There’s an urban legend, highly disputed, that President Obama went on an overseas apology tour during his first term. I’m not going to get into the political by-play, except to point out that Apple CEO Tim Cook has issued some very humble apologies during his term as Apple CEO. And since he also traveled to Asia as part of an outreach effort, it’s fair to say he really did go on an apology tour.
One example occurred early on when he promised that Apple would investigate reports of nasty sweat shop working conditions at the Asian contract factories Apple uses to build their stuff. The prime offender was said to be Foxconn, which, in turn, promised to clean up their act, and give all their workers healthy wage boosts.
When Apple released Maps for iOS 6, problems were legion. Whether it was a 3D image of a melting bridge, or a misdirected trip to the middle of a remote forest in Australia, there were problems that inconvenienced at least some users. True, Google Maps was far from perfect, and, in fact, the navigation feature is still listed as a beta, even on an Android smartphone. But Apple was Apple, and they had to take it. To be fair, Maps had more problems than Google, so it was well deserved.
In turn, Tim Cook issued a very heartfelt apology and shook up the company’s management. Scott Forstall, who headed the iOS division and was thus the person in charge of the Maps screwup, got the boot. One reason, aside from his reportedly abrasive personality, was his alleged refusal to sign the Mapgate apology letter. In passing, Maps has reportedly undergone steady improvements, and, in a recent informal face-off involving several tech pundits, emerged triumphant against Google Maps.
The most recent Cook apology letter was written in Chinese since it went to Apple’s customers in China. Seems the company has been roughly criticized for problems in handling warranty claims. In short, Apple allegedly replaced defective iPhones in the U.S. with a new unit, whereas defective iPhones in China received parts replacements. In the real world, full replacements are almost always refurbished, depending on stock, and the parts replacements in China essentially involved replacing just about everything but the rear case.
Cook’s apology letter was especially humble, in keeping with the Chinese culture, using the term “sincere apologies,” for example. He promised to do better to communicate warranty policies and enhanced repair policies for the iPhone 4 and 4S. Cook claimed that 90% of Apple’s customers in China are satisfied, and that having satisfied customers is the “most important criterion” Apple uses to judge its own success.
Yes, satisfied customers, not higher revenue and profits, and I suppose you have a right to be cynical, since pretty much all companies that deliver products and services to the public make similar claims. Believe what you will.
Now it’s not that Steve Jobs never apologized for Apple’s shortcomings, but such apologies were often indirect. So when the AntennaGate brouhaha erupted over reported reception problems with the iPhone 4 if you held the unit in a way that shielded the junction of the two antennas, Apple offered a free case. But Steve Jobs never actually apologized for the perceived performance lapses of the iPhone and, indeed, doubled down on how Apple spent $100 million to build a state of the art antenna engineering and testing facility. It wasn’t Apple’s fault, but the fault of the laws of physics. But the response was sufficient to satisfy most customers. If you didn’t like your iPhone 4, get a refund, or take the free case, which definitely shielded against the infamous “death grip” that killed reception under marginal signal conditions.
Now Cook’s more direct approach will probably get a better response in the media. Regardless, how many companies issue public apologies for real or perceived problems? Remember that Apple builds gear in the very same factories used by other tech companies, such as Dell and HP. But you don’t hear Meg Whitman of HP apologizing because assembly line workers are treated badly. Apple has to adhere to a higher standard.
Regardless, Cook’s approach to the problems in China make a whole lot of sense. That country has become a major growth center for Apple. It makes good business to make sure that customers and potential customers are treated right. A misstep may potentially result in billions of dollars of lost sales. At a time when the financial community is, wrongly or otherwise, skeptical of Apple’s future prospects, record growth in emerging markets may be the key to Apple’s future success.
Now some are also suggesting that Apple PR may be a tad more forthcoming in communicating with the media these days. That has yet to be proven, although marketing VP Philip Schiller did reach out to the press ahead of the introduction of the Samsung Galaxy S4 smartphone to get Apple’s sales pitch across. Rightly or wrongly, Apple had control of the message for a day, at least until Samsung’s poorly organized media event to roll out their new flagship handset took over the conversation.
These days, though, aside from the Apple/Samsung patent fights, the conversation has returned to Apple’s real or imagined products for the coming year. Just this week, for example, an Apple executive was quoted as saying that the next two generations of iPhones were actually approved by Steve Jobs before his passing. That doesn’t tell us anything about the products, but it makes sense from a timing point of view. It also shifts the blame if the next two iPhone refreshes don’t match media expectations.