The late novelist John Le Carré once said, “A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.” As it turns out, what was good advice for spies is equally good for manufacturing and design engineers.

Last year, General Motors began dispatching engineers to dealerships nationwide to meet with sales managers and service technicians. Engineers behind the Chevrolet Corvette, Cadillac CTS, GMC Sierra and Buick Enclave are learning firsthand what customers like and dislike about the cars and trucks they helped create. Some 90 engineers have already done tours, and more are expected to go out later this year.

The goal of these visits is to identify opportunities for improving vehicles and customer satisfaction. Each engineer goes out for about a month, touring GM and even competitor dealerships in major markets.

“The engineers who have experienced this program have initiated or enhanced product improvements already underway,” says Mark Reuss, GM executive vice president of global product development, purchasing and supply chain.

“This program has taught me how important our dealers are to our customers,” adds Michael Bailey, Corvette chassis systems engineer. “It gives me new perspective on what I do every day, like things I need to put more focus on that can help our dealers and improve the customer experience.”

After the dealer visits, the engineers go to Walt Disney World, where they go behind the scenes to learn how the resort handles customer relations and earns high marks for customer satisfaction.

Engineers have shared some 2,000 observations so far. Actionable findings go to product development, manufacturing, marketing and other departments that can make specific changes such as:

Handling service information and creating better communication between design, service engineering, and brand quality to simplify service and maintenance procedures and make documentation more accurate.

Balancing product simplification and customer choice, while reducing the number of service parts.

Designing vehicle infotainment systems with alternate interfaces that maximize connectivity and flexibility.

“The program enables our engineers to really understand what our customers want and what goes into selling a car,” says John Calabrese, GM vice president of global vehicle engineering. “Ultimately, this experience will enable us to design, build and sell even better vehicles.”

GM’s program is not a new concept. Honda, Motorola, Hewlett-Packard, Caterpillar and other manufacturers have been doing this for years. Information gathered from customer visits was crucial when Ingersoll-Rand was developing a new line of innovative fastening tools. Boeing even went so far as to have representatives from eight airlines attend design meetings for the 777.

 The next time you need a design breakthrough, try following some timeworn advice from mothers everywhere: You should get out more.