Ford, Lincoln and Mercury dealer customers will be able to schedule vehicle maintenance and handle other routine service arrangements 24 hours a day, seven days a week using a new online interactive tool called VSA (Virtual Service Advisor). According to Ford, VSA communicates directly with Ford systems and the dealer's in-house computer system in real time — allowing customers to arrange vehicle service appointments around the clock, describe service problems online in detail, and view, purchase and schedule Ford-recommended Quality Care maintenance. Customers also can check vehicle service status and view recall information through the dealer's Web site at any time. The company says participating dealerships will begin offering VSA this summer through their individual dealership Web sites.If a vehicle has a problem the owner wants checked out by the service department, the customer begins by locating the dealership's Web site on the Internet and then navigating to the "Services" tab. VSA displays a screen allowing the customer to enter the service request in his or her own words and then prompts the customer for more information. For instance, if the customer types, "I hear a noise," the system replies with up to three symptom-probing questions, allowing the vehicle owner to give more details to the service technician. If the customer has more than one service concern, VSA handles each issue with a separate set of questions. According to Ford, VSA uses a technology that determines when and how symptom-probing questions should be asked. After describing any concerns or maintenance requests, the customer then is prompted to begin the service scheduling process by entering his or her name and other basic information, including the vehicle identification number. VSA contacts the dealership's in-house computer immediately and displays available service dates and times. Once the customer chooses the service date and time, the customer is provided an opportunity to review the appointment information. At this point, VSA automatically checks for open recalls and offers scheduled maintenance, if the customer has not already selected these. VSA then confirms the appointment with the dealership's computer system and instantly notifies the customer of the confirmed date and time. The customer can then print the confirmation, e-mail it as a reminder, or even transfer the appointment to Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes. VSA also automatically sends customers an e-mail appointment reminder 24 hours before their scheduled appointment. Once the vehicle is in the shop, Ford says VSA allows customers to check its service status by entering the customer's last name and one of the following: repair order number, vehicle shop routing tag number, the vehicle identification number (VIN), or the phone number. VSA then searches the dealership computer system for the current service status and reports the results. If the work isn't finished, the customer may provide an e-mail address to be notified when the vehicle is ready. Customers also can use VSA to search for VIN-specific recalls and to view, purchase and schedule recommended Quality Care maintenance.