I recently received a letter from Paul Willis, MD of Volkswagen UK. He was writing to tell me my car was fitted with a ‘defeat device’.
If you don’t know, a defeat device is a bit of software that allows a car to give false readings during an emissions test. So it appears cleaner and ‘greener’ than it actually is.
VW’s guilt in this matter isn’t in question. This is one of the world’s biggest carmakers, perpetrating one of the world’s biggest frauds. Unknowingly, I was complicit. And so were 11 million other VW drivers around the world.
Having admitted liability, this letter represented a great opportunity for VW, to say sorry to the 1.2 million UK people driving its ‘soiled goods’. To take responsibility for its actions. To take charge of fixing the problem. And to start the long process of winning back the trust of customers and shareholders.
Sadly, the letter achieved none of the above. In fact, it was an object lesson in missed opportunity. It left me cold, angry, and resolutely unforgiving. I thought I’d look at why.
Paul Willis opens his letter like this:
Dear Mr Matthew Turner
I would like to sincerely apologise that Volkswagen Group has let down its customers over the findings of irregularities in some of the diesel-powered vehicles we produce. I am now in a position to confirm that the vehicles on the enclosed list are affected by this issue.
It’s a very poor start. When you meet someone in real life, do you address them by their honorific, then their first and surname? Of course you don’t. It feels awkward. It’s both over-familiar and impersonal at the same time. What’s wrong with just “Dear Mr Turner”?
The first paragraph presumes I know what they’re apologising about. To me, it’s the major business story of the year, if not since Lehman Brothers et al went down in 2008. But for many VW drivers, this may have been the first they’ve heard about it. So the company has to act as if it’s potentially new information for the owner.
This actually makes its efforts even worse, as the letter descends in abstraction and obfuscation. Instead of addressing his reader directly – ie. “we’ve let you down” – Paul talks about them (and the company he leads) in the third person: “VW has let down its customers”. He also uses abstract terms to describe what happened, “the findings of irregularities”, yet provides no explanation of what these “irregularities” are, or what they mean. In short, it’s very light on information.
Being sorry means showing humility. But the phrase, “I am now in a position to confirm” feels arrogant and superior in this context.
Paul also refers to the scandal as an “issue”. It’s not an issue, it’s a problem. A VERY BIG PROBLEM. By seeking to downplay it, while providing little in the way of hard facts, his framing of the problem feels defensive, evasive and dismissive.
Four tips for Paul:
- Write as if you’re talking to someone in your normal, natural voice.
- Use everyday language they can relate to. They’ll be more receptive to what you have to say. They’ll also be more inclined to believe what you’re saying.
- Chances are your reader knows less than you. Furnish them with the relevant facts.
- When apologising, don’t sugar-coat things. You’re in the wrong, so tell it like it is and be humble.
In his next paragraph, Paul Willis says:
I want to reassure you that all affected EA189 diesel engine vehicles, including yours, remain technically safe and roadworthy in relation to this issue. There is no need for you to take any immediate action.
By talking about “EA189 diesel engine vehicles”, he distances his audience with technical terms. I’ve never heard of an EA189 engine. I don’t care what you call it VW, but I call it an ‘engine’, or a ‘diesel engine’ if I want to be specific. Then there’s more fluff and flannel surrounding the important messages.
Two tips for Paul:
- Ask yourself, would your Mum, or Dad, or Granny, or friend understand it? If not, you might want to think about rewriting it in a way they would understand. And deleting anything that’s not relevant to your reader.
- The more words you use, the fewer people remember. Paul’s paragraph uses 35 words to make its points, when a quick rewrite can do it in under 20. All without losing any of the key messages.
In his next paragraph, Paul Willis says:
However, a service action including the vehicles on the enclosed list will be required to rectify the issue. Technical solutions are currently being developed and the matter is being worked upon with the utmost priority.
Having failed to explain how or why this scandal happened, this paragraph is VW’s big chance to take ‘ownership’ of fixing things. Again it fails. There’s so much passive language, we lose track of who’s doing what to whom. The impression we get is that VW has no hand in the solution whatsoever.
What’s more, the first sentence in bold implies that Paul thinks this is the most important message in the letter. If so, then it should be in the opening paragraph or as a standalone headline at the top. If not, why bold it?
More cold and impersonal phrases like “service action” and “rectify this issue” continue to put distance between writer and reader. Yes, we can work out what it means logically, but it doesn’t connect with us emotionally.
Three tips for Paul:
- Use the active voice wherever possible. That way you can take responsibility (and the credit) for things. It also uses fewer words than the passive, so it’s easier to read and understand.
- Structure your message so it flows logically. I’d suggest explanation of why you’re writing first, apology second, and solution to the problem third.
- Once again, avoid those abstract phrases. Use words that non-technical people will understand.
In his final paragraph, Paul Willis says:
We will contact you again when the technical solution is available, to confirm the next steps. Please be assured that, when the work relating to this issue is carried out on your vehicles, the repair will be at no cost to your company and we will do our utmost to minimise the inconvenience to you. I would like to reiterate again our sincere apologies.
This paragraph has a bit of everything that’s wrong in all the previous paragraphs. It talks about a “technical solution”. There’s that familiar “relating to this issue” phrase again, more passive language, and more cold business speak – “at no cost to your company” and “minimise the inconvenience”. And finally, “Reiterate again” is a tautology.
Two tips for Paul:
- Think deeply about who you’re talking to, and why.
- Rewrite the letter. Or use my version below, for free.
Having laid into the letter’s signatory, I’m 100% confident Paul Willis didn’t write this letter himself. More likely, it was Volkswagen UK’s PR agency or Corporate Comms team. And you can bet that the individual who actually put pen to paper and wrote this clumsy, opaque and insincere letter is being paid very handsomely.
Which, when you think about it, is a whole other scandal.
This is based on the letter I received, plus a few recommendations I’d make – eg. collecting people’s cars, and directing them to a web page for more info.
Dear Mr Turner,
After investigating the emissions of some of our diesel engines, I can confirm your vehicle is fitted with a ‘defeat device’. You may have heard or read about this. A defeat device allows your car to give false readings during emissions tests, so it appears cleaner and ‘greener’ than it actually is.
On behalf of Volkswagen Group, I would like to say sorry to you, personally. We’ve really let you down. We’re trying to work out exactly how this happened – and who in the company is responsible.
Rest assured, your car is completely roadworthy and safe to drive, but we will need to fix the problem. Please bear with us, while we work out the best way to put things right. It’s our responsibility entirely, so it goes without saying it won’t cost you a penny.
Once we have a solution, we’ll be in touch to arrange to collect your car when it’s convenient for you.
You can find more information at www.volkswagen.co.uk/emissionsinfo, including news updates and some frequently asked questions.
Meanwhile, thank you for your patience. Once again, please accept my sincerest apologies for what’s happened, and for any inconvenience we’ve caused you.
We’ll continue to do everything we can to win back your trust.