Q: The once admired carmaker is reeling from revelations about uncontrolled acceleration and the recall of millions of vehicles. Can the company ever regain its renown for quality and its aura of success? Is success always linked to reputation? Would you buy a Toyota now?
Toyota almost had me. With my Honda CRV on the far side of 165,000 miles, I began to think about what comes next. I love my Honda (my third), but wanderlust kicked in when I was sitting in traffic one day next to a beautiful shiny new Toyota Rav4. I began to notice the Priuses in my neighborhood. Highlanders suddenly seemed everywhere. I began to wonder if I should get more adventuresome, change my preference. I even took a sneak peek online, looked it up on Edmunds.com, thought about a test drive.
Toyota will not get my business. It's not just the very scary sudden acceleration problem, which is bad enough. Toyota's executives did the worst possible thing that any corporate leaders can do -- they ignored the problem, and when it became public, they stonewalled for a time. Whether they lied and deliberately tried to cover it up may be for a court of law to decide, but in the public mind, they lost consumer trust.
Trust is the gold standard of any successful business relationship, particularly the relationship with customers. For most consumers, the act of buying a product is a serious trust walk -- is the spinach clean, can I trust what's in the cough syrup bottle, will these eggs make me sick, does this auto maker produce safe cars.
Consumers may ask a lot of questions, but in reality, most of us do not have enough knowledge, time or money to get precise answers to these questions. We have to trust that the vendor is honest, makes a high quality product, and would not jeopardize our safety.
Bad things happen to good products. When someone maliciously tainted Tylenol years ago, Johnson & Johnson immediately pulled the product from shelves nationwide and went public with an aggressive campaign to assure the public of its integrity and inherent safety of the product. The J&J response to the Tylenol scare remains one of the great textbook cases on how to manage a product emergency correctly.
Trust is a very fleeting commodity. Arthur Andersen was a great accounting firm, one of the "big five" back in the day when such firms exuded the aura of trust. Along came the Enron corporate scandal and Andersen paid the highest price for failing to challenge Enron's criminal accounting practices -- the accounting firm went out of business.
The failure of Toyota's leadership to tell the truth from Day One will make it very hard for this auto manufacturer to regain the public's trust. Stories about families being killed by out-of-control cars sound like horror movies, but the crashes have been very real.
Toyota could have moved aggressively to get on top of the news, confront the catastrophe, and make amends. Instead, until last week when Congress hauled the Toyota leaders in for hearings, those executives appeared obtuse to the public concern. They continue to have a tin ear when it comes to the public demand for a full accounting of what went wrong with these once-revered cars.
So, what will I do with my aging truck? Guy at Jiffy Lube last week said my engine is good to go to 200,000. Sold! Suddenly, my old reliable CRV is the best-looking car on the road -- well, at least, under the hood!
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