November 11, 2009

Toyota Customer Service Rant

I'm pretty upset with Toyota right now. I've had a bad experience with their "Customer Experience Center" that I wish to share with the world.

I've got a 2006 Prius that I bought new in April of 2006. My passenger side headlight started winking out about 10,000 miles ago. I would be driving and notice that I had no headlight on the right side. What's weird is that turning the lights off then back on again quickly would solve the problem for a few weeks until it happened again. My car's got the fancy HID lights which have a bunch of supporting electronics, so I assumed that a transient problem like that was an electrical issue and not a blown bulb or anything.

I did a little research to figure out what the repair might be, and found that this is apparently a widespread problem affecting Priuses (Prii?) of that vintage, spawning an NHTSA investigation and at least two class action lawsuits. It appears to be a failure in the capsule (bulb) itself or possibly a mismatch between the capsule and the ECU. Evidently, the capsule requires a certain voltage range, and the high end of the range of voltage that the ECU is putting out doesn't overlap much with the low end of the range required by the capsule. If the ECU doesn't put out enough voltage to keep the metal in the capsule vaporized, the light shuts off. Restriking the lights gives them a boost of electricity and starts them going again.

Here's the thing: Just because it's the capsule (the HID equivalent of a bulb) doesn't mean I can just pop down to AutoZone to pick up a replacement. The replacement capsule costs $150-450, and the installation has to be done by a mechanic because the bumper has to come off.

Because it's such a widespread defect, many Prius owners have reported being able to call the Toyota Customer Experience Center (i.e. Toyota Corporate) to get the repair cost covered even out of warranty. I've got an extended warranty on mine, so I figured I'd be covered by that.

I finally got the problem to happen during the day so I could show the dealer. Without even lifting the hood, they said they've seen a lot of these, the capsule needed to be replaced, it's $250 per headlight to replace, and not covered under the extended warranty. I called the Customer Experience Center (800-331-4331) the next day and told them about it. I was called back a day or two later by a rep who said without batting an eye that Toyota would be able to help me and would take care of it, but the only catch is that I would need to go back to the dealer and have it fixed and Toyota would reimburse me. I asked specifically about the possibility of it being something more than the capsule (like it being the ECU), and she said that the dealership would need to do a diagnostic to determine what parts would be at fault, but that Toyota would reimburse me that cost as well.

(Normally, if someone says "yeah, just go spend some money and I'll reimburse you later", I'd be pretty skeptical, and demand something in writing. In this case however, I had heard all the stories elsewhere about Toyota Customer Experience Center making good, and thought there was no reason not to trust them. Turns out that was a mistake...)

A couple of weeks later, I took the car in to the dealer, and told them I needed the headlight fixed, but that they needed to do a diagnostic first to make sure it was just the capsule. They did the diagnostic, but waived their usual diagnostic fee, then replaced the capsule at a parts cost of ~$160 and labor of only $55, for around $217 including tax. That's way better than some of the prices I've seen quoted around the internet.

I faxed all of the documentation back to the number they gave me, and two days later I got a message on my phone saying they had reviewed the case and determined that they had good news: they could assist me by paying the parts cost and leaving the $55 labor for me to pay. That's not what I felt like I had been told initially, so I called back to talk to the case manager. That's when things started getting really surreal.

First, I had to wait on hold 15 minutes for someone to answer the phone. When they finally answered, they offered to transfer me to the case manager, but I somehow got disconnected at the time of the transfer. So, I call back, wait another 15 minutes, and finally get to the case manager, over 30 minutes after I first started trying to call.

I started to tell the case manager that I felt like I had been told something differently at the start, and that's when I found out I wasn't even talking to the same person I had initially. Apparently, the first case manager I had talked to was someone filling in for my real case manager, and I was only just now talking to my real case manager for the first time.

I had a list of about 6 reasons why I thought Toyota should cover the full cost. I was fully prepared to have a calm reasonable conversation about each point and to chalk up the $55 to my stupidity for not insisting on something in writing if they didn't agree with my points. However, a calm reasoned discussion wasn't even remotely possible. I started to try to explain each part of my position, but this person instead on cutting me off halfway through every sentence to say what the Toyota position was and why they weren't going to change. I did a fair bit of interrupting myself, but only because I thought I had been cut off and was trying to finish my point. I absolutely cannot stand when someone won't let me finish my sentence. To me, it's the worst kind of insult that you can give to someone you're talking to and shows that you honestly don't care at all about what they have to say.

I finally broke down and begged please, just let me finish my sentence because it's making me way more upset than I was when I placed the call. After that she did make a couple of attempts to ask if I was done before responding, and I was able to go through all of my points:
  • I think Toyota told me something different when I first called, and based on what they said, I had the expectation that the repair would be covered.

  • This was a really good deal at this dealer, and if I had gone to another dealer with a higher parts cost or been charged the diagnostic fee, Toyota would have been reimbursing a lot more than what they're offering here, so quibbling over the remaining $55 seems cheap.

  • Even at $55, that's way more than I've ever had to pay to replace any other headlight in any other vehicle I've ever owned so it seems slightly unreasonable.

  • The HID option was a very expensive option and is sold partially on the idea that the lights would last many times longer than a conventional headlight. If I knew beforehand that I would have to replace the headlights more often than a conventional headlight at a cost many times greater, I would have been a lot more reluctant to get this option. Based on how this option is sold and how the technology works on other vehicles, I would expect a life of much greater than 69,000 miles for the capsules.

  • I paid a huge chunk of money to buy the Toyota Platinum Care Extended Warranty so that I would specifically not have any repair costs in the first 100,000 miles. The factory warranty covers replacement of the capsules in the first 36,000 miles, and the extended warranty is sold as covering everything the factory warranty does. Turns out the extended warranty specifically excludes "bulbs", and they use this exclusion to not cover the headlight capsule replacement. I can totally understand them not including bulbs, they same way I wouldn't expect them to cover brake pads or tires or other wear items. I would never expect the extended warranty to replace a burned out taillight, for example. However, we're not talking about a "bulb" in the regular sense here. We're talking about a capsule of glass filled with gas and vaporized metal and electrodes to energize the whole process. The cost alone makes it clear we're not talking about a regular bulb. Also, the fact that it can't be replaced without removing the bumper makes it clear that we're not talking about your garden variety taillight bulb here.

  • From the reports on the internet and with the NHTSA, it's apparent that there are a large number of similar failures indicating a model wide defect. It's clear that this is below Toyota's standards. It's clear that Toyota is aware of the problem. Therefore, Toyota should be the one who would want to make it right.

I got some good answers to some of these points as well as some silly answers. The extended warranty argument was countered by passing the buck and saying that they're a different division of the company, and she couldn't speak for them. That's understandable, but the car, the dealer, and the warranty all say Toyota, and when I have a problem involving all three, I still don't know who to call. If this corporate Customer Experience Center isn't it, then what is?

My expectation of the HID life and the value of purchasing the option isn't valid, because they don't specifically warranty an expectation. Fair enough. If it was just me, I would accept that. But, other cars don't have this problem. And, when it's happening to a lot of people and Toyota knows that but doesn't fix it, and it's a problem only the dealer can fix, it starts to look like Toyota cares more about padding the dealer service departments than it does in keeping the customer happy.

The cost options didn't sway the case manager at all, because she explained that the reason Toyota's asking me to pay the labor is not because Toyota can't afford the total cost but because they want me to share in the cost of the repair. That want to make sure that I pay something. Even though they would have to pay extra for the diagnostic and pay $350 for the part somewhere else, they'd still have me share the cost of a repair that's half what it would cost elsewhere. It was explained that this was because it was so far out of warranty that they felt it was fair that I contribute some amount toward the cost myself. I countered with the fact that as far as I'm concerned it's still in warranty, and I would expect to foot all of the cost if it was my fault or if it wasn't in warranty, but both of those arguments led back into the other arguments again, which kept going around in circles. This led directly into another round of cutting me off before I could say anything.

I tried to go back to my first point, which was that the first rep told me something different. I wanted to see if I could talk to first rep to figure out why they would have said something different. That's when the case manager accused me of changing my story.

She said that I never said the first rep said anything at all and that I was just assuming they would take care of it, and that I said I just had an expectation that they would take care of it. I said that I had said nothing of the sort; that I had said the first rep specifically said "We'll take of it" and that's why I would have had the expectation that they would, in fact, take care of it. I said the most likely situation is that the case manager didn't hear anything I even said about the first rep initially because she was too busy interrupting me. The case manager said we should "just be honest" and that she "didn't appreciate" what I was doing by changing my story. Basically, stopping just short of calling me a liar. It's weird, because she wasn't accusing me of lying about what the first rep said. That would have been normal because of course nothing the first rep said was documented. No, this crazy person was accusing me of lying about what I previously had said the first rep said, like she was so proud that she was able to take down my whole argument by catching me in a lie or something.

I told her how upset this was making me, and that it's not helping anything when a customer calls in already upset about one problem and you do something to make them upset about something else. She said "I'm sorry you're having personal problems". That just floored me. "What do you mean, personal problems?", I stammered. She said, "You just said you were already upset about something else." I told her, yes, I was upset about having to pay to fix my car. That was the something else, and now, I'm more upset about the way this conversation went and that this person is completely incapable of communicating with someone else in a respectful way.

So, lessons to be learned here: First, don't believe anything anybody at Toyota tells you until you get it in writing. I suspended my normal skepticism about such things becuase the first rep was so accommodating, and I was so trusting of Toyota. Second, while some have been getting satisfaction by going through the Customer Experience Center, whether you're satisifed with your experience clearly depends on who your case manager is. Lesson for Toyota: There's a way to say no and yet still be respectful toward your customers, avoiding pissing them off even further.

As for me, I started the call bummed that I was going to be stuck with $55, but willing to accept it if necessary. I ended the call about 100 times more upset than I was at the start. I hope the check for reimbursement for the part still comes, because at this point I'm skeptical of whether or not that's even going to happen and whether this person just put the brakes on that.

Now I'm 100 times more determined to get reimbursement for the $55 than I was at the start of the call and intend to explore whatever other avenue I can find to seek reimbursement.

I still love my car. I'm not in the market for a new car right now, so I don't know if it would dissuade me from getting another Toyota. I can tell you that I no longer have any faith that the "Customer Experience Center" actually cares about customer service. I would definitely think twice about getting another Prius with the HID option, but it turns out I don't have to think about that at all. In a seeming acknowledgment of their HID problem, the 2010 Prius has removed the option for HID headlights.


Supercords said...

I'm a stickler for good customer service myself, so I can totally relate to your story. It blows my mind that companies would keep someone on the payroll who clearly cannot meet the basic customer service skills.

Joey had a similar customer service issue today at the WingShack, although on a much smaller scale than yours.

I think it's great that you posted your experience online too. It's important that there be consequences for shoddy business practices--publicly shaming them is a perfect way to accomplish that.

Carson said...

This makes me think of similar experiences that I have had, and it just gets me so fired up. I would be content in this situation paying the fee, if I felt that my case was listened to, and each point was clearly addressed.

When this person started to call you a liar, and asked you about your 'personal problems,' I can tell that she should not be working in Customer Service. If she can't even handle basic communication skills, how is she supposed to help out a loyal, trusting customer?

Boy this makes me mad.