Nissan Addresses Slow LEAF Launch, Says Expectations Could Have Been Better Managed

By · January 13, 2011

A Nissan LEAF making its way along the assembly line in Oppama, Japan.

If there's anything that most every person in the initial group of LEAF orderers is, it's passionate. Sure they all come from a large range of different backgrounds and offer a swath of political bents—but their passion is what drove them to be the first in line. So it hasn't been all that surprising that the passion of some has driven them to become increasingly critical of what they say is a lack of transparency on Nissan's part about why the initial deliveries of Nissan LEAFs were so slow.

To be fair, reactions among first orderers have ranged from a willingness to cut Nissan some slack during the global launch of the world's first mass-produced and affordable all-electric car to rumors of a conspiracy to delay deliveries for a variety of reasons including: "Nissan cares more about Japanese deliveries than the U.S. ones" and "The initial crop of LEAFs had a wiring problem which was secretly corrected on the docks." Whatever the reasons for the slow ramp up in LEAF deliveries, it is now clear that there is a growing group of Nissan LEAF orderers who say they are going to jump ship or have become completely fed up with the process. And with the unveiling of the Ford Focus Electric this week, some have said they are now more ready than ever to abandon their LEAF orders.

I had a chance to talk about this topic with Brian Carolin, Nissan's Senior Vice President of Sales, on the sidelines of the Detroit Auto Show the week. Carolin was absolutely dead serious when discussing any of the conspiracy theories that are out there, saying that there were no issues with rewiring or dock repairs. "I can assure you we haven't had cars stockpiled at docks," he said to in an interview. "The fact is there simply weren't cars on a boat. They were just taking their time in Japan to make sure everything was perfect. We're at the leading edge of technology and the engineers just wanted to make sure that the car was absolutely spot on."

"In Hindsight, Maybe We Could Have Lowered Expectations a Little Bit More"

Carolin also said they were overwhelmed by the initial and unexpectedly large interest they received and struggled with how to balance marketing with the sales and output reality. "We probably gave an expectation of availability which in hindsight was too early," said Carolin. "Our engineers are incredibly crucial and they want to make sure that every [LEAF] coming out of the gate is absolutely right. The rate of climb has been probably a little slower than you'd expect."

"It's a balance," said Katherine Zachary, Nissan spokesperson. "There are expectations that are out there, but we also needed awareness. We had to build awareness for this product, and it's had much more of an education component than with anything else Nissan has done. As a result we had to deal with the fact that it caught wildfire in the process—it was sort of a byproduct—but given the choice of how to balance those interests, we needed people to know about it."

Carolin said that deliveries are now ramping up and Nissan hopes this will settle people's angst on the topic, but that Nissan has tried communicate delivery timing as "realistically" as possible. "We're trying to respond as much as we can on an individual basis where people are raising their hand and expressing angst," he said. "We've got a very well structured call center, and even some of my team in the office will step in when someone is really 'angsty' and that helps a lot."

Non-Traditional Sales Model Caused Some Confusion

Nissan knew there was going to be an excess of demand for the LEAF and tried to address issues related to that by "keeping everything tight in the center," as Carolin said. By instituting the online reservation system Nissan wanted to establish a democratic delivery process where the first in line got the vehicle first.

"The traditional way of selling cars is you wholesale them to the dealers, and then frankly it's a bit of a free-for-all," said Carolin going on to remark that they did take this element of control away from the dealers. "I think the downside [to LEAF sales process] is that the dealers who are often talking to customers can't always see inside the box—so I can understand the feeling that the process is opaque. It's new for them and it's new for us, but I'm confident—particularly in this first launch here—that the benefits will far outweigh the downside."

"I think in five to six months time this will be kind of behind us," said Carolin, adding that in six to twelve month's time the supply might be high enough to revert to a traditional model where the dealers are in complete control. "Knowing the supply was going to be very short, we said every car coming off the boat is going to be customer-tagged," said Carolin. "With 1,100 dealers we could have soaked up a lot of the early production just getting them out to the dealers. We said to the dealer network we weren't going to do that and that the customer was going to take priority. We'd have had dead inventory on the ground and people getting very agitated that they weren't getting the cars."

"We've Had Some Cancellations, But Nothing Very Significant"

Although some within the community of early LEAF orderers have said they are going to jump ship and abandon their LEAF orders because of delayed delivery times, Carolin says they haven't seen that materialize yet. "We've had some cancellations, but nothing very significant," he said. "We have people that continue to take firm orders after placing a reservation and we continue to release them to go to the dealer level and make them available—that's continuing at pace. We're fortunate that the cancellation numbers have been pretty small."

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