Calling Tesla's Repair Rangers: At-Home Service With a Geek Squad Smile

Last Updated Oct 13, 2009 2:08 PM EDT

As big companies such as Best Buy start selling electric vehicles (EVs), attention will inevitably turn to customer service. Best Buy is selling Brammo electric motorcycles, Segways and plug-in scooters at a few stores in California, and that means the Geek Squad is empowered to fix them and respond to customers' complaints.

Writing in BusinessWeek, David Welch said that this is precisely the kind of service that small start-ups, including Tesla and Fisker, will not be able to provide. "Eventually Fisker will have about 100 stores nationally; Tesla has seven with a few more on the way," the story says. "By contrast, Nissan, Toyota, Ford, and General Motors have thousands of dealers in multiple markets that will be able to sell and service electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles."

According to longtime analyst Maryann Keller, also writing in BusinessWeek, "the supporting infrastructure" is crucial to mass consumer acceptance; it's only "the elite collector" who is "impressed when Tesla sends a technician to his home to fix a part."

OK, but how then do you explain Tesla Motors' Mobile Service Rangers? Like the Geek Squad, this is a van-equipped platoon of jumps-suited technicians willing to come to your house at $1 per roundtrip mile from the nearest Tesla service center. If you were in Portland, Oregon, then, a service call would be $350 from the base in Seattle.

In coming up with the Service Rangers, Tesla said it studied other entities, including the Best Buy Geeks, (online clothing, with an "unwavering focus on superior customer service") and Peapod, which delivers groceries ordered online. Tesla also said it will establish a Service Rangers program in Europe, where it has a budding customer base.

Of course, if you live far from a Tesla service base, a house call may be prohibitive. This is where the advantage of the big automakers' ubiquitous service network comes in handy. Although those networks are far smaller now than they were because of bankruptcy-related closings, they're still formidable. Tesla has two service centers in California, and other outposts in Seattle and New York. Opening soon: Chicago, Washington D.C., Toronto and South Florida. Within two years, Tesla says it will have 20 regional centers--still far less than the large companies, of course.

Greg Zanghi, Tesla's service director, said in an interview that studying the established sites "helped us learn more about customer service--these sites have incredibly fast response to customer inquiries. We felt we had a unique opportunity to reach out and touch our customers. When a customer calls, we can immediately start analyzing the verbal feedback and look at the vehicle logs, which could lead to finding something the owner can easily fix on their own."

Help wanted: According to Zanghi, Tesla is looking to hire several Service Rangers per store, as well as remote technicians in cities (Boston, Atlanta, Boulder) with a lot of Roadsters but no repair facility. The job, he said, will require not only good experience in diagnostics, but also the right personality for interacting with customers and understanding what they want.

Rachel Konrad, Tesla's spokeswoman, said the company's goal is to get Americans to believe that EVs are actually better--not just as good as--internal-combustion vehicles. "They're going to be more convenient, easier to own and more environmentally friendly," she said. "People will never visit another gas station or Jiffy Lube, and we'll even come to their house for the annual check-up."

Tesla says it achieved corporate profitability last July. The company has proven adept at attracting both private investment (Daimler bought a 10 percent share for $50 million back in May) and federal dollars (a $465 million Department of Energy loan in June). But there's still a long road ahead before Teslas are as common on our roads as Chevys.