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Lessons From Apple's 'Antennagate' Wed 21 Jul 10

Sometimes how you handle a problem is more important than the solution.

IPhone 4 bumper Yutaka TsutanoLast week Steve Jobs addressed the antenna issues of the iPhone 4, the so-called "antennagate."

The "-gate" suffix is rather illustrative. The original "gate, Watergate, started out with what is commonly called a two-bit burglary and ended up bringing down a president. Nixon wasn't forced to resign because of the burglary but because of how it was handled and what it revealed.

As the saying goes, It's not the crime but the cover-up. Had Nixon admitted the mistake and taken corrective action, many people believe it would have been over quickly and he would have retained his presidency.

Likewise, from Apple's perspective the iPhone 4 antenna issue is relatively minor. As Steve Jobs pointed out, most iPhone owners don't have a problem, some only have problems when they deliberately try to replicate the issue, and a few have a real issue. Also the solution is very straightforward. Tape or a bumper seems to reasonably resolve the issue.

So why all the fuss? Although the issue is minor from Apple's perspective, it was a real problem for some customers. When Apple initially refused to acknowledge the problem, offer refunds or otherwise resolve it, things started to spin out of control. Jobs' "Just avoid holding it that way" statement seems to blame the user.

I believe that Apple's handling of the problem, more than the original problem itself, caused all the furor. Jobs' announcement that Apple will issue free bumpers and offer refunds will, I believe, go a long way in quieting things.

If Apple had done the right thing initially, this problem probably wouldn't have gotten anywhere near the amount of unfavorable attention it generated.

Acknowledge the problem

There is a lesson in all of this for IT about the way we address our customer issues. The biggest lesson is that we need to acknowledge an issue as a problem to be resolved when we learn about it. Although the problems might be minor in nature or even the fault of the user, they are real issues to that user and deserve our attention. I've seen cases where someone will call the HelpDesk and ask, "Is the Internet down? I can't access the Internet." When the HelpDesk responds, "It's working fine here," things start going downhill. That kind of response sounds like we're saying there is no problem, but if there really is a problem, it is the user's fault. Denying the problem only escalates it in the wrong direction. Being dismissive is simply unhelpful and only alienates those we are supposed to be helping.

Don't get defensive

The second lesson is to not be defensive. When people express a problem we too often see it as an attack and turn defensive and want to counter-attack and blame them. People are not contacting us to say that our systems are no good. They are calling for help. Let's concentrate on resolving their problem rather than worrying about any perceived slight to us. Don't take it as a personal affront.

The iPhone 4 is a good example of this. Offering full refunds shows the willingness to help, but I don't think many people will actually take Apple up on its offer. People like their iPhone 4s. They don't want to give them up, they simply want to be able to reliably send and receive calls. Just because they expressed a problem in one area doesn't mean they don't like Apple or their iPhones.

Be empathetic

The third lesson is that putting yourself in your customer's shoes can help resolve the issue immensely. Ask yourself, "If I had this issue how would I want it to be resolved?" If it is a simple fix then just do it. If Apple's customer service people had been empowered to offer a refund or a free bumper when someone had a problem, the issue would probably have died down.

When a the fix isn't a simple one, explain what the issue is and what you'll do to resolve it. Everyone wants a quick fix, but if there isn't one, customers want reassurance that that you will follow up and resolve it.

It's about the people, not the technology

The fourth and perhaps most important lesson is to remember that although the problem may be technical in nature, the key is to deal with people on a personal level. Having a technical problem can make people emotional. They want their issue fixed quickly. As a result you cannot simply focus on the technical aspects. Active listening and communication can be just as important. People want to know you really care about solving their problem.

Antennagate is a problem that didn't have to happen. Fortunately, Apple recovered quickly and did the right thing. The lesson for all of us is that sometimes how you handle a problem is more important than the solution.

This article is also posted on Forbes.com.  Feel free to join in the discussion either on this site or at Forbes.com

"iPhone 4 Bumper" photo by Yutaka Tsutano / CC BY 2.0

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