Open Letter to Toyota Customers Hits Pothole

Toyota LogoYou know the Toyota debacle has reached a new low when it snares Steve Wozniak.

And Woz’s issue isn’t even with the sticking gas pedal (the darn cruise control was malfunctioning).

I think it’s fair to say the timing for this celebrity endorsement isn’t ideal.

To ensure the “we-care” message reaches the masses, Toyota crafted a letter to customers that ran in major dailies and its Web site. After watching Bridgestone/Firestone take a public flogging years ago when management took the denial path, Toyota decided to address the issue head on.

So far so good.

But who the hell is writing this stuff?

Let’s break down the content starting with the opening line:

For more than 50 years, Toyota has provided you with safe, reliable, quality vehicles and first-rate service.

Hmmm.

You’ve just issued a recall that impacts more than 2 million cars and freaked out a subset of drivers who prefer to be the one deciding when gas feeds the engine, and you’re leading with heritage and adjectives.

The second line can only be described as Clintonesque:

I am truly sorry for the concern our recalls have caused, and want you to know we’re doing everything we can – as fast as we can – to make things right.

Notice that Toyota stays away from apologizing for an accelerator that seems to have a mind of its own. Instead, they’re sorry — no, make that “truly sorry” — that they caused heartburn from implementing the recall.

This type of language gamesmanship causes the customer to check out before getting to the part that matters– that Toyota is going “to make things right.”

Moving along:

We’re writing to all customers affected by the Pedal recall, as well as the Floor Mat recall, to let them know how to schedule a convenient appointment with their local dealer.

That’s big of you.

Then we learn of immense sacrifice:

We’ve temporarily halted production of these models to focus fully on fixing this problem in the vehicles that are on the road.

I don’t think customers will be impressed that you concluded all resources should be directed at solving the crisis before your brand is permanently tarnished.

As the letter comes down the home stretch, one would logically expect an empathetic close. Instead, we’re treated to a lesson in Auto Management 101:

Stopping production is never an easy decision – but we’re confident it’s the right thing to do for our customers.

Fellas, you are the largest car maker in the world. You’ve stockpiled over $25B in cash on the balance sheet. I don’t think you’re going to find customers feeling guilty that you had to temporarily halt the assembly line.

How can the best intentions go so wrong?

It’s possibly a case of copywriting by committee with legal chairing the effort.

In my crisis experiences, there’s often a tug of war between the approval process and common sense.

In the case of the Toyota letter, the approval process won out.

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17 comments

17 Comments so far

  1. Merredith February 3rd, 2010 12:08 pm

    Good post. One thing that stops Toyota from outright claiming ownership of/apologizing for the Pedal and Floormat issues isn’t just gamesmanship. It’s clear that language also came from their attorneys, who routinely (in cases where there are or could be death or disability) encourage potential defendants to avoid outright responsibility.

    There could also be some cultural mores at work here.

    That said, there are ways to not be so stupid — and avoid upsetting your customers even more.

    The easiest thing would have been to say, “we aim for innovation. What we don’t aim for is for anyone to be put in danger — or even potentially put in danger. Ever. While we are doing our best to correct the problems and looking at all potential sources, we sincerely regret that our loyal customers were ever in this situation.” See, “in this situation” is vague enough to avoid being pinned down legally, but still gets across the larger message of innovation, loyalty, regret.

    And I agree that they should go a little farther than asking for their customers’ empathy. A, “We are doing our best to stay in touch with everyone affected by these recalls, and will continue to keep everyone apprised, so that we can win back our customers’, dealers’ and partners faith in Toyota quality.”

    That’s what I’d say. But, they didn’t ask me!

  2. Lou Hoffman February 3rd, 2010 12:38 pm

    Those pesky attorneys.

    Like the way you crafted words to increase the sorry quotient and still stay clear of legal ramifications.

    P.S. They should have asked you.

  3. [...] following is a guest post from Lou Hoffman, CEO of PR consultancy The Hoffman Agency. It was originally published on his blog, Ishmael’s Corner and is re-published here with his permission. In this post, [...]

  4. Robin Luymes February 3rd, 2010 9:12 pm

    Grand Rapids, MI company to the rescue! Grand Rapids Spring and Stamping to create the replacement parts to save Toyota’s butt.

    I agree with your assessment that the company is lame and tame in its response. I want to see companies willing to say “we are mortified that this has happened and will do EVERYTHING in our power to make this right with our loyal consumers.” Legal depts have a fit with statements like that, but consumers can be forgiving about company slips … provided the companies are *real* in their response and bend over backward to make things right.

    Often, companies can’t stop crises from happening. But they can control their responses to these crises. Those are the situations that reveal the companies with great underlying values and strong leadership.

  5. Gerry Corbett February 3rd, 2010 10:11 pm

    Well said! To the point! And true!

  6. Lou Hoffman February 3rd, 2010 10:46 pm

    Robin,

    Your points are well taken.

    The leadership of Toyota or any company for that matter ultimately decides what’s the lead pin: legal or “do the right thing.”

    I suspect the Toyota situation will take some more twists and turns before closure.

  7. Dude February 12th, 2010 2:19 pm

    1. People DIED as a result of the pedal sticking.
    2. Toyota knew about the problem and did nothing.

    Is this “corporate responsibility?” I think not.

    I’m surprised that the Chairman/President haven’t stepped down, Japanese-style, and admitted their failure to properly supervise/lead/deliver. But maybe that’s just a sign of the times. To not apologize for a defect that led to the deaths of people is uncivilized.

    Perhaps they’re following the words of the sage, Dylan:
    People are crazy and times are strange
    I’m locked in tight, I’m out of range
    I used to care, but things have changed
    http://www.bobdylan.com/#/songs/things-have-changed

    Maybe there’s a gubernator movie in here, someplace, i.e., “Collateral Damage,” After his family is killed by a terrorist act, a firefighter goes in search of the one responsible.

  8. Lou Hoffman February 12th, 2010 2:41 pm

    If you’re going to borrow from “Things Have Changed” don’t forget the line:

    “Don’t get up gentlemen, I’m only passing through”

  9. toyota-recall-pr.com March 25th, 2011 10:42 am

    [...] Open Letter to Toyota Customers Hits Pothole [...]

  10. Ken Morrison March 7th, 2012 4:48 pm

    You have a wonderful resource here. I love how you disect corporate messages. I am going to share this blog with many. Thank you.
    Ken

  11. Lou Hoffman March 7th, 2012 4:53 pm

    Thanks Ken.

    The utlimate quest is for the blog to become a resource and a forum for anyone involved in communications.

    So I welcome any help in sharing the content with others.

  12. Megan February 9th, 2014 11:41 am

    This is great, but I would love to see the full letter to customers. Please contact me with where I may find the full communication.
    Thank you

  13. hoffman February 9th, 2014 11:59 am

    Megan,

    If you search on [toyota open customer letter] you’ll see a PDF comes up high on the SERP. Clicking on this should get you to the letter.

  14. [...] "Still, we’ve seen how the open letter can add to the mess, as highlighted in 'Letter to Toyota Customers Hits Pothole.'" [...]

  15. Bovée & Thill: Real Time Updates March 18th, 2014 12:07 am

    [...] "Still, we’ve seen how the open letter can add to the mess, as highlighted in 'Letter to Toyota Customers Hits Pothole.'" [...]

  16. Saif March 19th, 2014 2:33 am

    Bull Shit

  17. hoffman March 19th, 2014 6:50 am

    Since cussing isn’t allowed, I think you meant “that’s bologna.”

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