Bad News Couldn't Come at a Better Time for Toyota

02/26/2010 03:00 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

If you're an automotive company dealing with a massive recall, pray for a bad economy and look to maximize your opportunities.

If bad was going to happen to Toyota, their timing couldn't be better. It's public knowledge that there aren't many people entering into the new car market these days. Like other automotives, Toyota isn't missing out on much. If the economy was healthy, the PR nightmare of such an enormous recall could potentially be devastating. In a poor economy, however, people are much more apt to hold onto their cars for longer, looking to repair rather than buy. This buys Toyota much needed time.

The average ownership in a good economy is several years, and even longer when things go south. Current Toyota owners affected by the recall purchased their cars in recent years, so it's fair to estimate they'll be holding onto them for several years to come even if the economy improves. This gives time for memories to soften, and gives Toyota a real opportunity - yes, I said opportunity - to grow a loyal following in the process.

True, dealerships have been faced with repairs in the tens of thousands. But many Toyota owners probably last saw their dealership when they purchased or when the warranty was running out, choosing instead to get servicing done for potentially less money elsewhere. And this, if it can think on its feet, spells opportunity for Toyota.

Typically the most profitable area at a car dealership is its service department. Toyota has a chance to win owners back (and drum up some business in the process) with strategic interpersonal intervention. In order to succeed, the owners who come in for recall repairs need to feel appreciated. Dealerships can do this in a number of ways, with the hopes of turning a negative into a positive experience that can continue for the life of the car ownership.

When owners arrive, offer a free car wash. Their time is valuable, and most dealerships have car washes. Provide beverages and snacks while they wait. Have the head of sales or other dealership big wig offer them Toyota's sincere apology. To get them back for service within 6 months, a move they probably wouldn't make on their own, give owners a free basic inspection certificate. (Coupons don't work as effectively as certificates or gift cards, especially with men). The bounce back effort will allow the service department the opportunity to have a positive interaction with the owner, and give the dealership an opportunity to sell additional products and services. It also probably wouldn't hurt dealerships to announce that, because of hard economic times, they've lowered their service department pricing for loyal Toyota consumers. Every bit of good news will help improve consumer perception.

After an owner returns home with his/her repaired car, send a letter co-signed by the dealership owner and head of the service department. Any actions that make them feel that their initial purchase decision was not in error will help them reconcile their feelings about the brand. Next to a home it's the biggest purchase decision most consumers make, and they don't want to feel they made a huge mistake.

Toyota corporate let dealerships and owners down. If it acts quickly, however, it has a chance to make things right.

Sarah O'Leary is a marketing industry veteran and owner of Logic Marketing for Sales. Toyota and all others looking for advisement can reach the agency at