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How Toyota Missed Its "Tylenol Moment"

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When a company makes a mistake, it can be the brightest moment in their history.

Tylenol had that opportunity.  But they missed their moment.  Big time.


How a company reacts, removes the pain, and repairs the emotional connection shows the true colors of that organization more than almost any situation they might encounter.

The sadness most of us have in watching, experiencing and hearing about what has transpired in the events of the Toyota situation unfolding is that our expectations of this "great" automaker were not met in how they handled the situation.  Not even close.

All the opportunities were in place for Toyota to display the type of heroics that move a brand to cult status.  Toyota had all the components that Tylenol had to call on when they made the decisions and took the actions that continue to hold that brand up as the gold standard in customer apologies and catastrophe recovery.  As Tylenol had, Toyota had the following conditions in place upon which they could decide and act for their customers and employees:

1. Toyota has a large community presence, enabling personal, community-based outreach.

For example; in a 72 hour period, starting September 29,1982 when seven people died in the Chicagoland area after taking cyanide-laced capsules of Extra-Strength Tylenol, it took Johnson & Johnson twenty minutes to decide "How do we protect the people?"  With the golden rule strapped to their back, they set to work.  With bullhorns blaring, Chicago health and law-enforcement officials swarmed Chicago-area streets, warning everyone not to take Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules and to bring in suspicious bottles for testing.  Tylenol worked with local authorities, schools, even Boy Scout troops.  Children were sent home from school with notes, and transit system workers formed a continuous human megaphone, spreading the word.  Anticyanide kits were distributed to all paramedic units. Telephone drives run by the Boy Scouts and church and civic groups sent folks door-to-door to reach those who might have missed the warning.

What has been Toyota's response in communities?  Some dealerships have been given stipends [of about $25,000 for the entire dealership] to underwrite giving out coffee and giving away some free gas credit cards.  But what about the missed opportunity to go beyond handing out coffee to customers who can drive in?  What has been done proactively in communities to allay the fear that Toyota consumers feel?  Here www.toyotarecall.org, consumers are helping each other to allay those fears.

2. Toyota knows the records of their customers and those who have been impacted, enabling them to reach out and personalize support.

Toyota's communication has been within the "letter of the law" regarding recall communication, but does not go much farther than the standard letter and process to go in to get your car taken care of.  Think of how rich an opportunity Toyota missed here, where they could have worked with dealerships after the initial notification letters went out, to customize content based on customers' lives and loyalty to the brand?

In addition to the consumers who are identifiable, what about owners of resale vehicles?  It does not appear that there has been thought or decisions made to consider and support the fear and worry that these owners are experiencing.

3. Toyota enjoys (enjoyed?) a  "halo effect" of customers who were pleased with their vehicles, enabling them to build on that respect and emotional connection.

These Toyota vehicles meant reliability for their drivers.  Peace-of-mind.  For their owners, this meant that Toyota needed to extend that peace-of-mind in how they empathized and supported the drivers of their vehicles.  The halo is tarnished.

4. Toyota has the communication infrastructure to have made their recovery a "wow" experience in terms of proactive, transparent information, process and support.

If Toyota's decision making and actions had been driven by "How do we protect the people?" rather than "How do we protect our brand, and how do we mitigate our losses?" clearly what we have experienced and heard about would be different.  The intent and motivation guiding Toyota's [early days of the recall] decisions were clearly not connected to our perception of the brand.  They certainly didn't engender a human connection with the people behind the decisions.  Now, with pressure, Toyota is becoming more transparent; they are offering more assistance - but under pressure, under duress.

An apology when it is executed well is an important peace process between a customer and a company. It repairs the emotional connection.  It is swift, it is deliberate, and it makes the recipient feel that they have been listened to, honored and made whole again.  Five actions make up that peace process:

1. Delivering a swift response.

2. Showing humility and empathy for what the customer is experiencing

3. Accepting accountability.

4. Providing and honest explanation of what happened.

5. Immediately extending an olive branch - to right the situation and mend the relationship.

How would you grade Toyota's performance in delivering this peace process in how they've handled the news of their vehicle performance, the recall, and the customer and dealership experiences?





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Jeanne Bliss began her career at Lands’ End where she reported to founder Gary Comer and the company’s executive committee, ensuring that in the formative years of the organization, the company stayed focused on its core principles of customer and employee focus. She was the first leader of the Lands’ End Customer Experience. In addition to Lands’ End, she has served Allstate, Microsoft, Coldwell Banker Corporation and Mazda Corporations as its executive leading customer focus and customer experience. Jeanne has helped achieve 95% retention rates across 50,000 person organizations, harnessing businesses to work across their silos to deliver a united and deliberate experience customers (and employees) want to repeat. Jeanne now runs CustomerBliss (http://www.customerbliss.com), an international consulting business where she coaches executive leadership teams and customer leadership executives on how to put customer profitability at the center of their business, by getting past lip service; to operationally relevant, operationally executable plans and processes. Her clients include Johnson & Johnson, TD Ameritrade, St. Jude’s Children’s Hospitals, Bombardier Aircraft and many others. Her two best-selling books are Chief Customer Officer: Getting Past Lip Service to Passionate Action and I Love You More than My Dog: Five Decisions that Drive Extreme Customer Loyalty in Good Times and Bad. Her blog is http://www.ccocoach.com She is Co-founder of the Customer Experience Professionals Association. www.cxpa.org

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  • by Greddy Fri May 27, 2011 via blog

    Nice story. This is one of the things our government should be concerned about .

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