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Open Letter to Toyota Customers Hits Pothole

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The 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, Hoffman argues that Toyota’s letter to customers involving their massive recall falls flat.

You 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 the who the hell is writing this stuff?

Lets 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 copy writing 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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