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James Baggott: VW can learn from the firm that showed there’s hope even in the midst of a crisis

Time 6 years ago

LET’S face it, if you’re not sat behind a desk in a Volkswagen dealership right now, you’re probably feeling pretty smug. For years they’ve been making class-leading cars, with class-leading reliability and enjoyed class-leading residuals. What’s more, the Golf has been a default choice for the middle-class masses for decades, while the very name Volkswagen has been a byword for solidity and dependability among the general public.

Not any more. Its reputation is in tatters, its customers duped by a cheating corporate scam that saw its diesel engines deliberately designed to mislead regulators. It’s being billed as the biggest motoring scandal ever – and few would argue that’s not the case.

But while the media, including us, have every right to give the brand a bit of a kicking – it blatantly lied, after all – I can’t help thinking there must be some positives buried in this very deepest of deceptions.


That might be hard to appreciate now, though, when customers are cancelling orders, the phone’s only ringing with complaining customers and dealers are constantly being faced with an onslaught of grumpy owners demanding answers at their reception desks.

However, this isn’t the first crisis a manufacturer has faced of such magnitude. Okay, so the Toyota sticking throttle pedal wasn’t cheating like VW, but it was still potentially catastrophic for the brand. And if you’re a Toyota dealer you’ll remember it all too well. But, according to the man who masterminded the media communications during the crisis, even the worst of situations doesn’t always have to be disastrous.

‘Clearly footfall went up in dealerships as a result of the recall and that meant dealers had a lot of new conversations with customers they might not otherwise have seen,’ Toyota’s head of PR, Scott Brownlee, told me.

‘It’s hard to say if we sold more cars off the back of the recall but anecdotally we’d say we did. It’s just hard to quantify 100 per cent because we had a lot of new launches around that time.’


So what lessons did Toyota learn from the whole crisis? ‘We learned communication was key,’ said Brownlee.

‘I took the decision to get out on TV and radio early to talk directly to customers and reassure them. We clearly told people what was happening and that they shouldn’t worry – and most importantly, that we’d fix it.

‘I was effectively in customers’ front rooms telling them to be confident that we’d resolve it.’

Volkswagen has been slow to issue information about the recall and its press spokespeople have been noticeable by their absence.

Although Brownlee didn’t want to comment on the VW case directly, he did say it was hard to know exactly what was going on behind the scenes.

‘I was lucky as I had information and support from my technical team so I could confidently go out there and give information – I knew what to say and when,’ said Brownlee. ‘I certainly wouldn’t have been on TV if I didn’t have the support and knowledge that I had.’

So, is there anything VW dealers can do to help ease the crisis? Brownlee thinks there certainly is and it’s the way they deal with this that will determine how they come out of it on the other side.

‘We researched customer satisfaction after the recall and actually found recall customers were more satisfied and happier with how they had been treated than “normal” customers,’ explained Brownlee.


So if VW dealers learn anything from this debacle it’s that now, more than ever before, honest, clear and timely communications with customers are absolutely key. And you know what? Going above and beyond the call of duty when fixing the affected cars probably wouldn’t go amiss too.

A free valet inside and out, the chance to have the next car up the range as a loan vehicle while the fix takes place, maybe even paying for lunch or collecting the vehicles from home and dropping them back would all go some way to rebuilding bridges.

They say it’s not making the mistake that does the damage, but how you make up for it afterwards that really matters.

From the outside, this scandal may look catastrophic – and I don’t think the storm has passed just yet – but VW dealers can take some comfort from looking at how other companies who’ve faced sizeable disasters have rebuilt and come out the other side for the better.
What do you think? Get in the forum and post your comments, tweet me @CarDealerEd or send me a good old-fashioned email.

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Car Dealer has been covering the motor trade since 2008 as both a print and digital publication. In 2020 the title went fully digital and now provides daily motoring updates on this website for the car industry. A digital magazine is published once a month.

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