To get a sense of how important customer service is to Volvo, the $30 billion car and truck manufacturer based in Goteborg, Sweden, look no further than Volvo Cars Belgium, the company's Brussels-based subsidiary. Whereas most IT directors report to the company CEO, president, COO or CFO, Volvo Cars Belgium's head of IT reports directly to the customer service manager. "I am an IT manager," says Michelangelo Adamo, IT supervisor for the 65-dealer network that makes up Volvo Cars Belgium. "But I am also a person that wants to sell more Volvos to customers. We are in the business of selling cars, not IT."
That doesn't discount the importance of information technology to Volvo Cars Belgium's overall mission of selling more cars. In fact, IT is central to that mission. It is so essential that, in 2005, Adamo and Christoph Cordier, Adamo's boss (and the subsidiary's former IT supervisor) completed a nearly three-year service-oriented architecture project that networked together all of Belgium's dealerships, and tied the network back into the Swedish mothership in Goteborg.
The overriding goal of the massive project? Improve customer service by creating a single view of the lifecycle of each car the company sells, tracking it from the moment a customer places an order through the delivery of the car, to ongoing maintenance and customer service. The strategic goal was to enable a complete view of the car, its repair history and maintenance schedule at every dealership in the network, so that customers get the right service, at the right time, regardless of the Volvo dealership they use.
The Belgian subsidiary also needed a way to standardize performance metrics across the whole dealer network, so that headquarters in Sweden could evaluate individual dealerships on their customer services scores, target those dealerships that need improvement, and reward those dealers that excelled.
Volvo Cars Belgium answered this challenge with a new dealer management system that automated several processes that were still paper-based, tied together every dealership in the country, and exchanged information with systems at corporate headquarters. To make the exchange of data as simple as possible, and also to prepare for easy rollout of future features in the system, the company chose a Web-based software package and used SOA as the bridge between Brussels and Sweden.
So far, the strategy appears to be working. The customer-approval ratings for Volvo Cars Belgium showed a jump in 2006 over the previous two years. And 98 percent of all auto parts that Belgian dealerships order from Goteborg headquarters arrive overnight, thanks to the integrated systems that automatically reserve parts the moment a customer schedules an appointment.
But while the project is beginning to show some return, it has not been an easy transition for Volvo Cars Belgium. What it has been is a learning process. Some of the phases of the project that one might have considered most challenging, like connecting all the systems to Volvo Cars Corp. (VCC), the corporate headquarters, were shockingly simple. Others, like selecting the right software and architecture, took years of hand-wringing. Ultimately, it would seem that the story of Volvo Cars Belgium is yet another feather in the cap of the buzzword du jour: service-oriented architecture.