For new Ford Philippines managing director, focus on customer experience is foremost

THE Filipinos’ fondness for Ford is fantastic and phenomenal. The brand is almost synonymous with their affinity with anything American.

Our motoring enthusiasts could easily name at least five of its modern models (that would be easy), then challenge their stock knowledge of the classic ones that once ruled the roads of the archipelago (for instance: the Cortina, Escort, Telstar, Laser and Courier; not to mention the quintessential muscle car, the Mustang). Well into the new century, vehicles carrying the blue oval logo emblazoned with the surname of one of the greatest industrialists in history still cruise our streets and are driven by satisfied customers and owners.

Ford Philippines Managing Director PK Umashankar (top row, left) recently led an outreach program for a Gawad Kalinga community in Cavite.

A welcome development among Ford fanatics and the local motoring community as a whole is the introduction of Ford Philippines’s new managing director in the person of PK “Uma” Umashankar.

According to the company, the former customer service division director for Ford Asean is tasked to continue driving the brand’s momentum in the Philippines. He is expected to steer the success of Ford in the country, working with its network of dealers to promote its Ford trucks, sports-utility vehicles (SUVs) and performance cars, while improving the ownership experience for its customers.

More important, and perhaps keenly watched by Filipino fans of Ford, would be the way he will further enhance the after-sales experience.

Find out more about Uma and his transition into the motoring industry in this side of Asia, as well as his plans to lead the Ford brand in the Philippines.

ENVOYS&EXPATS: Congratulations on your recent appointment! First of all, what have you learned about the Philippines, and perhaps about the fondness of Filipinos for cars and motoring?

UMASHANKAR: The Philippines is a very important foreign business market for Ford. I understand the strength it brings as an industry to the overall global business of Ford as a country.

Being in Ford for quite a while now, I’ve been working with Filipino expatriates in other markets. Their engagement and interest in motoring is very interesting, which is not something common in other countries. They seem to really engage in every aspect of it. I believe they have the propensity to get into the details very easily and make conversations very accurate about various issues within the industry.

For me, the Philippine motoring scene is unique, because it somehow adds opportunities for consumers through the wider spectrum of products in other markets.

Please share with us your professional journey within the Ford group. Did you start your career there? What would you consider as the high point/s of being a Ford employee?

Right after college, I went to work for the air force in my country. It was also a time the auto industry was beginning to open up in India. I found my way into Ford in Bombay because of my background, having worked in the engineering side. That was in 1996. I started as a publication engineer.

I was also one of the first Six Sigma black belters within the Ford Motor Co. Then I moved south to Chennai, where Ford has a plant and other facilities. There, I was assigned with supply logistics, then vehicle sales for northeast India markets.

In Delhi, I managed sales operations for about 45 percent of the country as sales and service zone manager. I went on to become the country service director. And then, I did product strategy, where I was product marketing leader for India.

One of the high points of my stint was the introduction of Figo, the low-cost car we made for India. I was part of that team. That gave me a lot of experience in delivering safety elements, and not compromising on quality, performance and drive dynamics with the right cost for the customer. It was an interesting challenge. I became the service director for Ford India, which grew in size from selling after the successful launch of Figo. I saw our country’s business go up very high.

As a brand manager in Ford’s Asia-Pacific office, I was assigned to oversee exports to the Philippines. The Ford EcoSport was one of the products I handled. I knew this country would be a very strong market for us.

From service operations, I moved to Shanghai, China, as small car brand manager handling Fiesta, Figo, EcoSport and cars, as well as other products we’ve been exporting from India to Europe in my portfolio. Then I was assigned to Bangkok to run customer service operations for Asean, which included the Philippines.

What do you know about the motoring industry in the Philippines? Does your appointment have anything to do with your familiarity with the Asean setting?

I shouldn’t say I know much about the Philippine motoring industry. What I probably know at this point in time is that it’s a growing market—a 400,000 unit-per-year sector at this point in time; and very strong in pickups, with at least 50 percent of the share. It’s a good thing for us.

And it’s got a very vibrant car segment, with over a quarter of its total comprising sedans. I see the medium-sized, traditional utility vehicles as a very strong area emerging. I also envision products that will succeed in this market and catering to customer requirements.

In my short span of stay, I am beginning to understand that with the right product that meets expectations of safety, quality, performance and price criteria, the customer will look for you. You are definitely going to be in this market. That’s very clear for me.

I believe my familiarity of the Asean setting gives me a relative advantage. I know what is important from the customer point-of-view: from the vehicle side and the customer-service side.

As customer service director in the last two years, I have traveled to the Philippines frequently and engaged with the dealerships, as well. I would say, that gave me an advantage and provided a “segue” of sorts. Dealers in the Philippines are already familiar with me and understand my working style.

In the last six months, I’ve been involved in various activities to support and enhance our ability to get closer to the customers by also working closely with the marketing team. But I have a lot more to learn, however. I have to travel to provincial markets and really understand what customers need there.

That said, what do you think are the main differences of Filipino car customers, compared to their regional counterparts?

From a product management point-of-view, in all markets, we have 30 similar offerings. Separately, the Philippines is unique, because we have quite a few “North American Built Units:” the Explorer, Expedition and Mustang. That allows an additional piece of understanding of consumers in this country.

In terms of key differences from a consumer standpoint, I think all the Asean markets are very strong on social-media engagement. It is imperative for a manufacturer to be able to engage and respond to the consumer and understand their preferences. Slowly and steadily, social media has become a platform for customer engagement.

I can see that customers here are vocal if you’re doing the right thing. They’re very quick to point out if something is good—which is a nice thing. If you’re very process-oriented, you will be able to deliver their expectations. And they appreciate that.

I would say it’s pretty much the same for Thailand, which is about two-and-a-half times as large as the Philippines. Ford is a very strong player there. With our Ranger portfolio, the dealership count is almost three times of what we have here.

And there is constant training. Because of new sets of dealers coming by way of expansion, there is a degree of learning that has to happen, as opposed to the Philippines where we have dealerships. Here, we understand the processes and the customer expectations reasonably. It’s about delivering consistently, and better.

Thailand is a large market that is within reach by land. The geography allows for easy customer engagement. Here in the Philippines, we need to bring-in different processes, systems and service levels to make sure service quality is not compromised. But there is an opportunity for us to get better, regardless of the “tyrannies of geography,” I would say.

Vietnam is a relatively smaller market—an industry of roughly 280,000 units. Ford is also a very strong player there. In fact, it makes double-digit market share in good months. We have a strong and very engaging dealer body in that country.

Speaking of customer relations, one of your previous interviews touched on improving that aspect, as well as after-sales improvements. Care to share how Ford Philippines is looking at those areas?

In my 23-year career in Ford, I would say about half of that period was in the service side directly engaging with customers. For me, the simple rule is: You do what is right for the customer. If all else fails, you do not satisfy the customer.

For me, the customer is the guiding light all the time. Our businesses exist and depend on them. It is important for us to know the customer more and more. I don’t think anybody in a company can say that he or she will know the customer at a comfortable level. Nobody will. It’s an ever-evolving and moving space. One needs to stay tethered to the customer all the way.

When a customer comes to a car dealership to either buy a product or avail themselves of a service, they know the normal waiting time for something: the expected normal engagement a sales consultant or a service adviser. Because of what they’re subjected to in terms of experience, it has an influence on the way that they need to engage.

So to ensure that we do not miss a beat, it is important for us to stay very connected with the customer. I make it a point to know as much as I can. I have a daily review on customer issues and through this meeting, I am able to personally monitor resolution and make a follow-up to certain teams within Ford or dealers to resolve these issues.

A customer, through his feedback, provides us an input on what is going right or wrong in the Ford process. That allows and teaches me what we can employ in our process. I take the feedback, while the team resolves the customer issue. I also think the learning behind fixing the process is important, so that similar issues don’t occur in the future. That’s all I do.

I stay in touch with customers: from the way they avail themselves of a vehicle or a service, up to their feedback by connecting daily with my team from parts support, service-support, quality, sales organization and planning organization.

Everybody looks at an issue that teams cannot resolve. This is something I started in India many years ago. I adapted it in Thailand. As a market leader, if the issue sits with me, there is also a commitment from the organization that we have to resolve. That support comes in the whole process of facilitating and enabling easier closure for the customer.

What are you looking to apply in Ford Philippines from your previous stints or experiences in Asean markets?

One is in understanding the pulse of the customer, which is done through daily meetings that we have. It’s a daily understanding of what happens in our customer engagement.

Another thing that we are doing here, having worked with dealers for a very long time and hearing from the customers themselves, is about parts availability. We spoke about the differences of the markets. The unique situation of the Philippines compared to other Asean markets is about support and availability of spare parts in the dealerships. Because of geography, reaching various Ford locations across the country is always a challenge from a logistics point-of-view. I have an opportunity to fix that to a degree.

We are engaging right partners to make sure we have an ability to deliver parts to dealers within a Ford commitment to pay for deliveries. Because if I work with a partner which assures delivery of parts within a particular time frame to a dealer’s doorsteps, then the dealer has to commit with a customer to get the spare parts within a particular time frame.

When we get into that set thresholds, the predictability of parts availability quickens the dealer’s pace. They can communicate to the customer with a firm, credible commitment on the availability of spare parts.

Second, because of technology, Ford Philippines can now source from other countries if there are parts requests coming from dealers. It allows us to look for the part in every other warehouse of Ford across the region. Be it Australia, South Africa, India and China, we will be able to contact each of the warehouses.

Say, a customer comes for a starter motor repair with a failed armature. If Ford Philippines doesn’t have an armature available, we have a technology—a robotic process automation, or a bot—which can “hunt” all the warehouses for an armature for that particular dealer and find out if that part is available or not.

If it did not find one anywhere, it then sets an algorithm to search for a larger part: a starter motor. If available, then it looks at the closest warehouse. It will decide from where to source the spare part that can deliver soonest. We want to give the part back to the customer quicker.

We are assured of the technology, and the Philippines would be one of the first markets to operationalize this.

What are you looking to accomplish in your first six months and in a year in Ford Philippines?

I’ve brought into my six months here my experiences of being an Asean director for consumer experience. We have kicked off several activities; some are still ongoing. But for me, it is still about learning more.

For the next six months, my plan is to get closer to the customers by visiting dealerships and spending time with sales consultants, service advisers and customer relationship executives so I can have an understanding of reaching our customers, and how we will get better.

Brand health is also important for us. For example, the Ranger Raptor is a very powerful product in our portfolio, and it is important for us to strengthen it. My focus would be to strengthen the Raptor business.

The customer patronizes it, because it delivers real expectations, the way he wants. We want the experience to also be befiting the Raptor product expectations that we fulfilled previously. So I will spend more time enhancing the experience of a Raptor customer, as one of my focal points.

The Ranger is big business for us, and we need to enhance it. It is also present in the space of lower segments. It started as a full-price brand of a pickup in the market. Fact is, we do very well in the space where both the Raptor and Ranger are present, but we also have very strong products in the segments where we do a really good job.

A Ranger XLT is a fabulous product that shows right engineering, right content, right toughness and functional capability. I need to work on making sure that the XLT becomes successful across the country, and more importantly in the right geographies where we have opportunities to penetrate, as well.

Those would be my six-month goals. In one year, I would like to broaden the horizon. Raptor will continue to be in the most important space. We need to make sure that the consumer experience becomes slowly an opportunity for customers to look closely at our brands.

Those would be my first-year objectives: to make sure that Ford is not only a great product company, but also become one that delivers the right experience. We are doing a very good job, and we are ready to take that now to the consumer.

Ford is all about making great cars. Do you go on road trips? If yes, what’s your favorite destination and what do you do there?

One thing I love about Ford being a car company is that it allows me to drive around and engage with people a lot more. I like driving around pretty much, and it will happen as I spend time with dealerships. I told my team here that my car will be my extended office because I will be on the road many times to be able to understand dealer operations.

I haven’t had any favorite local destination yet, but I did travel to La Union in the last couple of weeks where we met with a group of motoring media personalities who have done assessments on the Ford Everest in the marketplace, and that was a good ride. It took the drive north six hours, but that gave me the perspective of what makes the Philippines great.

There are many places I want to reach. I will be traveling to many dealerships and I will be spending more time in the car definitely, so that’s going help me learn the local culture more, while doing so with our products. It brings to life what we have put in our vehicles, like the engineering, when I drive around. 

Bias aside, what is Ford’s greatest strength as a car brand?

The first thing that comes to my mind is the toughness of Ford. That is brought to life in the trucks that we make. It’s very palpable in our every product. I see that in the eyes of our consumers when they look at a Ford product: that it is designed truly the way they wanted it. It is in our design and execution of our products that what we bring to life is very relevant to the consumers.

Take the Raptor as an example. It’s such a success in the consumers’ minds, because it epitomizes everything that they want and aspire for, and we were able to bring it to life. I believe that’s the strength of the Ford Motor Co.

If you were a Ford vehicle, what would it be, and why?

I would say, the Everest. When I was doing sales operations, I launched the first-ever Everest that came to India way back in 2003. I remember when I did the launch in a hotel in downtown Delhi: I was in front of a lot of media members as I announced the features, price points, etc. It became very popular and instantly, a vehicle that every Indian wanted to own. I used to get calls from various CEOs and top industrialists who wanted to own one, but we had limited supply.

That was a great feeling, and ever since, the car really fired up all the customers’ emotions daily. That continued to happen in various markets. It’s truly an Asean product, and one for India, as well. We launched it in China also, and it’s doing reasonably well. So the Everest for me, is what I picture myself if I was a car.

The Everest brings in a right amount of sophistication and technology that we want in a marketplace. Considering our recent launch, we brought in a feature car that is very relevant to the market. There’s a hands-free lift-gate feature, or a parking-assist feature.

While immersed markets are working toward more autonomous vehicles, there is so much in complete autonomy in an Everest. As we journey toward complete autonomy, there are a lot of features of autonomous vehicle we can usher in and can put in place.

For instance, the active park assist and autonomous emergency-braking features—all these were inspired by autonomous vehicles.

Another aspect of the Everest that I believe is very close to my heart is that it is that product that runs the main line of the industry in its market. I can see every thriving Filipino, and those who have “arrived in life,” aspiring to be inside a sport-utility vehicle. The Everest is there to celebrate their success and fuel their aspirations.

I believe this story is somewhat like that of mine. That’s what I feel. I worked very hard to get to where I am, so I find that in every Everest. It does that to the customer. It does the right thing functionally, and it also shows that it has a place in the community and in the families that each unit delivers. That’s why I believe that the Everest is the closest to me.

What is your personal mantra?

I go and look out for so-called gray areas if there’s an issue between two processes or organizations in the company, remove them, and progress from them.

I make sure nothing is stalled for people and things to get done quickly. It takes the bureaucracy out.

Where do you see yourself 10 or 20 years from now?

That’s still a long way to go. I actually live for the current role. Doing my Asean-based job, I treated it as an assignment. I moved around after two years because my company believed I was required to do something. I think my company understands my strengths, as well as capabilities, and puts me in a needed post, as they believe I would probably do a reasonable job there.

I think of myself as a trench captain; I do the job and make sure I leave my mark, while I prepare for something I love to do in the future.

Lastly, what is your vision for Ford Philippines and what are your strategic priorities?

My strategic priorities are very carefully laid out. The key strategic priority is for dealers to deliver great consumer experience. That’s got to be fundamental today. Elevating the Ford brand in this market will naturally deliver better consumer experience. But it will also come in sync with ushering in right products, right content and right expectations of the customer by delivering a great product portfolio and great consumer experience in the Ford showrooms, as well as workshops.

To do all these, I need to have a very viable dealer body. Dealer  viability is my strategic practice. A healthy dealer body is important to elevate the Ford brand and deliver superior consumer experience.

My vision for Ford Philippines ultimately is to make sure we deliver a very unique and elevated brand experience to the consumers.

Image credits: Jimbo Albano



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