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Toyota tailGate

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Toyota owners are revolting… Yes, another example of customer power.

Toyota has been fiercely protective of their brand image, specifically their historically high vehicle quality ratings. But as companies today have no control over the marketplace conversation about their products, Toyota is finding itself in an uncomfortable position to say the least.

Even just a few years ago this story would largely have been buried at the dealer level as straightforward warranty repairs and outside of government safety regulators (not likely to represent a safety risk). Today the rise of owner forums is serving as a vehicle, no pun intended, for owners to band together and force manufacturers to address issues.

This is not really news – people have been complaining about companies for as long as the web existed. For now, there are still relatively few product or service ‘-gates’. It still takes a confluence of circumstances. A web-savvy audience or customer-base, a community around the product, service or the screwed-around customer, a large-ish blog or online publication picking up the story etc. However, their frequency and reach is growing and it seems that such confluences are becoming less coincidental and possibly even more orchestrated (see the suggestion that Toyota competitors might be fanning the flames). What is news is that there has never been a movement like this begun and carried out by owners themselves to have an automaker address a grievance.

Companies cannot and will not be able control such ‘outbursts’ of customer power. They had their go at blasting messages, burying unfavourable stories, creating warranties with small print that any demon from the soul-signing department would be proud of. Now it’s not just the market’s turn but the individual customer’s turn to network with others with similar grievances. It is not merely strength in numbers though, it is the strength of the voices that now can be registered, amplified and freely distributed.

So, there is the hard way and then there is the easy way for businesses to deal with the ‘empowered consumer’. A good start would dropping the term consumer. The hard way is to:

a) stick head in the sand and pretend nothing’s happening
b) alright, something’s happening but those people don’t matter
c) hm, they do seem to create some noise/buzz/trouble but our lawyers/PR firm/brand or marketing agency can handle them
d) oh shit, it doesn’t seem to be working as it used to, let’s find a lawyer/PR firm/brand or marketing agency that says can handle this
e) thousands of $$$ or £££ later, someone notices that some employee(s) are living the social web stuff and communicating with people out there. Some of them might even be customers – shock, horror! Quick, call the communications/PR/marketing people to do something about it!
f) this is where things fork:
i. throttle the communication and that’s the end of it until the next meteor hits and dinosaurs scatter.
ii. someone in possession of sufficient authority and common sense examines what’s going on and gets a clue.

The easy way is to go straight to f) ii., have some fun discovering that it is not so hard for companies to get people on their side once they start behaving as people, not as a faceless corporate entity. Er, fairly honest and communicative people that is.

Customers can ‘fight back’ because there are now ways to connect and amplify their grievances, feedback and wishes. Looking at the past 5-10 years, the net has become a world of its own, not separate from the offline one but defined by a lot of human behaviour that couldn’t find expression in a hierarchical world. In many ways, the net is an expression of non-hierarchical power. And, of course, much more besides but it is this power that seems to befuddle companies.

Something they teach even at business schools is that markets do not stand still. This is especially true in a space where demand supplies itself. So here’s another one to watch.

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One Response to “Toyota tailGate”

  1. Javeed Ahmed
    on Mar 27th, 2010
    @ 20:24 pm

    Side effects of Toyota Recalls…. Toyota dealers are so busy in fixing the recalled problems that they are refusing to accept normal business. In last 10 years I have been a loyal Toyota customer and could do normal oil change without an appointment. But this morning the “Friendly neighbour Toyota Dealer” (Westbury Toyota) refused to service me without an appointment. The reason was they are very busy and mind you this was at 11:30 am.
    I tried to speak and request to Asst. Service Manatger Mr. Eric, but he was less interested in doing any business. According to him they are very busy and I had to come with an appointment.
    With this excellent show of customer sevice I think Toyota is not setting any good example for already or new Toyota customers. We Toyota owners already driving these cars with fear that there may be something wrong with my car and I am not being told. And now I am being rudely deny the service.

    During my conversation with Mr. Eric I told him in today’s scenario how good is it to deny the business. As most of Toyota owners are half minded to change to some other manufacturers. But I don’t think he understand that simple thing. For that matter does Toyota understand this…..

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