Seth Godin’s Bad Toyota Experience


Seth's Blog: Good is not almost as good as great

One of Toyota's weak links, at least in the U.S., has been their dealer customer service. Jim Womack referred to this in our podcast last week and now business/marketing blogger Seth Godin highlights his bad dealer experience.

In doing so, Seth highlights that the difference between “good” and “great” is often huge:

My guess is that even for a thriving brand like Toyota, most of these guys weren't paid so much. They were ‘good' salespeople, lifers who showed up, did what they were told and closed a sale here and there.

It soon became clear that the salesperson who was assigned to me wasn't ‘great'. The dealership had messed up: He had no record of my appointment, no file, no history of why I came. But he just punted. He made no effort to engage with me or look me in the eye or empathize with my frustration at the complete waste of time my call yesterday had been. He gave up after about ten seconds, bummed out that he had lost his place in line. So I left.

I have a two-week old Prius, a company fleet vehicle. More on the Prius later. All I had to do was pick the vehicle up at a DFW area Toyota dealer, so mine wasn't the typical “car buying” experience. But when I got out of my vehicle, I had a smarmy swarm of three sales guys on me before I even got inside. That initial overbearing impression was similar to any other dealership I had ever been in. Short-term thinking, the “hunter” mentality, rules in auto dealers, regardless of what company's product they are selling. (Jim Womack's e-letter on hunters and farmers, in PDF).

The fleet rep I was working with asked about the work I do. He was amazed that hospitals are applying the Toyota Production System. “You'd think they could come up with their own thing,” he said. I didn't sense a real deep appreciation for TPS, even in this guy who had worked for the dealership for over a decade. His desk certainly wasn't “5S-ed”, but that's not the real indication of lean that I would look for.

There was a lot of paperwork that could have, honestly, been filled out before I got there, which would have reduced my “turnaround time” there in the dealership, but oh well.

The real indication of lean and TPS would be the dealer culture, which I couldn't surmise in an hour. Is the workforce focused on the customer and their needs or just on moving metal? Are employees engaged in suggestions for improving the dealership, or are they each lone wolves working in competition with each other?

Anyway, growing up in a GM family, that was my first ever visit to a Toyota showroom.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. My experience is different. I’ve bought a few Toyotas (all from the same dealer). The paperwork was always completed ahead of time and only required a few signatures while they pulled the car around to deliver it or put on the license plates. Once I had to wait a few minutes as the salesperson was assisting another customer, but not long. Recently something (I believe some type of shield to protect the drivetrain) vibrated loose on my 2004 Toyota Celica. I pulled into a dealer about 800 miles from where I purchased the car. The writeup man looked under my car and said he’d meet me in the customer lounge. A couple minutes later he came over, flipped me the keys, said the car was all set, and to have a great day. He never asked me my name or where I bought the car, he just provided great service.

  2. It’s interesting to hear these negative Toyota stories (and Jim’s talking about how Toyota could fail) considering the media reputation Toyota has right now.

    Even more so recently, it seems, you can’t open the WSJ, Ny Times, or some magazine without a GLOWING article about how great Toyota is.

    I assume this doesn’t go to their heads? Dell Computers had that kind of glowing praise all over in the late 90’s, but what about now? The company is in crisis apparently. People aren’t trying copy Dell any more. Or Cisco, or any other list of companies.

    Why does toyota have such staying power in the “we want to copy them” front?

  3. Hmmm…. I wonder if the sales experience is different from the service experience.

    I had a poor experience buying my Toyota — same issues that confronted you and Seth — but my 5000 mile service was terrific. They called to confirm my appointment, they were prepared for my arrival, they got my car out on time, and they even washed, cleaned, and dusted the car (which I don’t think is included in the official 5000 mile service).

  4. Nice post–and interesting that you link to this piece from Seth’s blog. I noticed it not simply because of the material about Toyota’s poor dealer quality, but because Seth’s recommendation is completely wrong by any lean standards.

    “My best advice: Fire half your salesforce. Then, give the remainder, the top people, a big raise, and use the money left over to steal the best salespeole you can find from other industries or even from your competition. You’ll end up with fewer salespeople. But all of them will be great.”

    Huh? To paraphrase Dr. Deming and Jim Womack, good workers in a bad system will always necessarily fail, just as decent workers in a great system will shine. The problem that he has encountered might on the face of it be a lazy employee–but the real issue is the design of the system. There’s no evidence that the voice of the customer is linked to the way that things operate, and no evidence of a systematic look at eliminating value in the overall process of serving the customer so as to provide value.

    Also, I’m not sure that Godin represents a customer that this Toyota dealership really wants to work so hard to keep. He walks in and is insulted that employees don’t rush to greet him at the door. And then he gives the person who serves him ten seconds (by his comment) to find an appointment he made yesterday, and when the guy can’t, Godin walks out in a huff, rushing home to slam the particular dealership by name on one of the best-read blogs on the web.

    If he were the least bit loyal to the brand and the product he would have at least voiced his concern to them, to give them a chance to recover. But he gets more mileage from an aggrieved position. So…my point is not to excuse the poor performance of the dealer. They should fix the service problem at a fundamental level. And when they get it right, they should provide excellent service to all customers–while being mindful as to which of their customers are “angels” and which are “devils”.

  5. Great comment Tom. I’m embarrassed I didn’t pick up on or comment on that angle to the story.

    If salespeople have certain “hunter” mindsets and focus on the short term… and this is true across the board at most dealerships at most companies (is Saturn still an exception?) then this is a SYSTEMIC problem.

    I’m sure that short-term salesperson behavior is driven by incentives and the management system.

    Firing people does nothing to fix that.

  6. When a company has excellent and in-demand products over a period of time, its sales force often becomes a group of “order takers” rather than true salesmen. Then, when serious competition emerges, they can’t deal with it very well.

    Some of this may be going on here.

  7. We should not forget that dealers are independently owned. Toyota can, and should, take steps to ensure dealers selling their brand live up to their standards, but the Toyota company has little direct control unless they receive a lot of customer feedback. If the system is still functioning in a way that did not benefit Seth Godin, it is probably due to the fact that no one else ever complained about it.

    And I completely agree with Tom’s comments about the original story. There may be a little bit of the old “celebrity customer” routine going on here.


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