand. Amid all of this drama, the lowly owner's manualthat more or less generic pamphlet languishing in the glove compartment, the one that pretty much nobody bothers with till they get a flat tireis probably the last item you'd expect to see as the object of management attention, much less an intensive dose of automation.
Yet, that is precisely how Volkswagen, No. 3 in worldwide car sales with more than half of its business outside Germany, treats its vehicles' owner's manuals. Volkswagen views these books differently than other automakers, putting equal emphasis on thoroughness, usefulness and stylish presentation. VW has not only strived to make its cars' manuals better-looking and more informative than most, it has soughtand apparently achievedcompetitive advantage from them. It has endowed the process of creating manuals with virtually the same level of systematic thinking that it devotes to the assembly of the Golfs, Jettas and Beetles and other vehicles that ship with those manuals in more than 150 countries.
"Volkswagen puts big emphasis on its manuals," says Jan Rüger, project lead in the service division at VW's Wolfsburg, Germany, headquarters. "They are the business card of the company. The look and feel and appearance are really better than the competition's, and we've found they are perceived very well in the marketplace."
In 1997, with promising new markets opening in Eastern Europe and Russia, and with competition heating up in every region around the world, Volkswagen began planning for a complete revamp of the process and technology it used to produce both owner's manuals and, on CD-ROM, highly detailed service manuals. The goals: Replace a creaky, paper-targeted production system with one that was better able to work across all media; extend the number of languages in which manuals were produced by a factor of four or more; streamline the entire production process while reducing errors and the need for rework; and handle a diverse and growing range of technical manuals, wiring diagrams, data sheets and other publications. The kicker: Achieve these gains without additional staff.
There was more. The company was also gearing up to launch the $60,000-plus Phaeton, its first true luxury sedan, and decided to provide each of those cars with a customized owner's manual that described exactly those features and options that each buyer selected. Similar customization would eventually be considered for other high-end VW brands, such as Audi and the Czech Skoda.
For now, Volkswagen has no plans to create custom manuals for mass-produced models like the Passat, Golf and Polo.
While its new editorial system could easily produce such manuals, the company would face a potentially huge logistics problem. Volkswagen produces cars at two dozen facilities around the world, at a rate of about 3,000 cars per day and with myriad combinations of engines, radios and other equipment. With all manuals printed in a single plant in Germany, nobody has yet figured out how to match manuals to cars on such a global scale.
Mary Laplante, senior editor of the Gilbane Report, a newsletter that focuses on content-management issues, says companies undertaking projects similar to Volkswagen's find "almost all benefits are cost savings. There may be some revenue uplift, but in most cases we see, the manufacturer is not measuring it."
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