A Surprise So Delightful

This story still makes me smile

Trinity Bay, Newfoundland, Exterior View of the Telegraph House in 1857-1858 by Robert Charles Dudley, 1865 (public domain - Wikipedia)

“One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats.” — Iris Murdoch, 1978


Surprise and delight. I’ve seen that used as a strategy in customer experience design.

The problem with that is if “surprise and delight” becomes your mantra, then it’s expected. And it's no longer a surprise, is it? At that point it would be more of a surprise if you offered some kind of boring, humdrum experience.

In the early portion of my tenure at Ford, we were trying all kinds of things. New platforms, new messaging, new vehicles. And people were generally surprised at what they saw (if they were paying attention). But it wasn’t just the new marketing or communications tools that were our crucible; we also experimented with executives too.

And sometimes, it’s not a matter of getting an executive to start a blog, join Instagram, make a Tik Tok video, or be a guest on a podcast. Sometimes you can win people over by zigging while everyone else is zagging. By taking a very personal approach.

In the most recent issue of my newsletter, I shared an instance of Alan Mulally inviting my sons up to his office on Take Your Child to Work Day in 2013. But this wasn’t the first instance of seeing Alan’s legendary personal touch.

Allow me to take you back to 2009, to an interaction with Marc Girolimetti, whom I knew from my days in Boston before I left for Michigan. I'll let Marc pick up the story from here, as he told it on his AdMelee blog in August 2009:

This story, to some, will seem more like fallacy than fact, but I assure you that what you are about to read is true and not something that we, as professionals, consumers, leaders, etc can only dream about. What I’m sharing with you is not just about social media. It’s not just about Twitter. They are just tools used by leaders to effectively communicate to those who otherwise would have never been given the chance to be heard or appreciated. These tools offer one the ability to add the human touch to experiences that have been, up to this point, utilitarian, boring, fake or worse frustrating. From my end, dealing with the service side of global corporations, as a customer, felt like I was just another character in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, locked in a prison yearning for better days to shine upon me. This story is about leadership and the desire to go the distance in order to prove that your brand is worthy of my attention.

First we need to fire up the Flux Capacitor and take this back a few months. I noticed Scott Monty, Ford Motor Company’s Director of Social Media, posting tweet after tweet about Ford’s new attitude, their commitment to quality, innovative design direction and so on and so on. I paid attention, but I wasn’t a “Ford Man” so it didn’t matter that much. Then the automotive apocalypse hits. The Big 3 CEO’s are sent to the Principal’s office AKA Congress and everyone in America decides they will blame them for our economic woes, especially since they so obnoxiously flew in those fancy corporate jets to DC. If I may, do you see the irony in them flying commercial given how many bailouts the airline industry has received over the years? I, for one, am glad they never chose that option. All of a sudden Ford says that they don’t need any money and Scott Monty has his ears and eyes on every corner of the social media landscape while sharing The Ford Story [site now retired - Ed.] (To be honest I still prefer West Side Story). I bite and start paying closer attention. I begin to notice their messaging and pick up on feedback from Ford lovers exulting that their products were created to compete with my beloved Volkswagen and Audi, two brands that have been part of my car owning life for the past fifteen years. I also noticed that the pricing is relatively the same between Ford and zee Germans Now that got my attention. German cars are supposed to be more expensive. They are supposed to be of a higher quality. You are supposed to put your family second and driving your German car first in life’s priority list. How the heck can Ford be as good and charge as much as Audi in some cases?

I needed to get to the bottom of this so I sent a tweet to Scott; “Can you please send me your email addy. I have a few questions.” which he obliged. Here is a condensed version of how that email exchange went.  I predicated my questions with the fact that I haven’t been inside of a Ford in years, with the exception of a new Shelby Cobra which I thought was an over the top thrill ride yet too extreme for comparison, and for the life of me cannot believe they are as good as my Audi.

ME: C’mon Scott. Let’s be real. How can Ford get away with saying this?

SCOTT: Before Ford hired me I drove an Audi. It was terrible. My wife hated it, but I loved it sores and all. Now that I’ve been driving a Ford for a while I have to say it’s a fantastic car. I’m a true believer now.

ME: Fortunately I only had your typical minor car issues with my Audi’s so I can’t relate. Are you a company man now spitting the PR rhetoric?

SCOTT: Believe me they are great products. Alan (Mulally) has made it his mission to make Ford products the best in the world.

ME: OK, so if Ford’s are so great and can justify the prices what are they doing to reach out to current owners of Audi’s or VW’s in order to at least get our attention and consider switching?

SCOTT: Actually nothing that I know of.

I’ll be honest that answer irked me. My feeling is that if you believe in a product so much and claim it to be as good as others then put your money where your mouth is and come up with ways, short of jumping in front of my car holding a sign “Can we talk for a minute”, to grab my attention. I consider myself a conscious consumer who is always in search of the best bang for his dollar. I’ll listen. Prove it to me.

Months passed and I was within a year of my lease ending, which is when I start getting the itch to move into something new. Naturally when you lease it’s easier to roll out of a lease early when you go back to the same company you leased from. After fifteen years I just figured Audi, especially given that their sales were down during the first half of this year, would want to shed some inventory and also sell off a used (sorry pre-owned) vehicle to help their bottom line. Same for VW, given it’s the same company and their sales were worse. I tried and I tried to work with them, but the VW dealership I went to turned out to assume I was an idiot even though the salesperson said to me, after being unable to answer too many questions about the Tiguan, “It’s obvious you know more about this car then me” and given that comment tried to pull one over on me with the negotiation. Audi, much to their credit, couldn’t keep the Q5 on the lot so I tried to see what I could get for an A4, but the numbers just weren’t working out and though I have been a loyal customer of Prime Audi for years I never got the impression that they truly cared about my business, because they assumed there was no way I was going anywhere else. I needed a third option and I remember saying to Scott that I would test drive the Ford Edge one day and so a shade over a month ago I did. I liked it so much that I brought MrsGiro back a few days later, but to a different dealership, because the one I went to the first time blew me off. I was irked, but I can’t totally blame the brand for a dealership that doesn’t want my business. The feedback from MrsGiro was “I really like this. If we can get a good deal I think we should get it.” I honestly never expected to hear that from her.

That is where the story took a detour that will go down as one of my favorite life moments. I sent Scott Monty a tweet:

“I’m test driving an Edge for the second time this week. Have Alan Mulally call to tell me I’m not crazy.” 

If you know me you know that was me just joking around like “ha ha I know you and Alan are hanging at a BBQ this weekend so why don’t you guys ring me up when you have a few in you?”

Something funny happened. Scott sent me a direct message on Twitter asking for my phone number that following Saturday morning. “Hmm” I said. “That can’t be. He’s not going to have Alan call me”. I honestly figured Scott was going to call to give me some insight into the Edge.

When my phone rang with a Michigan number during my daughter’s birthday party I let it go to voicemail. I would call Scott back after. When I finally checked the voicemail it was not from Scott Monty, but rather Alan Mulally. He was singing the praises of the Edge and what I thought was looking like a cute PR stunt ended up being a sincere message with the request to call him back.

Let’s pause for a second and process this. 

The CEO of Ford Motor Company, a global mega-brand run by a man who is probably more busy than all of my friends combined, is taking time out of his Saturday to call me? Seriously? No, seriously? So I called back.

Alan picked up and we talked. I shared my experiences. Alan listened. He listened to me explain my loyalty to VW/Audi. He listened about my need to save money while I bootstrap my entire life as we get ActsLike up and running. He listened while I ranted about two dealerships blowing me off. This went on for over twenty minutes.

Instead of saying “Thanks for your time. I hope you buy the Edge.” Alan put some serious wheels in motion. Alan first said that he really wanted me to get into a Ford, because he believed in it so much and if it helped offered me friends and family pricing (Amen!). Anyone would be ecstatic at that point, but he went on to tell me that we needed to get this dealership issue resolved so he was going to contact their General Sales Manager, Randy Ortiz, to have him follow up with me. An hour later Randy calls. An hour after that Vincenza “Enza” Sleva, the New England Regional Manager, called and then while on the phone with Enza I received two separate calls from the owner of Sentry Ford, Fraser Lemley and his son Chris who is the President.

I was overwhelmed to be honest, but everyone made themselves available to answer my questions and to provide me an education on Ford and how they do business. Each and every one of them was available over the course of the month it took me to get everything squared away to the point where I was ready to make the deal. Everyone collectively worked on this deal too. The Ford corporate team did not just pass the buck to the dealership. They stayed actively involved. I made suggestions for carving out a better deal. They made productive counter-offers. There was never a no in the negotiations. They wanted to make it work and in the end it did.

I’m fully aware that this is not a normal life experience and I’m not somebody with access to the golden gates of global icons either. As a professor of entrepreneurship at Boston University I always stress the importance of leading by example, respecting everyone around you, exhausting all solutions before saying no and consistently doing the unexpected. This is how you win people over and become a great leader. Not only does Alan Mulally have a big fan, but he also has a new customer.

I ended up with the Edge Sport.

Thanks to everyone. I’m glad I asked.

Ultimately, this wasn't a big deal to pull off. I got a phone number, briefed the CEO and asked if he'd be willing to make the call, and he did. It was a small gesture.

And yet, the impact it had was remarkable. Marc went public with his personal story, converted many other people in turn (including his father-in-law), and even bought a second Ford.

One simple gesture, and years from now, he'll be sitting at a Thanksgiving dinner saying, “Did I ever tell you about the time the CEO of Ford Motor Company called me to convince me to buy a Ford?”

A little thing that led to a happy moment that will last a lifetime.

Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.