Addressing Customer Loyalty in a Crisis

As you likely heard last week, Volkswagen admitted to installing software in 11 million diesel vehicles in order to produce false emissions results. In the days following the announcement of wrongdoing, VW—as with many large companies—likely launched their crisis communications plan that guides how they communicate with shareholders, regulators and the public in response to the scandal.

From our perspective, what’s often missing from these plans is how companies should communicate with their best customers. The big opportunity is to create a customer crisis communications plan, designed to guide engagement with their customers during the crisis and beyond, that can proactively help ensure they remain committed to the brand.

There are three key elements of a customer loyalty crisis communications plan:

  1. Treat your best customers differently.I’m on my third Volkswagen, so you could call me a loyal customer. I don’t own a diesel VW, so I’m not directly impacted by the recent scandal, but when I think about buying my next car, Volkswagen has been on the list. In order to stay on my short list, I want Volkswagen to acknowledge me and my history, and reassure me that—while they made a pretty big mistake—they are still the same quality automaker that I’ve purchased from in the past. Let’s not forget about all of their other customers too, tailoring communications based on customer segments.
  2. Proactively communicate.If I was directly impacted by the issue like my colleague Jeremy, I’d expect even more. His diesel TDI is his first VW, and it made him a convert, proud to be a part of this special group of TDI drivers.  In the spirit of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement observed last week by Jews across the world, VW should take a moment to acknowledge the wrongs they’ve committed to their customers, with immediate, direct communication. The absence of communication just leaves a sense of betrayal and frustration, eroding any sense of customer loyalty in a crisis.
  3. Surprise and delight.In order to offset negative attitudes, companies can use surprise and delight to help restore confidence in the brand. After Target’s data breach, they offered 10% to cardholders to offset negative press. In 2014, as a result of holiday shipping delays, Amazon issued $20 credits across the board to those impacted. While the remedy for diesel car owners is in development, VW has an opportunity to reach out and surprise those impacted, ideally to reinforce the original decision to buy Volkswagen.

It’s not enough that a customer is loyal to your brand. At rDialogue, we believe that that your brand must be loyal to its customers. I’ll be keeping an eye on VW over the next several months to see how they’ve managed this crisis in the eyes of their customers. As for Jeremy, he may start looking for a used Toyota Tacoma.