It’s not the scandal; it’s the cover-up.” We’ve all heard that phrase before: Far worse than a problem is the refusal to acknowledge it or correct it. The same applies to auto recalls. As tragic as a defect can be, it is worse when the manufacturer denies an issue, isn’t forthcoming about it or lags in remedying it.

Vehicle recalls can be a public relations and reputational blow to automakers, but conducted the right way, a recall can minimize car owners’ anguish and even strengthen their loyalty to the manufacturer. Thus, excellent customer service can turn a crisis into chrome-plated opportunity for car and car part manufacturers and dealers to act quickly and with concern.
 For example, just a month after Saturns started hitting the streets, a flaw was detected in the front-seat recliner mechanism. But the company was ready: corporate management briefed dealers on the recall by closed-circuit television, then contacted each customer via overnight letter, indicating whether their car was affected. As the Harvard Business Review noted, the recall “went so smoothly that the company incorporated it in its advertising campaign.”
 
As Saturn showed, it is critical to have action plans and partners ready. Plans should incorporate appropriate strategies and identify business partners ahead of a crisis, which might include manufacturers or suppliers of component parts, such as airbags or navigation units. Strong relationships with these entities build trust and confidence that the parties will do the right thing during a recall.
 
Car owners who may be subject to a recall want to know quickly whether their vehicle is compromised, how and where to remedy the issue, and how long they will be inconvenienced. Communication about auto recalls should be immediate and cover all these issues. Above all, the company must be able to carry out its promises. The key is to be accessible, transparent, and consistent. Manufacturers should set up additional toll-free numbers to meet the surge of inquiries. 
 
The tone and content of communications should be established at the very top. The CEO should be familiar with the specific issue and the strategy for addressing it. He or she must convey sincere concern and a commitment to keep customers safe and confident. Any corporate representative who will address the public or media, most notably members of the public relations and customer care and engagement departments, should convey the same sense of urgency, honesty, and concern. Customers need to understand that recalls may not be quick fixes: they are often long processes that include meeting industry regulations, evaluating manufacturing standards and developing the optimal solution for the customer.
 
Also, manufacturers should be prepared to communicate their message through a wide away of media. With cell phones replacing landlines, websites replacing newspapers, email replacing physical mail and social media supplementing traditional media, consumers expect to receive communications via their channel of choice. By using a combination of traditional (newspapers, phone, television, direct mail) and modern (websites, social media, apps), auto companies can reach the breadth of their customers while showing that they are not hidebound and can adapt to new technologies. The message is –  to borrow from the classic Oldsmobile ad –  “This is not your father’s recall communication.”
 
And with the Internet of Things, new media isn’t only reserved for communication. In 2014, Tesla addressed a requested recall of a charger plug by remotely sending a software fix “over the air” to all affected vehicles. Not only did Tesla communicate with customers quickly, it burnished its reputation as a next-generation company by not inconveniencing its customers at all.
 
While corporate communications can send the right message and tone, they can only go so far. Consumers crave a friendly and familiar face, so customer care staff and vehicle manufacturers should encourage consumers to visit their local dealership and engage with the service or sales staff, with whom they are likely to have an existing relationship. 
 
After customers engage with the automotive brand – via the Web, on the phone, on email, at a dealership, via social media, and so on – the company should follow up to ensure customer satisfaction. The follow-up should offer a choice of communication methods, including, of course, the medium with which the customer contacted the brand in the first place. 
 
Tens of millions of cars have been recalled in recent years, resulting in untold loss of market valuation and manufacturer reputation. But in every crisis lies opportunity, and vehicle recalls can enable automotive companies to showcase their commitment to quality, high safety standards and close customer communications. By having a recall strategy in place with close cooperation with trusted and trained partners, training all staff who will communicate with the press or public, communicating quickly and forthrightly with customers through appropriate engagement channels and conducting thoughtful follow up, companies can develop a recall program suitable for the showroom floor. 
 
Marjorie Bynum is vice president of SOCAP International, a leading association for customer care professionals from Fortune 1,000 companies.

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