Monday, February 1, 2010

Toyota Needs to Answer Some Serious Questions to Regain Consumer Trust

by Thomas Hinton

What began as a gas pedal design flaw and floormat problem for one of the world’s most respected automotive companies has mushroomed into a public relations nightmare for Toyota. Consumers are deeply troubled by Toyota's media posturing and potholed explanations. We want to know the full story. Consumers are entitled to know why this problem developed into a serious issue and resulted in the deaths of innocent people who trusted the Toyota brand. Telling the American consumer the full story is the only way Toyota can salvage its brand image and reputation because the problem is now beyond damage control.

Some journalists and persons familiar with the recall claim that Toyota's leadership knew about the gas pedal and accelerator problems nearly two years ago. But senior management failed to take action to correct the problems until the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration forced its hand by mandating a recall of 4.2 million vehicles. If this is true, Toyota’s reputation for quality and customer care will be severely tarnished.

If, in fact, Toyota’s management had early knowledge of a manufacturing and performance flaw with its accelerators and gas pedals, and failed to act, the company is not only potentially guilty of criminal acts, but its management is guilty of customer abuse - pure and simple! Whenever management places its bottom-line interests ahead of the safety and lives of its customers, it should be terminated.

Amid the growing crises, Toyota has tried to put a positive spin on the issue by taking out full-page ads in 20 newspapers across the nation to reassure customers they are fixing the problem. But, Toyota’s message in the ads is neither clear nor reassuring to consumers. The ads only raise more questions including “Who knew what, when?” And, "why didn't management act sooner to protect the lives of Toyota's valued customers?"

The underlying issue for Toyota's customers is one of credibility. Consumers are questioning Toyota's integrity. Public opinion is turning against Toyota because consumers think the company's senior leadership knew about the faulty gas pedal design and accelerator flaw long before any action was ever taken to correct these problems thus jeopardizing unsuspecting drivers including a California Highway Patrol officer who was a skilled driver but could not control his malfunctioning Lexus as it accelerated to 120 mph. He and three family members died in a fiery crash near San Diego.

The fact that Toyota's senior management allowed this problem to escalate into a public relations disaster also raises questions about their competence let alone their commitment to Toyota's high principles and values. But, the key question consumers want answered is this. Why did people have to endure injury and even die as a result of Toyota’s slow response, or worse, management inaction? It is these questions that are keeping potential buyers out of Toyota dealerships. If Toyota wants customers to start visiting showrooms again and buying their autos, the company must come forward and respond truthfully and completely to these serious allegations and unanswered questions.

Allowing Toyota’s North American chief, Jim Lutz, to appear on NBC’s Today show to explain how the company is fixing the problem is not the answer. Consumers already know Toyota is fixing the problem. What consumers want are answers to the troubling questions like “Who knew what?" and "When did they know?”

Toyota should remember that consumers can be very understanding and forgiving during troubled times when a company does the right thing. Consider the tremendous outpouring of support Johnson & Johnson experienced from consumers in 1982 when seven people died after taking pain-relief Tylenol capsules that had been laced with cyanide poison. Today, Tylenol and Johnson & Johnson enjoy a greater market share than ever before because they did the right thing. In fact, the Tylenol tampering incident has become a model case study for how a company should behave and respond in times of crisis.

Regrettably, it seems Toyota’s management hasn’t read the Tylenol case study. If only Toyota’s leadership had acted sooner, perhaps those people who tragically died from the flawed gas petals and accelerator malfunctions would still be alive. These people are the ultimate victims of management deceit, incompetence and inaction.

About the Author. Thomas Hinton is president of the American Consumer Council, a non-profit consumer education organization with more than 90,000 members and 38 state affiliate organizations across the United States. He can be reached at: