The context

On February 23rd, 2023, a shocking incident happened in Libertyville, a suburb village of Chicago, USA. During the day, a woman was attacked at her home by an unknown individual, to steal her 2021 Volkswagen Atlas. Even worse, the offender battered the woman, knocking her to the ground. He then stole the car with her 2-year-old child inside, running her over as he fled and causing serious injuries to her extremities. The victim was still able to call 911 and they immediately responded.

As police desperately tried to find the stolen Volkswagen with a toddler inside, they reached out to Car-Net, a service that lets VW owners track their vehicles. As the trial period had ended, the representative wanted 150$ to restart the service. The policeman explained that a child’s life is in danger, and it is critical and urgent to reactivate immediately the service, but the representative didn’t budge, saying it was company policy. The policeman had to work out getting a credit card number and then call the representative back to pay the $150 and at that time the representative provided the GPS location of the vehicle.

All this process of reactivating the service took 30 minutes. By that time, police already located the vehicle, based on a 911 call from a person working at a nearby parking lot. The 2-year-old boy was left unharmed.

What went wrong?

Apart from the actual criminal act that happened, what sparked many discussions, negative criticism, and even hate was Volkswagen’s attitude. I deliberately highlighted the company, and not the Car-Net representative, because people tend to associate this kind of actions directly with the company that is responsible for that service.

During the next days, several news portals published articles about the incident, pointing out the lack of empathy and irresponsibility of the Car-Net employee. Volkswagen USA’s Facebook page received hundreds of negative commentaries at their commercial posts, as well as on other Facebook posts where this information was shared. A single employee action resulted in a severe damage to the company’s image in the USA, just as Volkswagen was running campaigns on how safe their cars are for families.

Image source: (20+) Facebook

Image source: (20+) Facebook

Mitigation actions

This situation imposed the company to react fast. On March 7th, 2023, a public statement was released by Rachael Zaluzec – SVP, Customer Experience & Brand Marketing, Volkswagen of America. She apologized on behalf of the company for the delay in locating the vehicle, stating a breach in a Car-Net call center process, related to subscription payment. In addition, she said that they want to make it right for the future, and happily announced they are setting a new standard for customer peace of mind, and that all Volkswagen customers who bought a car starting 2020 will receive access to emergency services for 5 years free of charge.

Image source: Youtube video

Conclusion & lessons learned

In 2015, Volkswagen already went through the so-called Dieselgate. Even if the recent case in Libertyville cannot be categorized as a major crisis, it still generated a reputational incident that affected the brand image in the USA, which is Volkswagen’s largest markets together with China.

That call center employee should have at least tried to get more involved in this case. He could have escalated the matter to a manager opened an emergency technical ticket, etc. In other words, he was supposed to prove he cared and wanted to help in locating the vehicle, as much as he could. Instead, they decided to follow some standard procedure, referring to the company’s policy.

The lesson to be learned here is that processes and policies must also take into account and describe exceptional cases, which cannot be treated as business as usual. And when some elements are not covered by documents, especially in emergency situations, it is necessary to train people towards logical actions and make sure they act responsibly.

The good part is that Volkswagen acted quickly and were transparent in their communication. They took full responsibility for what happened and reviewed their internal processes. It could be argued that they missed the opportunity to collect money for activating Car-Net as an additional commercial service. However, in the given circumstances, it was more important to bring the company’s image back to a high level and see the loss of revenues as investment with greater returns.


Author: Petru Amihalachioaie

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