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There’s plenty to be angry about in light of news that Volkswagen installed software in millions of cars to cheat emissions tests, but when American-division CEO Michael Horn appeared before the House Energy and Commerce Committee Thursday, committee members didn’t open their remarks with grievances. Rather than drive right into attack mode one member of congress after the next got personal. Rep. Tim Murphy said his first car was a VW Beetle. Rep. Diana DeGette also hit the road for the first time in a Beetle. Rep. Joe Barton noted that his daughter drives a Beetle. Very few brands would get an introduction like that.

After the touchy feely moments, members had justifiably harsh words for Horn about this unprecedented breach of trust, but those opening comments revealed something key about this scandal that points toward what may be VW’s best hope for survival.

Our vehicles are the settings for many of our most cherished memories. As young people, our first car represents our first taste of freedom. We take adventures with friends in our cars. We drive our kids to their first day of school, kids we’ll later warily put into cars all by themselves, entrusting our hearts to the integrity of an automaker.

As a result, people have intensely personal relationships with automakers, especially with a brand as storied as Volkswagen, and the more loyal they are to the brand the more the betrayal stings. There are a lot of people very angry with Volkswagen right  now and it’s those people who Volkswagen needs the most. Like in a family crisis, the ones who feel the most betrayed are the ones who care the most. They’re also the ones most willing to help you get back on your feet after you fall.

"These dark days are an opportunity for VW to become the most customer-centric auto manufacturer in the world."

VW’s emissions scandal is a serious situation in its own right but the company hasn’t been doing itself any favors in a response that has been characterized by backpedaling, stalling and skirting personal responsibility. If the company wants to weather this storm, it’s going to have to come clean and get real with the people who matter most—its angriest customers. The bright side is that, as they say, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. These dark days are an opportunity for VW to become the most customer-centric auto manufacturer in the world.

Here’s how they get there….

First, recognize that it always gets worse before it gets better. Think of this as the initial sit down with the family you’ve betrayed and deeply hurt. There’s no way around the fact that you screwed up—bad—and there’s going to be a period of discomfort. It’s a serious situation and the only around this is straight through. Come clean. Conduct an uncompromising and transparent inventory of how and why things went wrong. Admit mistakes. Be vulnerable. It will be scary but it will also be exciting because this an opportunity for growth.

Second, reach out to your customers, especially the angriest ones. Find the lifers, the ones most invested in your brand, and humbly ask them for their help—you need it.

This is no time for polished PR and contrived story lines. People these days can smell a phony a million pixels away. This is the time to start a serious, earnest conversation with your best—and yes, most furious—customers, let them rant and really listen to their outrage.

After the air has cleared, start talking about change. This has to go beyond mere solutions. Recalls and software are all good and well but they’re not going to save the brand. Ask your customers what they want to see from Volkswagen. Get them talking to one another about where they would like to see the company go from here. Perhaps, as some have suggested, this means a recommitment to original principles. Volkswagen—German for the “people’s car”—was introduced to America as the counter-cultural alternative to the bigger-is-better mentality; perhaps the Volkswagen of tomorrow is the small-footprint, environmentally-conscious vehicle of the mindfulness movement. Maybe something more. Maybe something else. Your customers will tell you.

Third, execute your new vision in partnership with your customers.

Your customers helped you when you were down but don’t take that for granted. They were loyal to you once but people today, empowered by social media, mobile devices, and the world of information available online, expect a different relationship to brands than in years past.

Recognize that your foray into an authentic, two-way conversation with your customers wasn’t a wacky one-off experiment, it’s the new paradigm. Make the conversation you started in a time of crisis an ongoing exchange and a permanent part of your business model. If you go back to business as usual, even your most loyal customers will abandon you faster than you can spell BMW.

Photo: David Villarreal Fernández (cropped, via Creative Commons)

How to keep your customers from cheating on you

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