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Turn clumsy auto recall notices into winning customer engagements

Building a great vehicle can’t be easy. The effort that goes into engineering a product that is safe AND reliable AND sexy to consumers is incredible. But the automotive industry has got it figured out. And as a result, not only has the overall quality and safety of vehicles steadily improved over the last 100 years, Canadian car sales hit record levels in 2016!

Even so, there are times when an issue is found that has to be fixed. And this results in the dreaded recall notice.

Sometimes these are minor and can be fixed at the next service appointment. Sometimes they are critical and have to be fixed right away.

Regardless of the seriousness of the problem, messaging is important.

There are generally two options — frighten the customer or engage the customer.

Recently my wife, along with some employees at Prime Data, received a recall notice from one of the big automakers. I won’t name names as I suspect they are all guilty of what I’m about to talk about.

First, the notice came in a generic envelope with branding that wasn’t connected to the make of the car sitting in our driveway. I guess springing for some envelopes with easily identifiable branding was not approved by the lawyers who wanted to stick to strict legal names. But that was only the beginning.

Once we figured out who the letter came from, and opened it, inside was a densely written statement that was quite obviously a product of someone more concerned with compliance than customer engagement.

After reading it, we weren’t sure if the car was safe to drive or if this was something that could wait. A call to the dealer wasn’t very helpful, as the replacement parts weren’t in stock anyway — and there was no word on when they were coming in.

This got me thinking about how even a billion dollar company with branding agencies on retainer can miss an opportunity to turn a forced communication into a positive brand building engagement. My assumption is that, with this type of communication, the agency of record and marketing departments have very little input, leaving everything to the lawyers. There’s a mistake.

Will you engage or enrage?

With something like a recall notice, it’s very easy to annoy your customers. There is the inconvenience of getting the problem sorted out, and a loss of confidence in the quality of the vehicle.

So the temptation is to separate the recall message from the brand itself. But when a brand doesn’t acknowledge its failings, there is an erosion of trust. I have a friend who has received multiple recall notices on her vehicle over the last number of years and now can’t stop talking about how crappy her car is. And even though she’s owned four different vehicles from this same company, she’s vowed this will be the last one.

Is it that difficult to use the mail to inform customers without turning them off? Of course not. If automakers put the same effort into recall notices as they do into selling vehicles, they would certainly be better positioned to diffuse customer backlash. There is a wide gulf between the look and feel of auto advertising and an auto recall. Is this necessary?

Message and market mistakes better

Let’s go back to the notice we received. Clear branding on the envelope would have helped us immediately identify the piece as something we should look at.

More customization on the text inside, with some images, and an acknowledgement of the inconvenience would have been nice. With full colour variable digital print personalization available now, it has never been easier to use customer data to include variable images of cars, to highlight dynamic messages in colour and design a better customer experience in print.

Better yet, how about a recommendation about the seriousness of the recall? Should we leave the car parked until the parts are in, or simply go about our lives as usual, knowing that it will be taken care of at the next service appointment?

Finally, sending out a notice when the local dealer isn’t ready to complete the repair leaves the dealer breaking the bad news. The dealer loses credibility with their customers, which in turn affects future sales. This is just one example where variable printing could be used to indicate the date when the part will be available.

The mail is a powerful tool for conveying good news and bad. It’s a lost opportunity for automakers when they don’t seize upon available technology to turn their lemons into lemonade.

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