Toyota and Saying You’re Sorry

Erich Segal died a few weeks ago. He wrote “Love Story,” a commercially successful book in the early 1970s that became a film by the same name. And Segal and his work made popular the notion that “love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Not sure exactly why I was thinking about that early this a.m. while chasing the belt on the treadmill.

Oh, yeah. It’s because of Toyota.

As I opined Friday, Toyota finds itself stuck in some deep doo-doo because of both a very serious safety issue — and the potential that this situation will undercut the company’s hard-earned reputation for quality, customer service and brand loyalty.

Of the two issues — solving the problem with the accelerators may prove to be the easier fix.

And for Toyota, convincing customers and potential customers that you’re sorry — and more importantly, that they should have full confidence in the safety of the company’s vehicles today and tomorrow — may prove more difficult.

The company started reaching out to customers and others Sunday with ads in newspapers around the country.

So what does this have to do with saying you’re sorry — with making an apology?

Well, making an apology — saying you’re sorry — is generally viewed as a key part of any crisis management strategy (very generally stated here): identify the problem, take responsibility and accountability, fix the problem, take steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

But in an era where apologies are many times well-scripted and pro forma, gaining credibility and trust by saying you’re sorry isn’t always that easy.

Here’s from a NYT article by Alina Tugend, “An Attempt to Revive the Lost Art of Apology“:

There has been a fair amount in the news lately about apologies, particularly whether the chief executives of financial institutions have been contrite enough about the role they played in bringing about this recession. But whether it be an apology from a public figure to an anonymous mass of people or a private one between you and your spouse, a good apology has the same essentials.

These include an acknowledgment of the fault or offense, regret for it and responsibility for it — and, if possible, a way to fix the problem, said Holly Weeks, a communications consultant and author of “Failure to Communicate: How Conversations Go Wrong and What You Can Do to Right Them” (Harvard Business Press, 2008).

We’re taught when we’re very young to say, “I’m sorry,” when we steal someone’s pail in the sandbox or lock our sister in a closet (hypothetically speaking). But somehow, as we grow up, our apologies often become more abstract, more defensive and less an acceptance of responsibility than a demand that the wronged person forgive us.

Examples of bad apologies abound. “ ‘I want to apologize’ is not an apology,” Ms. Weeks said. “It’s no more an apology than ‘I want to lose weight’ is a loss of weight.”

Love may mean never having to say you’re sorry.

Toyota is about to learn that that idea doesn’t apply to selling cars and trucks.

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