How to Get Toyota to Listen to Customers. Hint: Bring Your Lawyer

In May 2011, everybody at Toyota North America joined hands and sung Kumbaya – it was the release of the much-vaunted A Road Forward: The Report of the Toyota North American Quality Advisory Panel. The report was part of a public relations blitz to restore consumer confidence in Toyota products in the wake of the Unintended Acceleration debacle. And, within the 60 pages of corporate soul-searching was the way back home – and it ran right through Toyota’s customers. The glossy document was laced with admissions that Toyota had failed to heed the voices of its customers such as this:

“Toyota has recognized that many of the challenges it faced in 2009 and 2010 were a result of failures to adequately listen to and incorporate external feedback from various stakeholders, including consumers, third-party rating agencies, and regulators.”

A company personage no less distinguished than Stephen St. Angelo, Toyota’s North American Chief Quality Officer, promised the dawn of a new day:

“Right from the outset, we told them we wanted them to be straightforward with us, because we seriously want to keep improving our processes and our transparency. It is important to note that the Panel focused primarily on how we operate and communicate. While I am glad they’ve recognized the positive changes we’ve already made, I also appreciate how they want us to keep at it. I’ve told them we intend to do just that.”

So, how have they been doing with that listening stuff? Well that depends.

If you are a Toyota or Lexus customer who has merely complained about a UA event, you may not get beyond conversations with their customer care folks or a visit from the SMART team, who will tell you that your car’s just fine.

But, if you are a consumer who has been drawn into the multi-state litigation, Toyota will listen to you in a day-long deposition, in which Toyota wants you to bring every scrap of communication you made or received about Toyota – including with your family.

Toyota sought to depose at least eight consumers who experienced a UA in their Toyotas, most of them named by the plaintiff’s attorneys as “absent class members.” Although the plaintiffs withdrew some of their names, experts relied on a few of those incidents in formulating their opinions. Naturally, Toyota wants their own crack at these folks. Earlier this month, Judge Selna, who is overseeing the Multi-District Litigation in Orange County California, ruled that it saw little point in compelling a deposition since the absent class member is not going to offer any evidence to support class certification. Toyota has challenged this ruling. The legal tug-of-war continues.

From the customer’s perspective, this is a new level of weird. The consumers we contacted were ignorant of the legal maneuvering. They just knew that they bought a Toyota product, suffered a frightening experience, got no real help resolving their issue and wound up with a laundry list of homework and the new acquaintance with a process server. The broad subpoenas required the witnesses to bring documents pertaining to their vehicle’s warranties, service records, purchase and sales, and exchanges between themselves and Toyota, lawyers and the media. They also asked for any private communications the consumer might have had regarding their UA event including with their families and friends. Some consumers might find the process overwhelming or intimidating. But some of the witnesses who have received their special invitations to Toyota’s new Listen-to-the-Customer Tour were just surprised to finally have gotten the company’s attention.

Jeffrey Pepski, the Minnesota Lexus ES350 owner who petitioned NHTSA in March 2009 to specifically investigate electronic causes of Toyota Unintended Acceleration, was served after he returned from vacation. In February 2009, Pepski experienced a UA event while driving at high speed, in which the vehicle accelerated to 80 mph. Pepski tried pumping and pulling up the accelerator with his foot, but could not slow the vehicle. Pepski’s Lexus was equipped with a standard carpet mat, not the all-weather variety said to trap accelerator pedals. Toyota and NHTSA applied its standard investigative techniques, which included an uneventful drive in Pepski’s Lexus, and a lame demonstration of carpet mat interference in which Pepski showed that the carpet could be easily dislodged. Toyota denied that anything was wrong with Pepski’s Lexus and succeeded in persuading NHTSA to shut down the investigation. NHTSA denied Pepski’s petition.

“I’m a bit surprised,” Pepski said. “I have communicated with [Toyota] many times and they did not respond to my communications. I don’t know what they hope to learn. If they wanted to learn something, all they had to do was ask.”

Tanya Spotts, who experienced a frightening UA event in a parking garage was featured in a CNN news story, was deposed earlier this month. Spotts had only owned her 2011 Lexus ES350 for six months, when she was pulling into a second-floor space in a parking garage in Reston Town Center, with her foot on the brake. With about three feet to go before coming to a complete stop, her vehicle surged and slammed into the concrete wall in front of her. Spotts, a Realtor, looked down and saw her foot firmly on the brake. In fact, she was braking so hard that she sprained and bruised her foot, requiring treatment. Her 21-year-old daughter, who was a front-seat passenger, said that she heard a beeping noise coincident with the event. Spotts promptly reported the incident to her insurer and to the dealership, Pohanka Lexus of Chantilly, Virginia. Toyota inspected her vehicle and downloaded data from the vehicle’s EDR. The EDR reading showed no braking during the event. Driver error and case closed.  Like Pepski, she was perplexed to receive a subpoena – she didn’t know much about depositions.

“I can’t understand why they needed me,” she said. “I don’t know if they were trying to attack my credibility and my person; that bothered me. I wasn’t there to attack them other than to tell my story – that’s the only way the general public can find out about a problem, because the big corporations have the money and means to make and dissuade people from coming up against them – it was to have a voice.”

If they had really wanted to investigate what happened to me, why did they wait until CNN contacted them?” she asks.

William Kronholm, a retired journalist who petitioned NHTSA in 2008 to investigate electronic causes of UA in Toyotas was also subpoenaed to testify in a deposition. Kronholm experienced two brief UA events in his 2007 Tacoma. In this investigation, ODI investigator Scott Yon tried to make the case that Kronholm simultaneously stepped on the gas and brake pedals, while wearing his cross-country ski boots. Kronholm conducted his own experiment and found that it was impossible to hit two pedals at once without twisting his foot into an unnatural 90-degree angle. Nonetheless, NHTSA denied Kronholm’s petition in 2008.

Kronholm said that he spent three days copying documents.

“The extent of the subpoena surprised me — they wanted all the information about my warranty. Well, I have the same warranty as everyone else who has a Tacoma. And they asked for all the advertising and promotion I had seen before my purchase. That’s absurd. I bought the truck in 2007. By the time I finished copying everything to answer the subpoena my stack of documents would have been an inch-and-a-half thick.”

Kronholm, however, was not in the least bothered by the prospect of being deposed.

“It was awfully broad and they were obviously fishing. But there was nothing confidential. Everything I did is on the public record,” he said. “I think my testimony would help the plaintiffs. When Secretary of Transportation Ray Lahood announced that Toyota had been exonerated, it sort of signaled an end to the story. Journalists weren’t going to pursue it any more. There was no avenue to push it forward. But, any avenue that pushes it forward is a good thing. That puts pressure on Toyota to find the problem and fix it.”

Yes, by all means, Toyota, listen to your customers.