In 1983, I was driving my first car, a used Datsun 210. I stopped at a 7-Eleven® to get a Diet Coke® . . . came back to the car, and put the gears into reverse . . . David Bowie music blasting as usual. But what happened in that moment was not usual at all. The car jolted backwards before I even hit the accelerator, and it began to pick up speed—in REVERSE. I was trying to navigate through my rear-view mirror . . . and at the same time trying to figure out how to make the car STOP. I hit the brakes, threw it into park, pulled the emergency brake . . . nothing worked, and the car veered out onto a major highway.
As I realized there was nothing I could do to stop the car, it dawned on me: I am going to DIE. Everything went into slow motion, and I had this odd feeling of peace . . . yes, one of THOSE moments. I continued to hold the steering wheel, but had no idea what I was doing by that point—I had only been driving a few months.
Miraculously, I didn’t hit any cars on the highway . . . but instead veered into a commercial construction lot, went up a ramp, and landed over a 100-foot ditch. All four wheels of the car were perched “just right” so the car would not fall into the ditch. Emergency workers came fast, and I was pulled from the car with a hurt finger and a sore neck. The local media even showed up and took my picture next to the crazily positioned car for the newspaper.
I remember thinking that no one really understood what happened to me in that car. Whenever I told the story, people would make a funny expression and cock their heads. My Dad wanted to get me a Volvo. He wanted me in a tank because he—like everyone else—was silently thinking “driver error” . . . I mean, had anyone ever heard of a car (other than Herbie the Love Bug) that drove itself?
Now today, no thanks to Toyota, most people have heard of this problem: autoacceleration. It’s one of the customer-reported issues for several Toyota models . . . and some of the passengers have apparently not been as fortunate as me. But what REALLY perplexes me is Toyota’s initial response to the numerous customer complaints.
Toyota is one of the most reputable brands in the world. I’ve owned Toyota cars, and they were virtually maintenance-free workhorses that served and served. Given their brand, which is synonymous with reliability, it’s practically unimaginable that Toyota would have such horrendous issues this year. BUT . . . everyone makes mistakes. If there is one lesson to be learned here—and I believe there are several—it is that no entity, however stellar, is immune to errors. Whether this is due to arrogance . . . or to a lack of testing for economic reasons . . . or even to the fact that new technology is sometimes flawed . . . we don’t really know yet. But everyone makes mistakes, and mistakes are forgivable: they are forgettable, even, over time.
What’s harder to forgive is denial. A company that does not own its mistakes and humbly make amends is doing damage to its brand . . . which is difficult and costly to repair. A blow to one’s brand can take years to overcome . . . it can even be fatal. If Toyota would have paid attention to its customers early on, instead of attempting to minimize the problems and find fault with the customers . . . losses on so many levels could have been avoided.
Realistically speaking, customer complaints are present in ANY business, no matter how great the business . . . and that brings me to the second lesson I see in this fiasco. While it is true that some customer complaints are unnecessary and are due to out-of-scope expectations . . . many of them are genuine and deserved . . . and there’s a delicate balance between managing customer complaints and maintaining your company’s forward progress. But ignoring and/or minimizing customer complaints, no matter what the source, is ALWAYS a mistake. Positive and negative customer feedback needs to be considered equally valuable in any business operation . . . it’s what your business needs to move forward successfully and to continuously evolve.
I don’t think anyone knows the fate of Toyota at this point: only that it will cost them a LOT of money. But there is one thing for sure. Given the powerful influence of customer conversations in this brave new media era—your business cannot afford the cost of unhappy customers. Turning a difficult customer around may involve some effort, but in today’s world, it can make the difference between ongoing success and avoidable losses for your business.