To train car dealers on EVs and other topics, Ford turns to gamification and AI-powered education


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Ford Mustang on display at the NY Auto Show, April 6, 2023.
Scott Mlyn | CNBC

DEARBORN, Mich. — Ford Motor is launching a new training program for more than 3,000 U.S. franchised dealers on Wednesday that uses artificial intelligence for employee coaching evaluations and emulates Netflix and YouTube interfaces more than the automaker’s traditional training courses.

Ford says the main goals of the “Ford University” platform are to improve customer service, better engage employees — especially younger ones who are accustomed to binge-watching videos — and provide dealers and the company with more data to assist business.

“This will help make sure that we’re actually creating a training that can be most impactful and is actually going to drive in a measurable way the skills of the individual employees,” Abby Vietor, global director of dealer training and productivity, said during a media briefing. “This is data that we’ve not had to date. So, this is a rich area for us.”

Vietor, who joined Ford in March 2023 after leading global games learning for Amazon Web Services, will oversee Ford University. She declined to disclose how much the company has spent on the new training.

Dealership employees, who are independently employed by dealers, are crucial to the company’s sales, performance and customer engagement and satisfaction. Automakers have long touted the idea that better dealer experiences lead to happier customers who are more likely to become repeat customers.

Abby Vietor, Ford global director of dealer training and productivity and head of Ford University.

Such employees also are viewed as critical to educate mainstream consumers on electrified vehicles, including all-electric models.

The platform, including mobile versions, is the most significant change in Ford’s dealership employee training since it switched from physical handbooks to digital ones in the early 2000s, according to Ford archivist Ted Ryan.

Ford University also includes more traditional, print-based training resources, company officials said. But word-based training will be phased out and replaced with a mix of modules, including “AI supported missions, video and learning tools,” according to Ford.

EV education

The new training heavily relies on videos rather than written words for employee education as well as “gamification,” or game-like learning, to assist in engagement and retention.

“It much more fits today’s society and the way people learn today,” said Peter Battle, a corporate coach and veteran dealer general manager of Pat Milliken Ford in Michigan. “They don’t learn by opening an owner’s manual and reading what their car does.”

An example of videos on Ford University’s platform, inspired by streaming services.

Many of the new Ford University videos available at launch are focused on electrified vehicles, including all-electric models such as the Ford F-150 Lightning and Mustang Mach-E. There also will be general topics such as education about EV charging and installation.

Lack of understanding around EVs is one of several problems identified by automakers that’s contributing to the slower-than-expected adoption of the vehicles. Cost and infrastructure also play a role.

“EV is definitely a part of our focus for the training that will be available,” Vietor said. “It’s an area where the customer conversation is evolving and changing. We want to make sure all the employees are prepared to speak to it.”

AI evaluations

Ford University will use AI coaching designed to improve employee knowledge and communication skills — a new AI tool as automakers experiment with best use cases for the emerging technology.

For example, employees could have a practice conversation with the AI or be asked to submit a video describing themselves, their position and certain key facts about a product.

The AI tool would then evaluate the employee on their enthusiasm, mannerisms and knowledge, among other potential targets. Based on those results, as well as viewing history and specific areas for improvement, the platform could then suggest additional videos or information for the employee — much like Netflix and other streaming services do after a viewer watches a program.

“We’re going to be able to scale this for everyone with AI,” said Kathy Munoz, Ford manager of dealer training and productivity. “The whole point of the platform is practice, practice, practice.”

The AI was developed by Ford using generative pre-trained transformers, or GPT, and Microsoft‘s Azure Copilot.

Ford University will first be rolled out for front-of-house employees such as salespeople, but is eventually expected to expand to service workers and other more technical departments.

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