Apple and Customer Good Will

October 5th, 2012

As a business, when you have a loyal base of customers, you usually can be assured that they will tolerate failures or defects from time to time, usually if you level with them about what went wrong. Corporate spin control is a fine art, but quite often it’s all about honestly admitting a problem and explaining to the customer in clear language what’s being done to set things right.

Unfortunately, corporate communications departments do not always understand the concept of being simple and direct. You get half-baked apologies, usually signed by a corporate executive, which might as well have been written for a race of robotic creatures. Within the morass of corporate speak, there’s often very little of substance to be found. An apology is far less than an apology.

When the issue at hand can impact the health and safety of a customer, getting the truth out becomes paramount. Lives may be at stake. This is true whether the defective product is a drug or a car. But when it comes to recalls to fix a defect in an auto or other consumer product, quite often the message is lost in legalese, and the consequences of not fixing what needs to be fixed aren’t always clearly explained. It may even take months to realize there’s even a problem, and that trouble reports aren’t just random isolated cases that may not have any real connection to a defective product.

With Apple, you have reason to expect a higher standard and prompt fixes when stuff goes wrong. While customers of the iPhone, iPad, iPod and Mac usually register higher satisfaction rates than customers of most any other tech company, it’s up to Apple to keep them happy. Some believe the Apple mystique or halo is sufficient to keep customers pleased as punch even regardless. But there are limits to how much abuse a customer will take before they go elsewhere.

Now I’m now saying Apple has abused customers, but sometimes they have treated them with less respect than they deserve.

Take the original iPhone, which went on sale in 2007 at $499 for the 4GB version and $599 for the 8GB version. The price may have seemed awfully high, but it was unsubsidized, so you weren’t saddled with a wireless service contract if you bought one. Within just a few months, the 4GB version was discontinued, and the 8GB version was repriced at $399. As you might imagine, loads of iPhone users were upset. Price protections would apply for people who bought their iPhones 14 or 30 days earlier, but that wasn’t enough.

In a questionable corporate move, Steve Jobs made one of his typically snarky offhand remarks that it was the price of being an early adopter. But it didn’t take long for him to walk back that comment, and agree to give those affected iPhone customers a $100 credit when buying new Apple gear. Maybe it wasn’t all they could do, but the furor quickly died down.

Segue to the summer of 2010, when the iPhone 4 was saddled with complaints about poor reception if you held the unit the “wrong” way. So hold it differently said Jobs, and you wonder if he didn’t come up with such an insult in the wee hours of the morning while his mind was otherwise occupied. Regardless, the excuse didn’t last long. While it was perfectly true that all mobile handsets could be made to suffer from poor reception if your hands covered the antennas in some fashion, Apple got the brunt of the complaints. After all, the iPhone supposedly had a superior antenna system.

It didn’t take long for Apple to come up with a new excuse for Antennagate. It was a problem of perception, because the signal strength display algorithm was off. Apple released the update, but having a more accurate indicator didn’t change the fact that poor signals would result in unacceptable call quality, slow Internet access and disconnects.

So Steve Jobs finally held a press conference, where some members of the press were invited to a guided tour of Apple’s $100 antenna testing facility. This time, Jobs said it was all about the laws of physics, as he revealed that other popular smartphones had similar problems when a so-called Death Grip was applied. Without admitting any fault with the iPhone 4’s design, Apple nonetheless offered free bumpers and third-party cases to shield the phone, and prevent possible signal loss. In retrospect, Consumer Reports magazine, never a fan of Apple, refused to recommend the phone because of perceived antenna defects, and even refused to admit the other phones experienced the same symptoms if held “appropriately.”

This year, Apple has another big customer relations problem, but it was resolved differently. When the new Maps app debuted in iOS 6, customers quickly realized something was wrong. Landmarks might be misplaced, 3D views revealed melting or missing bridges, directions might be off, and if you wanted information on public transportation, you had to install someone else’s app.

At first, Apple PR merely promised things would get better as customers reported problems to Apple. A few days later, CEO Tim Cook issued a textbook apology that seemed at once heartfelt and descriptive. Apple was sorry, Apple was working hard to do better and, by the way, if you can’t wait, feel free to go online and or download someone else’s mapping app. He even offered a short list that included apps from Google and Microsoft.

I won’t blame Apple for making a home-brewed mapping app. Clearly they weren’t getting the love from Google to deliver a turn-by-turn directions and vector graphics. But if Apple had simply put a Beta label on Maps, you’d understand that it was a work in progress and might have bugs. Yes, the marketing message is more subdued than it used to be; maybe Apple believes things will get better in a few weeks. Will that be enough? I expect that it will, but I still think Apple should have anticipated the fallout, and presented a more honest expression of the limitations of Maps before the complaints became viral.

Meanwhile, it has been reported in several places that there are already improvements to the rendering of images, particularly 3D views, in Maps, including the Statue of Liberty. I checked out a few places in Brooklyn, NY where I lived as a child, and, yes, they look a whole lot more realistic.

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