Forgiving Volkswagen.

Loyal customers are a forgiving lot. Whether enthusiasts of Fahrvergnügen will forgive or no will require VW’s leadership to fully understand how the emissions standards scandal undermines their longstanding relationship.

Falling in love is an action. It takes place in a stepwise fashion moving from a first impression to a test and validation of those first impressions to a deep dive into potential shared values and beliefs. All told, all confirmed, the relationship between an individual and an organization, a customer and a company, is consummated by long-term purchasing. Once this level of understanding and commitment is established, it’s very hard to break. VW is taking a good, healthy swing at disrupting that trust right now, but will the relationship truly be severed?

My conclusion is no. Here are the three reasons:

  1. Everything else is still intact: fun, reliable cars, engineered to perform.
  2. The scandal will be managed by highly paid crisis advisors that will coach the company to be demonstrative in their response, step one having taken place swiftly with the resignation of Martin Winterkorn and the appointment of Matthias Muller, head of the Porsche division, as the new chief executive. Step two is in motion as leadership isolates the improprieties. And step three will follow shortly as the organization assumes full responsibility while demonstrating the remainder of the organization is operating in full integrity.
  3. The fallout will take time, will linger in the headlines, and cost dearly, but the one thing VW has on its side is a loyal following, a following that wants VW in their lives.

The secret that VW needs to pay close attention to is the key lesson we all as service providers need to remember, that earned loyalty doesn’t disappear in an instant, but it can’t be taken for granted either. There is a forgiving nature to loyalty. The reason being, once love is realized, it’s immensely difficult to replicate. VW enthusiasts don’t want to go through the effort of finding a replacement. They can’t simply move laterally to another provider that provides for their needs in the unique ways VW does without a tremendous effort on their part. And, even if they do they’ll miss what they originally fell for, the history and experience of Fahrvergnügen. It’s “what makes a car a Volkswagen,” and it’s a unique identifier that VW has nurtured for decades. In essence it’s exactly the basis of the scandal itself. VW couldn’t make a low performing, low emissions diesel automobile and put it on the market as a Volkswagen. That would be blasphemous. The fact they manipulated the system to do so is reprehensible, but from the early days of the Beetle to the Vanagon to the Golf and even in its line of diesels Volkswagen has delivered an experience that is distinctly Volkswagen.

Taking advantage of that loyalty was the mistake. Leveraging the forgiveness of that same loyalty is Volkswagen’s only hope. They can do this by intimately understanding their customer’s experience right now. Understanding how this affects their perceptions about the brand and about how the brand now fits into their lives. Crisis management aside, this is the only way Volkswagen can deftly manage their way back into good stead with a fan base that doesn’t want them to fail.

The lesson for the rest of us? Spend all of your time and money understanding intimately why your customers love you and be true that in every instance.